Newcastle United fans launch 'Boycott Ashley' campaign in protest at owner
Officially, 47,635 braved the incessant rain to attend Newcastle United's season opener at home to Arsenal on Sunday afternoon.
The figure published by the club didn't factor in absent season ticket holders. Nevertheless, it represented the lowest home attendance for a league game at St. James' Park since a midweek fixture against Manchester City in April 2016.
The reason for the reduced turnout - some 4,000 down on last season's average - can be attributed to a boycott, coordinated by supporters' groups in protest at Mike Ashley's ownership of the club.
Already frustrated at Newcastle's lack of progress under Ashley, the summer departure of Rafa Benitez - immensely popular on Tyneside for securing promotion back to the Premier League at the first time of asking in 2017 - exacerbated the ill-feeling amongst fans towards the owner. In response, as many as ten separate supporters' groups announced plans on social media to unify for a campaign of sustained boycotts, beginning with the Arsenal game.
Ahead of kick-off, some supporters chartered the River Escape Boat from Newcastle's Quayside, taking to the Tyne on a 'Boycott Boat Party'. The most notable protest, however, began on Northumberland Street - outside Ashley's city centre Sports Direct store. Undeterred by the driving rain, a 50-strong group assembled, quickly swelling in numbers and attracting a horde of curious bystanders with their large flags and chants of 'We Want Ashley Out.'
Addressing the crowd via a microphone, Chris Heron, one of the protest organisers, recalled the night Faustino Asprilla sunk the mighty Barcelona with a Champions League hat-trick and some of his other most cherished moments as a Newcastle supporter.
An ardent fan since a small child, he explained how he had reluctantly decided to relinquish his season ticket in the summer, vowing not to return to St. James' until Ashley's ownership is over. "Enough is enough," he told the crowd, which responded with applause.
"For me, Newcastle United is the heartbeat of Newcastle," Heron told JOE. "When the club is bouncing the town’s bouncing.
"Hopefully, we can return to that, but under Michael Ashley we’re constantly going to be fighting against relegation and not actually trying to be the best club we can be."
Ashley has been hugely unpopular amongst Newcastle supporters for most of his 11-year stint at the helm. Though the club have made swift returns to the top flight from relegations suffered in 2009 and 2016, there remains - as Heron suggests - a sense amongst the fans that the club will only realise its true potential if the owner moves on.
Newcastle have appeared close to a takeover on numerous occasions this decade - the most recent coming earlier in the summer, when the Dubai-based Bin Zayed Group were reportedly keen to conclude a deal with Ashley. Such reports have died down since Benitez's departure.
"There's a helplessness to this," a member of the Magpie Group, who asked not to be named, told JOE. "None of us want to be boycotting matches and not seeing a team we love play, it just feels like we're going to stay in this position until Ashley is starved of enough of our money and realises he has to sell up. We're desperate."
In the hour before kick-off the group of protesters - by this stage having grown in numbers to around 300 - left Northumberland Street, snaking through the city centre streets and up the slope towards St James'. Passing the Strawberry Pub, they came to a halt opposite the Gallowgate End. Taking to the mic for a second time, Heron repeated why he and many others were boycotting the game.
"It pains me greatly, to be honest, to not be going in there today," Heron added to JOE. "I’ve always gone whenever I possibly could but I feel like unless you do something to take action then, unfortunately, nothing’s ever going to change."
Since Benitez departed at the end of June, Ashley has responded by appointing Steve Bruce as his successor. New signings have been added to the squad, including the arrival of Brazilian striker Joelinton from Hoffenheim, an acquisition which broke the club's transfer record for the second time in a year. This, however, has failed to appease many of the dissenting voices.
"As Newcastle United fans we obviously hope for the very best for those players and we’d like to think they’ll have a good career here," Heron adds. "Unfortunately I feel as if it was a PR move because we got rid of a really popular manager in Rafa Benitez."
15 minutes before the game started, the crowds outside St. James' started to disperse. Most made for the turnstiles; the boycotters headed for a number of surrounding pubs to watch the game on television. Reports suggested protest organisers had hoped in excess of 10,000 would boycott against Arsenal. Though they ultimately fell short, the areas of empty seating picked up by television cameras covering the game were enough evidence to suggest it had made an impact.
The key now, organisers say, is sustaining this campaign.
"We don’t think we’re going to achieve anything with one protest," Heron adds. "It’s going to have to be continued, but the objective today is to gain a bit of awareness and, hopefully, the media can see what’s going on outside the club to show that there are actions in place and people are trying to fight back.
"It just feels like a great shame it’s come to this."