We’ve been here before. We’ll probably be here again in the future. Our next Premier League game, the first of the 2019–20 season, is one which fan groups are calling for a matchday boycott of St James’ Park. There’s a number of reasons why the match against Arsenal on August 11th has been chosen for this.
For a start, there’s Rafa. Or actually, because there isn’t Rafa. He wasn’t given the tools to continue the job of rebuilding our club so walked away. Then there’s Steve Bruce. A man who got the job because he’s cheap enough to do it. