What hasn’t been reported by the media about Newcastle United this season? We’ve had praise for the way the team has played (except, of course, from BBC pundit and moustache fetishist Mark Lawrenson). We’ve had criticism about strength of depth in the squad. And we have had almost everybody commenting on the superb scouting system that brought in the likes of Hatem Ben Arfa and Cheik Tiote for bargain prices under the noses of clubs with far greater financial clout.
So far this season, what hasn’t been reported is another spectacular PR blunder by the owner, the kind that turned Newcastle from merely the poisoned chalice of the league into back page laughing stock and general village idiots of English football. Until now, owner Mike Ashley has largely stayed out of the headlines (we won’t mention the Chinese strip tease). In fact, the last decision he made that frustrated the fans and titillated the tabloids was the disposal of Joey Barton, who went to up and coming QPR for free, but the phenomenal work ethic and talent of Yohan Cabaye has silenced the naysayers. Suffice to say we won’t be hearing “There’s only one Joey Barton” sung in the Gallowgate end of St. James’ park any time soon.
The problem is we won’t be hearing anything sung from St. James’ Park ever again, because St. James’ Park has been renamed Sports Direct Arena.
The naming of stadia by corporate bodies has become an unwelcome yet ultimately necessary staple of modern English football. The Etihad Stadium, the Emirates, the Reebok and the Ricoh arena are just a few current examples of how corporatism has influenced the modern game. But I use the word current. All of these stadia are relatively new. They have no long histories, no decades-forged identities, no rusty turnstiles and no well-worn seats. Instead, they bring all the benefits of modern architecture and design that I am sure those who are forced to use the lavatories at Fratton Park or peer around support beams at Goodison long for, or at least dream of at night, which makes corporate branding for new build stadiums a no brainer.
But the renaming of St. James’ Park is in my view as pointless as it is perverse, making as much business sense as renaming Coca Cola ‘Brown Sugar Water’ or Greece ‘Loans R Us’. I concede, the branding of a stadium brings in much needed capital in the modern era of the $100 million transfer. For example Emirates Airlines paid £100 million for 15 years of naming rights, but this was for a nameless glass, steel and concrete bowl, and not a beloved temple of football.
St James’ Park has stood exactly where it still stands since 1880. Even the extensive rebuilding of the stadium by Sir John Hall took great care not to disturb or encroach upon the centuries old houses surrounding it, leading to its architecturally daft yet iconic lopsided look. It is why this move will only serve to antagonize, upset and distress a group of fans who were just starting to trust the direction Newcastle’s ne’er-do-well owner was taking them in. As a fan and a local, to use the phrase gut wrenching would be a gross misrepresentation of my feelings. St. James’ Park is a part of our history and sits in the heart of the city. In the modern era of out of town stadiums like the Reebok arena, St. James’ Park has always been the centre of Newcastle. If the move brought in money to add big names to our increasingly formidable squad and silverware to our dusty trophy cabinet, I could one day reconcile with a renaming. But in this case, a name change will not generate a single penny for the club.
The reason given to fans by managing director Derek Llambias for the renaming is that it will showcase the opportunity for advertising to prospective buyers. However John Henry has mused over the same idea of selling Anfield’s naming rights and is yet to give it the interim name of the ‘NESV Arena’.
Manchester City changed the decidedly dull name ‘City of Manchester Stadium’ into the Etihad for a veritable jackpot at no offense to the sentiment of the fans, which has effectively ensured the club will be financed by the United Arab Emirates government and will bring more millions to a club whose spending makes Abramovich look like a latter day Scrooge, but if Mike Ashley won’t spend any of the £35 million gained from Andy Carroll’s departure, you can be sure that this move will not see one penny reinvested in the club, nevermind the team.
No, instead Mike Ashley will get to plaster his tacky brand over a centuries old institution for free and sit many, many miles away safe in the knowledge that he has deeply hurt the families and fans that have kept the club going since 1880, just as reconciliation was within reach. We the fans are bracing ourselves for the return of unwelcome headlines and broken hearts for no tangible reason other than the pleasure of an owner who seems to enjoy humiliating a loyal fanbase. How this will impact on-field performance (and it will) is yet to be seen, but I cannot foresee a long term happy ending to this sorry saga without Ashley being booted down Barrack Road, never to return, and a new owner coming in and at the very least communicating with and respecting the heritage of the club, the fans, and the city. Give me the Glazers any day.