Newcastle and Villa – will they bask in the sun again?

Great stadium…great support…great expectations

IF THERE’S two clubs that feel they should belong to a higher echelon, it is Newcastle United and Aston Villa. Sadly, apart from the odd exceptional performance, they are names that belong to the past – the challenge for both clubs is how they can retain a pivotal role in the future of English football.

Their part in history is without question, but the polarisation of the modern game, to a large degree, also reflects the near-centralised focus of the nation and the renewed gap between north and south – in terms of incomes, commerce, media attention and culture.

Talk of “northern powerhouses” [rightly] attempts to big-up the north – Manchester is trying its hardest to achieve that –  but the Midlands and the North East have punched below their weight for some time. It is currently hard to see a Newcastle United or Sunderland ever becoming a dominant force in English football again, and it has been 35 years since a Midlands club last won the championship. That’s why Leicester City’s success this season is so heartening.

Sepia days

There was a time when you could class both Villa and Newcastle as the leading clubs in Britain, if not the world. That was mostly in the days of gas lamps, horse-drawn carriages and large Anglo-German monarchs. It was also before London and Manchester became proficient at football on a significant scale. When the Football League was formed, which was the brainchild of Villa’s Chairman, William McGregor, the power in the game was in the Midlands and the North.

Newcastle United’s decline as a major force has been a long story. The city was at the heart of the industrial revolution and there may be a correlation between the city’s prosperity at that time and the rise of Newcastle United. When Newcastle won their first Football League title in 1905, after entering the league in 1893, they were also the best supported club in the land – some 22,000 people per game. By 1907-08, Newcastle were attracting 33,000 to their home games, more than double the average first division crowd. There was another period where Newcastle’s crowds were the best in the Football League, in the years after World War Two, when 50,000 was the normal attendance.

As the region declined in the second half of the 20th century, Newcastle United’s support also diminished – dropping to 16,000 in 1980-81. One of football’s great fables that has been passed down the generations  is the cult of the “legendary Newcastle number 9” , but while the likes of Hughie Gallacher, Jackie Milburn, Malcolm MacDonald and Alan Shearer certainly lived up to this, there’s also been plenty of mediocrity wearing that hallowed shirt.

Keegan and his kind

There’s scarcely a Newcastle regular who will remember the last time “the Toon” won anything of importance – 1969 and the Inter Cities’ Fairs Cup. They’ve had their moments, reaching a handful of cup finals, and during the Kevin Keegan era, woed the public with their gung-ho attacking football. The way Keegan’s team played, and his unique relationship with the fans, made Newcastle everyone’s second favourite club. Players like David Ginola, Andy Cole, Les Ferdinand, Alan Shearer and Tino Asprilla meant they were a joy to watch, and English football would have surely benefitted from Newcastle United as Premier champions – if only for the drama that seemed to accompany them!

Keegan was always good copy and the local media adored him. But his successor, Kenny Dalglish, and subsequent incumbents of the manager’s job (with the exception of Bobby Robson) never charmed the good people of Newcastle like the former England skipper. I visited Newcastle’s local newspaper office, The Journal, in 1998 and asked the sports desk what it was like without Keegan. They shrugged their shoulders, grimaced, and just commented: “Bloody hard work”.

For a while, Newcastle almost made it under Keegan, but their managerial appointments, sub-standard transfer activity and impatience for glory have mostly led them nowhere in the years that followed. One of the abiding images of the mid-1990s SKY Sports generation is of Newcastle fans standing in shock after a game, tears streaming down their faces following another failure. If anything captured the passion of the Newcastle public for their club, it was surely these scenes.

Most people predicted that the combination of current  manager Steve McClaren and Newcastle would also end in tears. The club has a habit of hiring managers who might have a decent “name”, but usually they are either past their best or not quite at the top level. Genuine success has eluded them all, despite some flickers of promise here and there. Not for the first time, Newcastle were seduced by the luster of a former England manager when they appointed McClaren. “A typical Newcastle hiring,” said one former Gallowgate regular, now exiled in London, when he heard the news from his desk in the City. “And doomed to fail.”

