NEWCASTLE United haven’t won a major trophy since 1955, but their supporters club in Singapore has around 1,300 members, a decent number for a country accused of having a fickle football culture and overeager bandwagon jumpers.
Those distinct black-and-white stripes are still spotted in Singaporean bars on game days, despite the fact that the Magpies haven’t dominated since TV was black and white, and this sunny island was part of a dying British empire.
In fact, if one wants to be particularly facetious, Newcastle jerseys are no harder to find on the streets of Singapore than those representing the trophy-hoarders of Manchester City. So why the sustained love for a faded brand? In a country obsessed with winners, why are pockets of the EPL fan base still loyal to losers?
It’s those black and white stripes. And Alan Shearer. And Les Ferdinand. And Sir Bobby Robson. And Kevin Keegan in funny headphones, jabbing a finger and telling us how much he’d love it, just love it, if Manchester United stumbled. It’s billowing shirts and baggy shorts, Rob Lee and Gary Speed, title chases and European trips.
It’s the modern Magpies being made after the English Premier League was born, being good when the EPL was going global. It’s a legacy of sorts for the EPL generations to go with an even loftier legacy that came before. The Magpies were princes long before they became Mike Ashley’s paupers, and now they’re preparing for a shot at the crown.
A little over-the-top? Of course, this is a football column in the final days of the season. Hyperbole comes with the territory. But Newcastle’s qualification for the Champions League offers the EPL something tantalising: a proper challenge to Manchester City’s supremacy.
As Pep Guardiola’s dance troupe skip towards a probable Treble, their dominance feels absolute and definitive, the end of the EPL as we know it (there’s that hyperbole again). But Newcastle are standing at the gates now, with fists full of petrodollars and an equally expansive vision for club and community regeneration.
They also have a "best of his generation" manager and Champions League football, which should separate the wheat from the chaff, or Declan Rice from Scott McTominay, when Eddie Howe swaggers into the transfer market.
And yet, Newcastle might even have something more, something that speaks to those loyalists in the black-and-white stripes, something that Manchester City’s money can’t buy: a unique fan base and a damn good story.
One-team city integral to community
Of course, every football club, from Manchester United to Hougang United, says the same. Their supporters shine brightest. Their DNA goes deeper. By its very definition, tribalism dictates that we must be better than them. It’s part of the fun. But Newcastle are different, geographically and certainly historically.
In 2005, I found myself in a London hotel lounge, asking Hollywood filmmakers why they’d chosen Newcastle United for their movie "Goal!". Remember that one? A Mexican immigrant gets discovered kicking a ball around a Los Angeles pitch and by the end of the movie, he’s helped the Magpies qualify for the Champions League.
But the location was no accident. Newcastle are a one-team city, the football club an integral part of a community that struggled with economic decline for decades. Home games provided a refuge. Visiting St James Park was more than a rite of passage. There was no other passage in Newcastle.
The Magpies provided a sleeping giant narrative that was almost too easy for Hollywood scriptwriters. In "Goal!", one talented kid was enough to lift a one-club city. In reality, it took £305 million from Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund and the dubious promise of no state intervention, but let’s not let geopolitics get in the way of a good story.
The austerity years under Mike Ashley’s ownership were the exception, not the norm. Whatever criteria one demands on the "big club" checklist, the Magpies tick most boxes. In 2012, the American site, the Bleacher Report, published a story headlined, ‘Newcastle United: 10 Reasons They're the Best Club to Support in World Football,’ without irony.
In 2019, a study from football think tank, the CIES Football Observatory, detailed the evolution of attendances across the global game and concluded that Newcastle were the 13th-best supported club in the world between 2013 to 2018 – a period that, remarkably, covered Ashley’s reign and relegation in 2016. The fans never stopped turning up.
St James’ Park fills its 52,000 capacity every week and could – and will - add more seats. Newcastle have won six top-flight titles and six FA Cups and their "big club" status was assured long before six other EPL teams attempted to prove otherwise during the European Super League debacle.
Between 1990 and 2005, a period of unprecedented growth for English football, Newcastle finished runners-up twice, third twice and a decent fourth and fifth. Tottenham, one of the apparent "big six", didn’t finish in the top five once in that era. Ashley bought the Magpies in 2007 and muddied the narrative, but the club’s long-term pedigree and potential endured. They were big boys in hibernation.
Not anymore. Now they have Howe. He has an eye for new players like midfielder Bruno Guimarães, defender Sven Botman and right-back Kieran Trippier, but also has a Guardiola-like knack for improving existing players, such as Fabian Schär, Miguel Almirón and Joe Willock. Howe's reward is the Champions League and a blank chequebook. Only Guardiola currently enjoys such job perks.
But Howe has a unique fan base, and not just within England either.
Unless the Qataris drop Manchester United into their shopping basket over the summer, Newcastle are the only club capable of challenging Manchester City’s resources and recruitment plans whilst matching any financial or professional incentives that City can offer. It’s not simply a case of anything that Guardiola can do, Howe can do better. He can’t. Not yet. But he can get closer than anyone else.
Newcastle are the only club capable of challenging Manchester City’s resources and recruitment plans whilst matching any financial or professional incentives that City can offer.
Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 26 books.
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