Newcastle could soon become the elite club they have always promised to be

Who are the biggest underachievers in European soccer?

Hertha Berlin are the biggest club in the German capital, who play in the vaunted Olympic Stadium to sizable crowds. But they haven’t won major silverware since 1931 and have been relegated twice in the past decade.

In Italy, it might be argued that both Milan clubs have punched well below their weight in recent seasons. And in England, some might say that Leeds’ descent into the second tier – despite their sizeable fanbase and stellar history – shows massive underachievement.

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But the overall winner of the award is almost certainly Newcastle United.

The Magpies last won a major piece of silverware in 1955, when they triumphed over Manchester City in the FA Cup. And in the 12 years that maligned tycoon Mike Ashley has owned the club, he seems to have set up a deliberate business plan of underachievement.

Despite having little to show for it in their trophy cabinet, Newcastle are a huge club. They are the only club in their city and boast one of the most passionate fanbases in the world. On every matchday, the 52,000-capacity St. James’ Park, their home since 1892, if full of roaring Geordies. They show up in number, rain or shine, regardless of their fortunes or the quality of play on display.

This writer is lucky enough to have been to many stadiums around the world, but St. James ranks at number one in terms of matchday experience – and there are frequently polls that confirm this. When the Newcastle fans get behind their team en masse, it can give you goosebumps.

When Kevin Keegan arrived for his first spell as manager in the 1990s, it looked like Newcastle would finally reach the heights for which they were destined. Armed with a transfer budget funded by the emergence of the Premier League and their considerable gate receipts, the Magpies charged toward the top of the table. In July 1996, they broke the world transfer record to bring hometown hero Alan Shearer on board. However, with the famous striker and some of the Premier League’s best talent, they were only able to finish second in the league for a second consecutive season in 1996-97.

In the late nineties and early noughties, before the emergence of the “Big Four” and the subsequent “Big Six” in England, Newcastle were a consistent challenger, and they qualified for the Champions League on three occasions. In September 1997, they enjoyed one of their most famous nights, when a Faustino Asprilla hat-trick downed a vaunted Barcelona side that featured Luis Figo, Rivaldo and Luis Enrique.

A sleeping giant in world soccer is getting restless at Newcastle. (Getty)
A sleeping giant in world soccer is getting restless at Newcastle. (Getty)

At that point, the Geordie faithful may have presumed that major silverware was just around the corner. They may have felt that they would be dining at Europe’s top table for the foreseeable future.

But alas, they slowly started to fall away.

The same season they beat Barcelona, they finished 13th in the league. They crept back into the top spots after the turn of the century, and reached the UEFA Cup semifinal in 2004, but continued to underdeliver thereafter. In June 2007, Ashley purchased a controlling stake in the club. In his 12 seasons, they have finished in the top half only twice. They have also been relegated twice, an absolute disaster and humiliation for a club of their stature.

Ashley, who made his fortune in retail on the British high street, has given the club interest-free loans of his own money to the sum of nine figures over the years, but is hated for a complete lack of ambition. There appears to be no desire for the club to finish above mid-table, and they appear to purposely ignore cup competitions: They haven’t surpassed the fourth round of the FA Cup during Ashley reign.

This model of operation appears to be quite deliberate. The domestic cups do not bring in enough revenue to make them worthwhile and Ashley is reticent to risk large investments in players to push for a higher league placement. As long as the club can stay in the middle of the pack in the Premier League and reap the lucrative TV deals, he is content.

Newcastle have consistently ranked among the most valuable clubs in Europe – they were 19th in Deloitte’s last count – but have completely failed to capitalize on their size and wealth.

Accordingly, the fans hate Ashley. They feel that he cares more about his controversial retail empire and that he does not understand the club. They even resent the fact that he, and the people he put in charge at the club, are from the south of England. (Just like the north distrusts the elite south in Game of Thrones, the Geordies refer to their unpopular owner and his cohorts as the “cockney mafia.”)

Over the years, the wearisome Newcastle fans have repeatedly held protests to call for their owner to sell up.

Finally, it seems like they are about to get their wish.

Newcastle fans have protested against owner Mike Ashley for years now. (Getty)
Newcastle fans have protested against owner Mike Ashley for years now. (Getty)

According to multiple reports, Sheikh Khaled bin Zayed Al Nahyan of the Abu Dhabi ruling family is working to finalize a £350 million takeover, through his company, the Bin Zayed Group. In a statement to the Newcastle Chronicle, the 61-year-old Sheikh confirmed the deal is at an advanced stage: "We have agreed terms and are working hard to complete the transaction at the earliest opportunity."

Sheikh Khaled is the cousin of Manchester City owner Sheikh Mansour and was behind an unsuccessful £2 billion bid to buy Liverpool last year. That would have been the biggest takeover in soccer history, but barely a dent in the family’s estimated £150 billion wealth.

While the Sheikh did not land the Merseyside team, he has clearly seen the potential of a club like Newcastle, who have been screaming out for an owner to match their ambitions. A deal to release Newcastle from Ashley’s clutches seems imminent: On Wednesday, a holding company with named Monochrome Acquisition Limited was registered, with Sheikh Khaled listed as an officer. A name like that can only be intended for a team that plays in black and white.

And in a more tangible sign of things to come, the signage of Ashley’s Sports Direct brand has been removed from the stadium:

The excited assumption is that the Magpies can finally fulfill their destiny. They can finally reward their loyal-but-suffering fanbase and deliver the level of soccer befitting of an incredible home like St. James’ Park. Bookmakers are giving short odds on Newcastle winning the league in the next decade. And in typical kneejerk style, the press are linking the club with moves for the likes of Kylian Mbappe and Gareth Bale.

If the sale goes through and the Sheikh offers a similar level of investment to that of his cousin at Man City, there is nothing stopping Newcastle becoming an elite European contender. The Big Six could become a Big Seven. The Champions League knockout rounds will get a new familiar face. The next Neymar might play in black and white stripes. And you’ll probably start seeing a lot more of those black-and-white shirts on the streets, from California to Carolina.

For decades, soccer’s perennial underachievers have known how it feels to fall at the final hurdle. They have known the embarrassing feeling of dropping a division to the benefit of clubs with far lesser means. But if this sale goes through, we could be on the cusp of another seismic shift at the top level of European competition.

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