The following post first appeared in the 25th Anniversary special edition of Newcastle United fanzine 'The Mag'. I started out writing for The Mag and was honoured to be invited back for a guest writer slot and an interview below:
'Abandon All Hope Ye who Enter Here'
By Howard Linskey
It’s been twenty years since my last article for The Mag, which is, admittedly, a bit of a gap and it got me thinking about how things have changed since the days when I wrote my first piece for the fanzine. Back then, in the Gordon McKeag era, I used to rant that we were being run by idiots who cared very little for the fans, failed to maximise our commercial potential, sold our best players to clubs with more ambition but often fewer fans and chronically under invested in our own side. Sound familiar?
I’ve written a hell of a lot of words since those days; for newspapers, magazines and web sites and, more recently, books but it was ‘The Mag’ that got me started and the first time I saw my name on anything I’d written was in these hallowed pages. We were in the old second division back then, having failed to capitalise on Kevin Keegan’s playing days.
Things are so bad these days that I almost feel nostalgic for a time when our chairman was merely out of his depth and not seemingly intent on crushing all of our hopes for the hell of it. In six years under Mike Ashley we have been relegated once and almost went down a second time last season. For a club our size that is some achievement. Even a Mackem double agent would struggle to match Ashley’s record for sheer ineptitude.
Neutrals occasionally express surprise when I say that I despise Mike Ashley. I admit it is a bit strange for a middle aged man to feel quite this strongly about somebody he has never actually met but I can honestly state that my hatred for him is real. It grows with each year and every fresh humiliation he bestows upon us. The latest of course is the appointment of a complete clown with amnesia/dementia/tourettes/all three (delete where applicable) as Director of Football. Not the first time I have found myself thinking, ‘does Ashley really believe this will help or does he just do it because he enjoys winding us up?’
Even the idiotic Llambias (“Lambeezey”) couldn’t bring himself to work with Kinocchio, a man who cannot even pronounce player’s names correctly and routinely lies or forgets facts from his own CV; small things admittedly, like being relegated, fired or how long he actually spent managing the Toon.
It is probably no surprise to any of us these days that our long term transfer targets are being snapped up by more ambitious clubs, like Norwich City, or that we are reportedly reluctant to enter into ‘bidding wars’ with Everton or the mighty Swansea, even though the former are basically broke and the latter have been in the premier league for just one season. Because we will never pay the going rate for players, we will only ever get them if they are out of contract or nearly out of contract.
When I look back on all of the ludicrous, misplaced, foolish, ill-judged and vulgar decisions the fat man has made in his time, I can only assume it is all part of some evil plan. Was he beaten up by a Geordie when he was a teenager and vowed vengeance upon the entire city of Newcastle? Surely that can be the only explanation for Joe Kinnear. I imagine him sitting in his hollowed-out volcano, stroking a white cat and going, ‘Right, I have already offended the two finest players ever to pull on a Newcastle shirt, sold Shay Given, Kevin Nolan and Andy Carroll, renamed the stadium after my tacky cash and carry, stuck a legal loan shark on the shirt, ensuring thousands of fans who would normally purchase a top as a matter of routine will refuse to buy a new one, so….what can I do next that will really piss them off. Got it! Get me Joe’s number!’
Which brings me to the Ashley apologists, a dwindling band it has to be said, who still cling to the view that without the fat man we’d be bankrupt and the club would no longer exist. They nearly always mention the £100m of interest free loans he has graciously lent the club. The club that he owns. So, let’s consider that shall we? The man is apparently worth £2.3 billion, he bought Newcastle United outright, so he could have a bit of fun with it, didn’t do due diligence, was surprised to learn there was £100m of debts and now lends himself the money (he is sole owner after all, there are no other shareholders), without charging himself any interest (very good of him that) and we are supposed to be grateful. In the meantime he will make ‘no capital outlay’ on the club, so where does all of the TV money, the shirt money and the ticket money go? Into the black hole of the accounts that’s where. Meanwhile he is stuck with us, so he uses the club in the only way he knows how, by turning St James Park and Newcastle united into one huge advertising hoarding for Sports Direct, which makes us nothing more in his eyes than a giant billboard.
So is this any different from the McKeag era I used to write about? I’m afraid it is, in one very big respect. Back then we longed for a multi-millionaire to wrestle control of the club and invest in it properly. Nowadays it would require a billionaire and there aren’t many of those around, particularly British ones. The irony is we have already got one and he is as tight as a gnat’s chuff.
What strikes me the most about supporting Newcastle United today is the complete absence of any hope, which is a sentence that is as depressing for me to write as it is for you to read. Aside from those few Ashley apologists, who would find a reason to forgive the fat man no matter what he did, I think the vast majority of Newcastle fans think we are going absolutely nowhere with him as the owner, except down.
