A lot is always made of the ‘hot bed’ that is football in the North-East. Football coarses through their veins, they deify their club and the players who represent it, is what we frequently hear. Their footballing culture is mythologized to the nth degree, to the extent that we other supporters just feel meagre and thoroughly unworthy in comparison. The footballers themselves, well that dream that every young boy has couldn’t be embodied in a better set of circumstances. Be it Middlesbrough, Sunderland or Newcastle United, and no matter how well or badly they are doing, their die hard fans will follow their travails across the length and breadth of the British Isles offering their unconditional love and support. Which is why all of this makes Nile Ranger’s career, or lack of it, at Newcastle United so puzzling.
Before I go any further, it is important to bear in mind the context of which I have just spoken. When a boy from humble beginnings in Wood Green, North London is thrust into the spotlight of St James’ Park, especially as, if we stretch the milieu further, it is when the Toon Army are in a relegation dogfight, then surely we cannot expect miracles? But I digress.
Let’s start from the top. Ranger was initially spotted and subsequently trained by the much lauded Crystal Palace youth academy and it wasn’t long before his talents were spotted by another great scouting network, that of Southampton. Cue upheaval to a distinctly un-Wood Green like set of surroundings, sowing young seeds of malcontent. Indeed, before even starting at Southampton a 15 year old Ranger was sentenced to 11 weeks in a Young Offender's Institute for taking part in an armed robbery in Muswell Hill. Ouch. Career over? Not quite. As we have seen from Ravel Morrison, whilst some clubs might not be so forgiving for off-pitch misdemeanors, talent will always see opportunities arise elsewhere. So, as Southampton bid farewell to a lone Ranger that hadn’t had a chance to showcase his raw talent, he was snapped up after a trial period by none other than Dennis Wise at Newcastle.
Without meaning to discredit Ranger, this was a dark period of anarchy and acrimony for the Toon. Fans were using every ounce of their energy towards voicing their anger at Mike Ashley and his cockney conspiracy to bring Newcastle United to its knees. Wise was the cherry on the cake. What with his sheepish grin coupled with his made-up post of Director of Football, a bond was never forged with the world-weary fans. Pushing this all to one side, Ranger made a scintillating start to his Newcastle career. With an impressive work rate and banging in goals left, right and centre for the under-18s and Reserves in his first full season on Tyneside, he was subsequently awarded the ‘Wor Jackie Milburn Trophy’ in 2009 for his efforts. On his first senior start, he won the Man of the Match award, and then scored one of the goals as Newcastle won 4-3 at Stamford Bridge in the League Cup. Sky? Limit? One would have hoped, but the troublesome Hyde to his footballing Jekyll reared its ugly head again in 2011.
Unable to keep controversy at bay like a certain Mr Barton, Ranger was arrested after a man was left unconscious with a suspected broken jaw in an early-hours attack in Newcastle. Come on Nile, was that really necessary? Nevertheless, he was found innocent. If this reprieve wasn’t enough, a mere two months later Ranger was at it again, this time for being drunk and disorderly in Newcastle’s Cathedral Square, and in the process breaking the club’s 48-hour alcohol curfew before a match. This all came after only just being re-instated to first-team training after three months in the wilderness of the reserves. The same offence was committed in March the following year, this time getting off with a six-month conditional discharge and ordered to pay £135 costs. The list goes on. Numerous arrests, countless brushes with the law, the plight showing no sign of letting up. Ironic then, that he has a tattoo of a smiling face on his inner mouth.
But what of all this? If taken in a wider context, could Ranger’s fall and fall be a sad parable of what it means to be a footballer in today’s hyper-intrusive society? Where one’s every move, be it in real or digital life, is scrutinized beyond belief? He certainly hasn’t been permitted any of his own space to grow through his teenage years; his mistakes and growing pains have been made public, spread all over the back of the red tops. But amidst all of this, there may be that proverbial silver lining. On loan at Sheffield Wednesday last year, Ranger scored one of the goals that won the Owls promotion to the Championship, and whilst celebrating, revealed a vest with the printed message ‘I AM A CHANGED MAN’. This was one small step in the right direction towards answering his legion of critics. The battle may have been won in that case, but the war is still on the horizon. It’s now time to start repaying the time and money, not to mention the belief, exhausted by Newcastle on him. It’s time to step up, son.