Newcastle United managers – Keegan to McClaren (not including caretakers)

  Appointed Departed Win %
Steve McClaren June 2015 25
John Carver January 2015 June 2015 15
Alan Pardew December 2010 January 2015 38.38
Chris Hughton May 2009 December 2010 59.38
Joe Kinnear September 2008 April 2009 22.22
Kevin Keegan January 2008 September 2008 28.57
Sam Allardyce May 2007 January 2008 33.33
Glenn Roeder February 2006 May 2007 45.83
Graeme Souness September 2004 February 2006 44.82
Sir Bobby Robson September 1999 August 2004 46.66
Ruud Gullit August 1998 August 1999 34.61
Kenny Dalglish January 1997 August 1998 38.46
Kevin Keegan February 1992 January 1997 54.98

Not just brass

Newcastle’s lack of success cannot be solely attributed to money. They have a backer, but he’s universally disliked on Tyneside and fans have been urging Sir John Hall, who bankrolled the club’s mid-1990s resurgence, to return. When he first started “investing” in the club he had supported for years, he gave Newcastle genuine financial clout. But Hall, decent fellow that he appears, is no Abramovich – the game has changed since he stepped down. The current regime may point to the achievement of financial stability, but on the pitch, despite dozens of signings, the club has once more underachieved.

They may not be Barcelona or Real Madrid, let alone Manchester United, but they are ranked 17th in the latest Deloitte Football Money League and enjoy the third highest average gate in the English Premier. While around 60% of the clubs revenues in 2014-15 was derived from the massive broadcasting fees that English clubs enjoy, matchday and commercial revenues are also in the ascendancy. There’s no denying that Newcastle are a big club, but they are not a successful club, and have not been for decades. The way the team capitulated at Chelsea suggests that they will have to regroup in the Championship next season.

Aston Villa also seem destined to be hosting the likes of Birmingham, Burnley and Burton in 2016-17 and their decline this season merely continues the performances of the past four campaigns. True, they reached the FA Cup final last year, but their display that day was quite woeful. Villa, like Newcastle, look like a club at odds with itself. The owner, Randy Lerner, has hinted many times that he wants to sell the club and the fans are now urging him to go. With Villa in a precarious position, the club’s administration failed to invest in reinforcements during the transfer window, and the team’s continued poor form suggests that people may already be resigned to relegation.

Villa Park
One of football’s stately homes…Villa Park

Engine room

It’s widely recognised, however, that Villa is still the Midlands’ biggest football name, and you only need take a look at Villa Park’s grand façade to see that this is a club that, like Newcastle, has made a massive contribution to the heritage of the game.

Birmingham played a key role in Britain’s industrialisation and this was mirrored in the club’s pre-eminent position in the Victorian and Edwardian eras.  “The city of a thousand trades”, was how many social commentators described “Brum”, which provided many of the heavy and light industries that drove the economy. It also gave birth to some 350 clubs during this period. Villa’s golden age came during Birmingham’s rise as the engine room of Britain and also during a population explosion in the city – from 1851 to 1891, this doubled to almost half a million.

Villa, one of the founding members of the Football League, won the title six times and five FA Cups before the first world war. Three times in the 1890s – 1893-94, 1895-96 and 1896-97 – they were league champions. In 1899, Villa became the first English club to average more than 20,000 at their league games, and between that year and 1904, Villa attracted better gates than any other club. When WW1 broke out, Birmingham was central to the arms race, leading one politician to claim that the war was all about “Krups v Birmingham”. The city’s position as the industrial bedrock of the nation continued after the second world war, but Villa, as a football force, started to decline. By 1970, the club had been relegated to the third division but could still call on 25,000 regulars at home games. Thankfully, Villa fought back and 10 years on, won the Football League and a year later, the European Cup. These successes were quite remarkable, but five years after winning Europe’s top prize, Villa were relegated. That said, they have been in the Premier since it started in 1992.

But like Newcastle, Villa have struggled down the years to live-up to past glories. And like the Geordies, they remain among the richest clubs in Europe. The club still averages 36,000 for home games and Deloitte places Villa at number 23 in its Football Money League for 2016.

