Newcastle are in big trouble. Fact.

Rafa Benitez

Rafa Benitez. Photo by Ronnie MacDonald http://www.flickr.com 

Rafa’s back. Steve McClaren’s reign as Newcastle boss didn’t last long and it yielded few points. Newcastle find themselves in the relegation zone with nine matches left to play. The final two games of their season are at home to Tottenham and Manchester City so that makes April a rather important month for Benitez.

The Spaniard’s recent career trajectory is Real Madrid – Napoli – Newcastle. Or to put it another way Ronaldo – Higuain – Mitrovic. That’s the sort of downhill momentum that a luge team would be pleased with. I hope Benitez has topped up his tan in his previous two gigs because as Gazza memorably sang, it’s mostly “fog on the Tyne.”

The sun doesn’t shine much in Newcastle at the best of times (though has there ever been a set of fans more inclined to attend matches half naked? Ha way the tops) but there seems to have been a persistently dark cloud hanging over St. James’ Park for a long time now.

Newcastle fans are among the most loyal anywhere but their club is going nowhere. Boardroom bungling has certainly been a factor as Newcastle have lurched from one crisis to another.

Owner Mike Ashley has been summoned to appear before Parliament’s Business, Innovation and Skills select committee to give evidence about the treatment of workers at his firm, Sports Direct. A recent BBC investigation raised concerns about ‘the treatment of low paid workers and enforcement of the national minimum wage.’

In response, Ashley invited MPs to visit the Sports Direct warehouse in Shirebrook, an invitation that members (honourable and otherwise) appear to have declined. He did not invite them to visit St. James’ Park, where the average wage must be considerably higher than the minimum. The effort some of those players are displaying in return for their wages could be described as minimal though.

Had MPs visited Newcastle’s ground on Januray 12th this year they would have seen a banner unfurled by supporters that read: ‘#SportsDirectShame’. A protest isn’t really a protest these days if it doesn’t include a hashtag.

What those supporters have witnessed on the pitch has been pretty shameful and I wonder if any have written to their local MP. That would be Labour’s Chi Onwurah, who happens to serve on the Business, Innovation, and Skills Committee that are so keen to make the acquaintance of Mr. Ashley. Perhaps they will be conducting an investigation to see if there’s any evidence of business, innovation or skills at Newcastle FC.

The committee are probably more concerned with assessing the implications of a potential Brexit from the EU. Newcastle fans fears revolve around the Nexit question: will Newcastle exit the Premier League this season? I doubt they spend very much time contemplating Europe at the moment.

Benitez is a manager whose career is on the way down and I think he’s just taken charge of a club on the way down as well.

In my view, Villa are already long gone, and Swansea I expect to be safe so that leaves two from Newcastle, Norwich and Sunderland. Newcastle v Sunderland this weekend is a huge game. The home side will be hoping for a Benitez bounce as without it they are likely to soon be tumbling through the relegation trapdoor.

Rafa specialises in making teams hard to beat and Newcastle could certainly use a little of that right now but the air of defeat that lingers around the club is as thick and smothering as the Tyne fog.

Newcastle fans must now be used to flirting with relegation but this year I think they will consummate that relationship. The facts of life for those supporters cannot be denied; their club is in big trouble.

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Why I still love Italian football

 

italy

Italian football. Photo by Anthony Majanlahti, http://www.flickr.com

It’s fair to say that recent times have not been the best of times for Italian football. The national team had a woeful World Cup this summer and Serie A’s finest have not looked so great in European competition in the last few years. The biggest transfers these days seem to involve Spanish or English clubs (or Bayern Munich). When was the last time a Galactico signed for an Italian team?

And yet I can’t help it: I love Italian football and I always will.

The origins of this love are easy to trace. The Italia ’90 World Cup took place when I was 9 years old. It’s the first world cup I can remember, and I remember it vividly (even Scotland were there, failing with the particular brand of gallant ineptitude that we have made our own over the years. None of us will ever forget that Costa Rica game).

To a nine year old football obsessive living in a small village in Fife, everything about Italia ’90 seemed so utterly spectacular. It was pure spectacle. The stadiums were beautiful, triumphs of design and unmistakably Italian. They were state of the art then but sadly many have seen little investment since and their former glories are now distinctly faded.

Pavarotti’s World Cup anthem made the hairs on the back of your neck stand up and while, looking back, the tournament did not always produce the best quality football, there was something operatic about it. I was mesmerised. Baggio blossomed on the world stage and Salvatore Schillaci scored goals with a look in his eyes that suggested his life depended on it. I had a top with Baggio 10 on the back.

The Italians lost an emotion soaked semi final in Naples to Argentina and the Germans won a semi final shoot-out against England. That was a game that didn’t exactly lack emotion either – Gazza’s tears remains an iconic image. Waddle’s penalty, I presume, remains in orbit. Just as it was all getting a bit too emotional, the German’s won a depressingly dull final with a late penalty.

Two years after the World Cup my love affair with Italian football was sealed for ever when Channel 4 began broadcasting Football Italia on Sunday afternoons. Gascoigne had just signed for Lazio and the channel decided that the time was right to bring live Italian football to British TV screens (a note for younger readers: in 1992 I only had access to 4 TV channels. Now that I have access to about 400 I can’t honestly say that there’s much more on that I want to watch).

The first live match was broadcast on 6 September 1992: Sampdoria v Lazio. I think the score was 3-3. The game was brilliant, intense, and dramatic. At the time Serie A was the best league in the world and the football was technically sophisticated, tactically complex and almost geometrically precise.

Some of my friends concluded that this mix was boring (the philistines) and it was a label that was often attached to Italian football in the UK and I suspect still is. For me though, it is simply beautiful. Italy is without doubt the most beautiful country in the world – when you have the cities of Venice, Rome and Florence it’s not really a contest. Italy has such respect for the aesthetic and it seems to me that this applies to their football as well.

I’ve only been to two Serie A games: Roma – Juventus in 2009 and AC Milan – Roma in 2010. I loved both. Going to the stadium feels like going to a performance, it’s no wonder that the San Siro is known as La Scala del Calcio.

In Italy, football really is something very close to religion. Italians may well be tempted to dispense with the penultimate word of the name of this blog. Some of the glamour has faded from Italian football but I think the most beautiful essence of the game still resides there, an essence I discovered on cold wet Sunday afternoons thanks to Channel 4.

My dream back then was to be a footballer and play in Italy. That dream alas didn’t quite work out. The back-up dream was James Richardson’s job, surely just about the best in the world. I best get back to practising my Italian: difensore, allenatore, centro campista, tifosi, capocannoniere …