I am so sorry that after twenty years absence from the Mag my guest spot is such profoundly depressing reading but I suspect that most of you will agree with at least some of the points I’ve made. Like me, you probably see very little hope that the club will ever move forward or realise its undoubted potential until Ashley sells up, with the list of potential suitors, at a quoted price of £267m, pretty small in this day and age.
What a shame that neither Mike Ashley nor the departed Lambeezy ever had the imagination to work out how amazing this club could be if it was run even half properly. If the manager was given resources commensurate with Newcastle’s position as one of the best supported teams in the Premiership for example; I’m not asking for anything outlandish here, just the ability to perhaps bid £10m or £12m for a striker every few years. Ashley wasn’t around when the place was absolutely buzzing and we stuffed Man Utd and beat Barca and money is clearly the only thing that excites him. Trouble is most Newcastle fans aren’t energised by a healthy balance sheet. We’re a bit old fashioned like that.
Maybe in twenty-five years, if I’m still around, I’ll be able to write a more optimistic anniversary posting about how things improved with the departure of the fat man when he sold up to someone with a more positive view of our football club; such as a creepy Russian Oligarch, a despotic Arab oil magnet or Kim Jong Un perhaps. In the meantime, like you, I’ll keep watching and caring, reading the posts in the local papers and wincing every time Kinnear makes us a laughing stock. I’ll keep counting the hours and crossing off the days, months and years until, like the Berlin Wall, Mike Ashley’s awful bloody regime finally crumbles and comes crashing to the ground. Then we might have something to smile about again. Till that moment, we can always console ourselves by remembering the good times. Now where did I put the DVD of that 5-0 stuffing of ManUre?............................................................................................................................
Howard Linskey is now a bestselling author, one time writer for The Mag and of course a Newcastle United fan. We caught up with Howard to ask him about Siberian gangsters, lap dancing clubs & brothels and Newcastle United.
If people haven’t read them, how would you describe your books?
‘The Drop’, ‘The Damage’ and ‘The Dead’ are crime thrillers set in Newcastle. They all feature David Blake, a reluctant white-collar gangster who always ends up in a lot of trouble. He mixes with drug dealers, enforcers, corrupt politicians, bent coppers and one dodgy footballer. The Drop was voted one of the top five thrillers of the year by The Times and the books have been optioned for TV by, David Barron, the producer of the Harry Potter films, so hopefully you will see David Blake in Newcastle on the telly one day.
Was using the city of Newcastle a no-brainer when it came to choosing a setting for your books?
As soon as I got the idea for the story of ‘The Drop’ I wanted to set it in Newcastle and nowhere else. I can’t think of a more atmospheric place and I’m always surprised there aren’t more books, films or TV series set in the city.
Has Newcastle United inspired any of your storylines, or would that be just too far-fetched....?
You couldn’t actually make up the situation at Newcastle. Ashley’s time as owner is way stranger than fiction. I do have a character who’s a premier league footballer and he is so appalling I am often asked if he is modelled on Joey Barton. The truth is he is a fictitious creation, partly influenced by the bad behaviour of the aforementioned mister Barton, along with the ‘escapades’ of the likes of Bowyer, Bellamy, Dyer and a dozen others I could name. Just when I think I may have gone a bit over the top with him, I pick up a newspaper and realise there are real footballers out there behaving far worse than he does. They never let me down. In short, the character I created is vermin but he is probably still a lot nicer than Nile Ranger.
What inspired you to write for The Mag in the early days?
I’m not just saying this as it’s you asking but I thought it was very cool to be involved in The Mag. Back then fanzines were just starting out. They were pretty subversive and the only alternative we had to the match programme, which wasn’t reflecting the real views of the fans. I bought a copy of ‘The Mag’ and thought it was amazing because I’d never seen anything like it before. I sent in a letter to begin with, describing a trip to see the Leeds game where Micky Quinn scored four on his debut. When it was printed I thought I’d chance my arm with an article. When you printed that as well I was chuffed to bits, as I had never had anything published before, so I can honestly say it was The Mag that started me off. Those articles gradually gave me the confidence to go on and do other things. I’ve mentioned The Mag in every bit of press I‘ve done with my books because it really did set me on my way.
Why did you stop?!!!
In the end, life got in the way. I wrote an article in every issue for four years (and yes, I’ve still got them) but then I became a journalist and found it too hard to write in the evenings when I was already writing all day. I also lost my anger about our perennial lack of achievement. By the time I stopped writing for The Mag, the club was back in the Premier League, they were transforming the ground and the team were going places, we were signing top players and were led by a manager who believed anything was possible. What was left to moan about? We’d almost reached the promised land. It makes our current pathetic plight all the more depressing.
What are the high and low points in these 25 years of following Newcastle United?