Aston Villa’s managers – Little to Garde (not including caretakers)

  Appointed Departed Win %
Remi Garde November 2015 8.33
Tim Sherwood February 2015 October 2015 39.29
Paul Lambert December 2010 February 2015 29.57
Alex McLeish June 2011 May 2012 21.43
Gerard Houllier September 2010 June 2011 38.89
Martin O’Neill August 2006 August 2010 42.11
David O’Leary May 2003 July 2006 35.88
Graham Taylor February 2002 May 2003 31.67
John Gregory February 1998 January 2002 43.16
Brian Little November 1994 February 1998 41.46

It’s the economy

Both clubs have, effectively, been cast into the shadows by the London-Manchester axis that now dominates. When  football was the sport of the factory hand, the man from the furnace and the production line worker, clubs from the industrial cities and towns flourished. London didn’t really register as a football capital until the 1930s when the city started to grow beyond its boundaries at a rapid pace. It was also an era in which the industrial north suffered greatly during the depression years  – witness the Jarrow March –  and, as any social historian will tell you, London never feels as much pain as the blue-collar dominated north. So, as northern cities and towns struggled, London remained relatively robust and Arsenal emerged as the dominant football force – thanks, in no small way, to having Herbert Chapman as manager. During this period, Newcastle stumbled on the field of play, and gates fell from 37,000 in 1927 to 24,000. They were relegated in 1933-34.

But economic strength of a city is not necessarily aligned to football success – Liverpool in the 1980s disproves that theory (as does the state of Spain’s modern day economy and the position of Real Madrid and Barcelona) –  but it could, to some extent, explain why clubs like Villa and Newcastle have never been able to consistently replicate their golden ages. The same could be applied to a number of football institutions that were once far mightier than they are today: Sheffield United and Wednesday, Preston North End, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Sunderland all spring to mind. For most, there is no hope of a return to the “good old days”, but Newcastle and Villa have a reasonable chance of better times.

Fast forward to the current day and clubs from London and Manchester have benefitted from international investment on a grand scale. While Newcastle and Aston Villa both enjoy huge support, their “riches” are dwarfed by the cash injections received by Manchester City and Chelsea, to name but two clubs from the elite band – the “uber clubs”. The Premier would not be the behemoth it is today without overseas investment.

London, for obvious reasons, and Manchester – for cultural and football factors – stand-out when anyone  from beyond these shores discusses Britain and business. It is unlikely that a major international “investor” would fly over, for example, Barnsley or Carlisle and decide to plant a billion euros in the coffers of the local club. And that’s not because the people of these towns don’t deserve such patronage, but because for most of the obscenely rich, Britain begins and ends with London. These people want profile, they want access to global business and they want the trappings of wealth. London, quite naturally, gives the Russian oligarch everything he needs. It also has the infrastructure to get that oil sheikh back to the Middle East when he needs to deal with a crisis involving the price of oil. That’s why the big money will be attracted to London and, occasionally, to its northern alter-ego.

And that’s what both Villa and Newcastle United  – and indeed, many other clubs – are up against in the modern game. They’re big, well-loved organisations, but often badly managed and struggling to compete with heavily-funded, globally-recognised and well-marketed rivals. They should both be far more successful than they are and while they might not currently have enough power to win the Premier, or even qualify for the UEFA Champions League, there’s no reason why either of them, in time, could become England’s version of Borussia Dortmund or Atletico Madrid?  Isn’t that a goal worth striving for? The English game would surely benefit from these grand old names becoming modern, progressive and stable football institutions that also retain their very strong regional identity. Generally, England could do with far more democracy across its football. Instead of three or four clubs capable of winning big prizes, we would certainly enjoy that becoming six, seven or even eight. In the meantime, two sick men from the nascent years of the industrial football age could do with a change of direction. The fans of both clubs really deserve more.


1905 – when Aston Villa and Newcastle ruled the world!

If ever a season encapsulated the Edwardian power of Newcastle United and Aston Villa it was 1904-05. Newcastle won the Football League with 48 points, while Villa finished fourth on 42. In the FA Cup, the two sides met at the Crystal Palace in the final in front of 101,000 spectators. Harry Hampton, Villa’s 19 year-old Centre forward, who would play for England later in his career, scored an early and late goal to win the game 2-0. Villa’s team at the time was all-English, with Alexander Leake, Howard Spencer and Joseph Bache all winning England caps in 1904-05. Goalkeeper Billy George and Billy Brawn had won caps in previous years. Almost half of Newcastle’s team was Scottish. Andrew McCombie, Andrew Aitken, Peter McWilliam and James Howie were all current Scotland internationals. John Carr and John Rutherford were both England internationals. Not only were the two clubs ahead of most others on the pitch, but they were also more financially astute. In 1904-05, Newcastle made a profit of almost £5,500 which was reputed to be a record for a football club. Both Newcastle and Villa, along with Everton, were the first clubs to net over £14,000 in net gate receipts.
twitter: @gameofthepeople

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