LONDON (Reuters) – For the Toon Army, the nickname of Newcastle United’s success-starved followers, news that the club’s sale to Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund appeared to be on the brink of completion on Thursday, will feel like an early Christmas present.
To be more precise it will feel like all their Christmases have come at once.
With the clock ticking down on the deal, Newcastle fans began gathering at the club’s St James’ Park stadium amid an atmosphere of mounting excitement.
While rival fans smirk at what they regard as delusions of grandeur at the north east club who have not been English champions since 1927 and have not won any domestic silverware since 1955, those who flock more in hope than expectation to St James’ Park truly believe the club is a slumbering giant.
Even the hope has largely disappeared in the past decade, with Newcastle, under the ownership of Sports Direct boss Mike Ashley, becoming the epitome of mediocrity.
Londoner Ashley is so despised by Newcastle’s fans that they would welcome just about anyone into the club, provided they bring with them the precious commodity of hope.
While there are well-publicised moral concerns over so-called Saudi Arabian ‘sportswashing’ as the oil rich nation seeks to soften it’s overseas image, the Magpies’ fanbase are clearly not concerned from where their saviours arrive.
A poll undertaken by the Newcastle United Supporters Trust showed 93.8% of the club’s fans support the reported 305 million pounds ($415 million) takeover. Like the bird of their nickname, the glint of silverware is intoxicating.
Since Ashley’s takeover in 2007, Newcastle have twice suffered relegation from the Premier League and, apart from finishing fifth under Alan Pardew in 2011-12, have stumbled around in the bottom half of the Premier League table.
Present manager Steve Bruce is deeply unpopular — held up as the perfect example of Ashley’s lack of ambition, a manager hired to fight relegation battles with cut-price signings rather than win trophies.
It has not always been like this though.
For a while at the start of the Premier League era, in the early 1990s, when former player Kevin Keegan arrived like a returning Messiah, it appeared that anything was possible alongside the banks of the River Tyne.
With millionaire local property developer John Hall as chairman, the old stadium was revamped and Keegan was given the funds to create a team in his image with the likes of Peter Beardsley, Andy Cole, David Ginola, Robert Lee and Colombian firecracker Faustino Asprilla, to name but a few, arriving.
Newcastle finished third in the Premier League in 1994, their first season back in the top flight, having almost fallen into the third-tier a couple of years earlier.
Dubbed the “The Great Entertainers”, Newcastle were runners-up in 1996 after suffering a late collapse that saw them pipped by Manchester United in a finale to a season that will forever be remembered for Keegan’s wide-eyed “I will love it” rant at Alex Ferguson.
With Shearer signed to lead the line they also finished second to Manchester United in 1997 before Keegan left and Freddy Shepherd replaced Hall as chairman.
Kenny Dalglish and then Ruud Gullit both failed to as managers before former England boss Bobby Robson staged a renaissance with fourth and third-placed finishes, only to be sacked in 2004.
The days when Ginola, Beardsley, Les Ferdinand, Shearer and the like had the Toon Army in dreamland now seem like a distant memory — which is why this week’s developments have once again had fans gathering outside the stadium.
After seven games of the new Premier League season, second-from-bottom Newcastle are still without a win and the squad at Bruce’s disposal has relegation battlers written all over it.
($1 = 0.7353 pounds)
(Corrects paras 16 and 17 to say Keegan’s rant was in 1996)
(Reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Pritha Sarkar)