I think my personal high spot was the 5-1 demolition of the Mackems – Bramble being sent off towards the end made it feel as if I had written the script myself - closely followed by the 5-0 dismantling of the evil empire of Man united. Then there was Tino burying Barca and thumping Leicester 7-1 at the end of the promotion season. The two FA Cup semi-finals vs Sheffield United and Spurs were great too. Shame about the finals.
Low points? Have you got all day? Obviously losing the championship to Man Utd, a team I absolutely despise, along with their awful former manager, was just terrible but Mike Ashley’s tenure just keeps on delivering new lows. His treatment of Keegan, his treatment of Shearer, selling Shay Given, relegation, renaming our hallowed ground, putting Wonga on our shirts and finally appointing Kinocchio not once but twice, all of it beggars belief. He must hate us. It’s the only explanation.
Living in the south now, what reaction do you get off people when they find out you are a Newcastle fan?
Pity. Honestly they get a kind of rueful look about them and usually say something like ‘Oh dear, what’s going on at your place then?’ after the latest fiasco.
How optimistic/pessimistic are you at this point (mid-July)?
I think I am at rock bottom where optimism is concerned. It’s not that I think we will be relegated again necessarily, although a couple of injuries will see us right back down at the bottom of the league for sure, it’s more my awareness of Mike Ashley’s complete indifference to strengthening the team that has got to me. How many transfer windows have we sat through while he asset strips the side only to just fail to bring a new player ‘over the line’. It happens time and time again and it’s clearly deliberate. He will never spend sufficient funds for us to have a half decent squad. It’s profoundly depressing. I expect us to finish in the bottom half this time.
How many signings do you think Newcastle will get ‘over the line’ and how many do you think we need in reality?
It could be none (we haven’t signed anybody at time of writing, even Mick Harford turned us down) but I suspect it might be one or two and I don’t think they will be particularly great signings either. As I write, we are linked with Darren Bent but still won’t pay a fee of £6m for him and none of us are too excited about him coming either. It wouldn’t surprise me if Cabaye is sold for £20m towards the end of the window, leaving us no time to get a replacement, which Ashley will be absolutely thrilled about. I suspect we might get Bent and somebody we have never heard of or ‘one for the future’ for about £1m but that will be it. I really hope I’m wrong but I doubt it.
What do fans of other clubs say to you about how Mike Ashley is running Newcastle United?
I don’t think they fully appreciate how bad he is, because they don’t live with it every day like we do, so I go off on a rant whenever they say ‘he signed a few players in January with the Andy Carroll money’. I then forcefully educate those Arsenal or Spurs fans that the Carroll money was spent on the club not the team, paying for a few tiny transfer fees, agent’s fees, player’s salaries for the next five years and a bore hole at the training ground, while the rest covered the cost of toilet rolls, footballs, nets and the cleaner’s wages for the next decade or two. I try to explain that no other club in the country claims to have ‘invested’ transfer fees in the way we do.
Out of the current squad who would you be happy to see line up (players who realistically you don’t think we can bring in anybody better than) on the first day of the season against Manchester City?
We have a decent first eleven until the inevitable injuries hit. I rate Krul, Mbiwa, Taylor, Collocini, Haidara, Sissoko, Cabaye (if he sorts his head out, as he went seriously off the boil last year), Tiote (if he recovers his form), Ben Arfa and Cisse if they don’t sell him because of the Wonga issue.
I don’t think Guttierez has been anything like good enough for a while. His crossing and shooting is ineffective. We should be doing better than Williamson and I was very disappointed with Santon last year, as he kept costing us goals. I’m not convinced he is even a defender and I’d be tempted to try him at left midfield instead of Guttierez. At least he can pass, cross and shoot and would be less of a liability in that position. I actually would have kept Simpson, Perch and even Steve Harper for another year as they were all reasonable cover for the first team and we won’t be replacing them with anything decent.
Wonga or Wronga?
I am disgusted and embarrassed that my beloved Newcastle United has the name of a legal-loan-shark plastered on the shirt. I bought shirts when they had NTL, Northern Rock and Virgin on them but I won’t buy one with Wonga on it and I know I am not the only one. It’s symptomatic of Ashley’s lack of style and class and his complete disregard for the wishes of the fans. Pay day lenders should be outlawed not plastered on the shirts of long standing footballing institutions like Newcastle United. It has brought shame on us and the city.
Are you a Shola fan and is it time for him finally to vacate the premises?
I don’t hate the guy. He has scored some vital goals, earning him the ‘Mackem Slayer’ nickname but he has underachieved for many a year. His other nickname of ‘Stroller Ameobi’ is more fitting and his continual presence in our squad underlines our total lack of ambition. He should definitely be off, with our guarded good wishes. He is a local lad who enjoyed some good moments and was bloody well rewarded for them but his career has been one of what-might-have-been in my view.
Does living away from Newcastle make it easier or harder when times turn bad at the club?
