“You’re not Fit to Wear the Shirt. Take it off!”

January 5, 2008

shirtless-newcastle-fan.jpgNewcastle fans are known for taking the famous Magpies’ shirt to bed, and only removing it during the chilliest of mid-winter games. Is the terrace chant to new owner Mike Ashley an invitation for him to go topless for the toon? And what should Alan Shearer be wearing for his Match Of The Day appearances?

Mr Ashley as new owner of Newcastle United Football Club hit on a highly symbolic way of letting the fans know he was not in it just for the money.

He announced his matchday arrivals by appearing not in the directors’ box, but on the terraces. He didn’t just turn up, he arrived wearing the black and white shirt, that ultimate symbol of fandom. Then he began fraternizing on the supporters’ coaches.

But these actions were not enough to secure a leadership honeymoon for the new owner. Results continued to go south. Those ultras, fans who strip off faster than the cast of the Full Monty, could be heard crying “You’re not fit to wear the shirt”.

Were they inviting their new Chairman to follow their bare-buff example in support of the club? Somehow, I don’t think so…

Knowing me, knowing you

A new leader from outside a company or a football club has to address the matter of distinctiveness, whether arriving as an outsider or an insider. The is sometimes called the sociological dilemma of the other, a term only rarely incorporated into terrace chants.

The outsider has to work hard to avoid being dissed for not being one of us. The internally promoted leader has another kind of credibility problem through local knowledge and gossip about behaviours in earlier non-leadership roles.

In either case, actions speak louder than words. The leader has to convince by his actions, and words (speech acts) sooner rather than later.

Who is this Brian Ashley anyway?

Newcastle United has figured in several earlier posts. The culture under the long-standing chairman Freddy Shepherd was examined in an account of the possible struggles of the new coach Sam Allardyce. But any such problems for Sam were compounded when Freddy rather reluctantly handed over control to another outsider, Brian Ashley.

Mike Ashley is the entrepreneur behind Sports World, who became a paper billionaire early in 2007 with the public floatation of his business empire and renaming as Sports Direct International. Until then he had largely avoided courting publicity. This was an area in which he was to become increasingly less successful. Publicity over a costly divorce settlement became news, and then as he really hit the headlines after his successful bid for Newcastle.

Writing for the North East, local journalist Mick Lowes examined the end-of-year situation.

As [Newcastle] United enter their 116th year, the question has to be asked: has there ever been a 12 months of such radical change in the long and illustrious history of the North East institution?

Clubs under repeatedly new ownership – nothing new.

Clubs hiring and firing managers left, right and centre – old hat.

Clubs buying, and dispensing with, players at a rate of knots – as old as the hills.

A club, though, that in a few weeks finds itself with a new owner, new chairman, new manager… backroom staff and nine new PLAYERS – unheard of!!

Lowes goes on to examine events since Mr Ashley’s arrival:

[At first] Suspicion was fuelled by a lack of information, a case of simply not knowing who, or what, was Mike Ashley …[Although] Like Sir John Hall and Freddie Shepherd, Ashley is a self-made man ..[however] he might not have, as yet, the same “feel” for Tyneside but it’s clear he has the right kind of working-class grounding to appreciate what the football club means to the rank and file supporters.

The change of chairman is also indicative of the current climate in football. I’m sure, even by his own admission, that Chris Mort [The new Chairman] would consider his feelings for Newcastle United Football Club to be somewhat less impassioned than those of his predecessor. With a background in sport, he is clearly geared up to the demands of the “football business”… Whether talking to fanzine editors, or those of us in the local media, it’s also plain to see that, like his boss, he’s well and truly “bought into” Newcastle United…

Appointed by one regime, and inherited by another, the one thing you have to say is that life can’t have been easy for Sam Allardyce over the opening half of the season.

[However] Nobody has a divine right to success, but the fans in the business definitely deserve better. If not, sadly, 2008 will see more change.

That intense piece of journalism seems to me to capture one aspect of the culture surrounding the club. Initial suspicion of the new owner and chairman has been somewhat overcome as they demonstrate that their loyalty goes beyond the bottom line.

Sam on the other hand is judged by expectations of what goes on every Saturday. Poor results, rather than his ‘otherness’ , is the immediate cause of discontent among the fans.

Which brings us to Alan Shearer…

Alan Shearer: The Leader we Deserve?

Alan Shearer was being touted as the next manager, the hero-rescuer for the club, before he had retired as a player, before he had completed a coaching professional course, before Sam’s appointment.

I don’t know the degree to which this was media initiated manipulation, or whether there really was and still is a ground swell of support for the idea.

To outsiders it seems increasingly inevitable that Allardyce will have trouble surviving long enough to overcome the difficulties of an outsider at Newcastle. It is unlikely that Shearer will transform the club’s fortunes.

The problem is partly that club seems likely be reducing its options far too severely, if an insider is to be preferred over all other candidates.

THis would be a problematic approach even if the insider had an outstanding track record of success.

In times of crisis, an organization may well turn to an insider who has achieved great things elsewhere. Jurgen Klinsmann is the latest such example in his appointment to the German national team during a period of poor performances. Klinsmann had not many more direct credentials for the German top job than Shearer does for the one at Newcastle.

Rightly or wrongly, there appear to be pressure to get rid of Sam, perhaps seeing that it might increase the chances of a Shearer succession.

I have the impression that Shearer will be tempted eventually, but will be cute enough to resist what might prove to be an impossible job in the near future.

Far trickier than commentating on the problems of other managers for BBC’s Match Of The Day.