The life of a Newcastle United fan is certainly a turbulent one. Prior to the game, social media was awash with discussion regarding anti-Mike Ashley protests. Most fans, it seems, view the Ashley regime as something of a malignant growth, one that has debilitated the club since his purchase in 2007. Whilst the transfer market has rapidly inflated and exorbitant fees have become the norm, Mike Ashley, apart from the unexpected but imminent arrival of Miguel Almiron, appears to have retained an aversion to establishing a competitive transfer budget.
As such, Rafa Benitez has been handed the unfavourable task of trying to turn lumps of coal into diamonds, and the Geordie faithful looked to have finally transitioned from apathy to anger concerning this. Whether it was launching chocolate coins onto the pitch in reference to the perceived financial mismanagement of the club or displaying a DW Sports flier to draw the owner’s ire, there was a sense that the game itself might be secondary. More significantly, this was an opportunity for the fans to wholeheartedly emphasise their distaste and discontent regarding the current regime. However, the converse of this became true, and while these protests fell somewhat flat, they were overshadowed by a battling performance from Newcastle to overcome the reigning Premier League champions.
When Sergio Aguero put City ahead after just 24 seconds, not one home fan could be blamed for feeling a sense of impending dread. Sterling was given time to pick out David Silva with a cross, and the Spaniard’s header was enough to find Aguero, who gleefully rifled beyond Dubravka to score the quickest Premier League goal of the season. Many may have expected the floodgates to open and, admittedly, I believed that this would be the case, but Newcastle went on to restrict their opponents to few clear-cut chances.
The 11th minute signalled the start of one strand of protest, with fans being instructed to raise their DW Sports fliers, an act laden with irony given Ashley’s propensity to rather heavily advertise Sports Direct in and around St James’ Park. However, many fans chose not to engage with the protest, and other than a brief chorus of “get out of our club” and some leaflets held high, it seemed that despite the almost completely collective opposition to Ashley, perhaps the appetite for this particular means of protest was less considerable than anticipated.
The first half showing from each side did little to evoke a positive atmosphere, with both sides snatching at the few opportunities in front of goal. Perez rolled a shot well wide of Ederson’s goal in the 13th minute and Atsu had a shot blocked in the 21st after Rondon highlighted his impressive ability to hold up the ball, and this was perhaps the best that Newcastle mustered. City were no more potent, with Aguero’s smart finish from a quick De Bruyne free kick, one that was deemed to have been taken too promptly by the referee, being a rare flash of excitement. Silva did see a well-aimed header blocked in the 43rd minute, but City arguably did not deserve to have extended their lead by half time.
The start of the second half almost mirrored the first, with City looking to capitalise on their dominance of possession and put the game to bed. Sane flashed a dangerous ball across the box having been given time and space down the left-hand side, yet Sterling was unable to meet the delivery when doing so would have surely doubled City’s lead. City fashioned another chance in the 57th minute when De Bruyne found David Silva in the box. The Spaniard was free of the attentions of the Newcastle defence, yet his powerful effort was well matched by Dubravka, keeping the score at 1-0.
City were soon left to rue these wasted opportunities in the 66th minute when a Ritchie ball into the box was cleared as far as the head of Isaac Hayden, whose cushioned header was directed towards a sea of bodies in the box. Solomon Rondon reacted quicker than those around him, steering the ball into the top corner and beyond the reach of Ederson to level the scores at 1-1. City endeavoured to respond as quickly as possible, with substitute Bernardo Silva’s clever free kick presenting Danilo with a chance to shoot from range, but the full back saw his effort well blocked.
Against all the odds, Manchester City’s fate was sealed with 15 minutes to go when Sean Longstaff robbed Fernandinho of possession in City’s box, with the Brazilian bringing down his opponent to concede a penalty. Ederson received lengthy treatment for a supposed injury before the penalty was taken, which a cynic might argue was a tactic to distract the taker. However, Ritchie showed no signs of disturbance when he finally stepped up in the 80th minute and powered his penalty into the right-hand corner and beyond the outstretched Ederson, who had dived the right way but was unlikely to react to such a forcefully-driven effort.
From this point on, Newcastle never looked as though they would surrender their 2-1 lead. They defended resolutely and threw their bodies in front of everything that City managed to create, and they deserved the adulation of the Newcastle fans once the referee had blown his whistle. There is an undoubted tension between the loyal support Newcastle fans have for their team and their vilification of the club’s owner, a tension that is not easily resolved. Such a result will provide some short-term joy, and the fans should certainly celebrate what was a hard-fought victory against one of the best teams in the country, but the necessity of expressing objection to Mike Ashley is still obvious. One victory cannot paper over the cracks that Ashley has established over the course of his ownership, and one can only hope that the fans come together to learn from the positives and negatives of their efforts during this game and go on to organise some method of protest that is effective, well-supported and collective. Ultimately, the fans need to engage in action that will help to rid the club of those who might mistreat it and ensure that the club is lauded for emphatic performances, of which this game was certainly one, rather than constantly discussed in terms of the dramas and dilemmas of ownership.