I’m not sure. I’ve been an exile from the north east for years and I ended up working all over the country but Geordies are like the Irish, they turn up everywhere, so wherever I go I bump into them. I live in Hertfordshire these days and often watch Newcastle on Sky TV in my local pub. There are always fellow Toon fans at the bar there and their pain is just as real as yours I imagine. With social media being what it is, I’m always aware of what is going on. I have a Google-alert rigged up for Newcastle United, I read the Mag, the nufc.com site and the nufc.blog, plus the Journal and Chronicle on line, so I feel like it’s all on my doorstep. I don’t even bother to read my local newspaper so I am far more in tune with Newcastle news than I am with what’s going on in Welwyn.
Is writing a form of release from your everyday life and Newcastle United, or more a way to unleash the demons and work yourself into a frenzy?
It’s nice to escape from reality and my books always have Toon references in them, so I suppose that is a form of release. I always smuggle in character names that mean nothing to my publisher but get spotted by die-hard Newcastle fans of a certain age. Not the Shearers and Keegans, which would be a bit obvious, but I have characters called Wharton, Anderson, Cartwright and Jinky Smith. The top crime boss in Newcastle in ‘The Drop’ also goes by the name of Mahoney. I get a lot of Tweets and Facebook messages from Newcastle fans who read the books and enjoyed the Toon references.
If properly run, where would you see Newcastle United’s natural place in the pecking order?
Top six or at least top eight. Why not? We’ve done it before. I know there is this stupid media misconception that Newcastle fans have unrealistic expectations but I haven’t met anybody who actually thinks we are going to win anything and, let’s be honest, we never do. However, with the massive fan base and the revenue it generates when the team is doing well, there is no reason why we can’t slowly make our team better every year.
Is there any difference in your love for Newcastle United and the City of Newcastle, or are they one and the same?
I think over time they became inextricably linked. I started with a love for the club, because my Uncle Neil went to games in the seventies and brought me back the programmes and rosettes from the two Wembley finals. I was hooked on the black and whites from that point really. The city was always a place I gravitated too as well, because it had the big shops when I was a kid. Later it was the atmosphere of the match that attracted me and, later still, the night life that drew me back to the city. I can honestly say that some of the best nights out in my life have happened in Newcastle. You just can’t beat the atmosphere of either the city or the ground.
In your ‘literary’ world, what have been the most extreme/amusing reactions when people have discovered you are a football fan?
I was at ‘Crimefest’ in Bristol in May. After my panel, I had a drink with a crime critic, Mike Stafford, who likes my books and is a Sheffield Wednesday fan. We were with a PR Manager who heard I was from Ferryhil and she said ‘That’s south of the Tyne, which means you are really a Mackem.’ I obviously disputed this but she continued with it so, without thinking, I said ‘why don’t you just accuse me of being a paedophile while you are at it?’. A few days later Mike wrote this in his piece about Crimefest, which made me laugh……
“I was fortunate enough to be bought a pint by none other than Howard Linskey, writer of the David Blake series. True to the crime writing mould, he’s a warm and friendly bloke – although when Head of Zeus’s Publicity Manager Becci Sharpe suggested that geographically he should be a Mackem, he did express a certain horror. For a die-hard Newcastle man, it turns out even the sex offenders’ register would be a less shameful place to find yourself than the home end at the Stadium of Light.”
Growing up in Ferryhill (Co.Durham) there must have been a fair few Sunderland fans around, have they inspired any of the ‘baddies’ in your stories?
In my school year we had Newcastle, Sunderland and Middlesbrough fans, so there was lots of banter but basically people got on. It’s not quite the same as attending derby matches and hurling abuse at each other from either end of the ground. I did include a scene in The Drop, which had a bit of playful Mackem bashing in it but my agent was a bit perplexed by it and I realised that outside of the two cities nobody else would understand it, so I took it out. When I launched the book, the sales manager from the distribution company turned out to be a Sunderland fan and he arranged for me to sign books at Waterstones in Sunderland after I’d done a signing in Emerson Chambers Newcastle but there was a big fun run that day and the city was roped off, so I called them up and said maybe I should stay here in Newcastle for the day as we’d sell more and they agreed. The lasses in the Emerson Chambers shop were chuckling away at that and I had a top day signing books there.
If you were asked to write a screenplay on Newcastle United, what would you call it and which actors would you have taking the leading parts?
I’d base it on ‘Get Carter’ and call it ‘Get Ashley’ or maybe we could remake that eighties Schwarzeneger movie ‘The Runing Man’ and put Lambeezy, Kinnear and Ashley in the arena, so they could be hunted down. We wouldn’t need actors, they could play themselves. It would be cheaper, which ironically Ashley would appreciate whilehe was running for his life. Maybe we could borrow that other good film title, ‘Run Fatboy Run.’