Sunderland supporters used to joke that their closest rivals harboured such blind loyalty to Newcastle United that the mere presence of 11 empty black and white shirts stretched across the St James’ Park pitch would be sufficient to fill the stadium.
Like a lot of quips it contained more than a grain of truth. Indeed the almost unconditional love many Newcastle fans feel for their team probably explains why wave upon wave of planned anti-ownership protests have foundered in recent years.
Few would argue that Mike Ashley has been a model benefactor of the club but there is no consensus within a far from homogenous, heavily fractured fanbase as to how to respond.
This reality reduced Sunday’s proposed boycott – aka “Empty for Ashley” – to a minor sub-plot rather than principal theme of the 1-0 home defeat by Arsenal.
Although there were empty seats visible on all sides of the ground the official attendance for Steve Bruce’s first Premier League game since succeeding the much adored Rafael Benítez was 47,653. Considering that this figure included non-attending season-ticket holders the actual number of bottoms on seats was probably closer to 45,000.
If that represents a significant drop on the 51,968 St James’ Park has averaged for the opening fixture in each of the past three seasons it still hardly constituted a disaster for Ashley and his public relations team.
Even so, the owner’s spin doctors will have been grateful for the role Sunday’s torrential rain doubtless played in reducing a much-vaunted protest march to something of a damp squib.
A collective of 10 of the club’s assorted fans’ groups, named “Empty for Ashley”, urged those boycotting the Arsenal fixture to congregate outside the city centre branch of the retail tycoon’s Sports Direct chain and walk the short distance to St James’, arriving shortly before kick-off.
Only about 300 braved the elements but, outwardly at least, organisers remained undeterred, emphasising that around 10,000 season-ticket holders have failed to renew.
“The action taken by the groups in our collective was the first demonstration in a new campaign with the objective of forcing Mike Ashley to find a genuine and ambitious buyer for Newcastle United Football Club,” said an Empty for Ashley spokesman.
“Naturally, given our stance, we were hopeful of further numbers and are aware of the pull of a new season… but our fight against Mike Ashley isn’t going to be short and it isn’t going to be easy. We are committed to a long-term campaign which will not solely rely on fans boycotting games.
“Our message to Mike Ashley remains the same: We are not going away. This will not blow over.”
The collective’s problem is that, while other elements of the fanbase believe in offering Bruce the benefit of what remains considerable doubt, a sizeable number – possibly the silent majority – just want to enjoy a sociable afternoon out at the match. Many are strongly resistant to embroilment in club politics and argue that, if no one wants to buy the club, it is impossible for the owner to sell up. Perhaps tellingly there was barely a murmur of anti-Ashley sentiment inside the ground on Sunday.
There was also a noticeable absence of “Wor Flags” adorning the Gallowgate End. Those giant banners, invariably celebrating Benítez, the team or individual players, became a colourful part of the St James’ fabric in recent times. Now, though, 19 fans behind the initiative have cancelled season tickets, the flags are gone and the ground seems starkly bare without their artistry.
Most players seem genuinely puzzled by such perceived militancy. The winger Matt Ritchie recently expressed his mystification at “unrealistic” anti-Ashley sentiments following a summer during which Newcastle invested £65m on five new signings.
Almost everything now hinges on how Joelinton, the new £40m Brazilian winger, and company perform on the pitch and Bruce accepts that good results are imperative. If success should halt the protest movement in its tracks, a couple more disjointed defeats may see it gain considerable traction.
“People’s money is hard-earned and they’re entitled to protest,” says Benítez’s successor. “My job’s to get the supporters back onside and enjoying watching their team.”
Ashley’s spin doctors have attempted to oil the wheels with a charm offensive involving the owner giving a rare newspaper interview and the normally silent managing director, Lee Charnley, opening up. “Let’s be clear, Rafa moved to China for the money [£12m a year tax-free],” wrote Charnley in the Arsenal match programme. “It was not something we could compete against.”
Criticising Benítez represents a high-risk strategy at a juncture when Bruce desperately needs a point or three from away games at Norwich and Tottenham. Lose those two and Watford’s visit to Tyneside on 31 August really could prove a watershed moment.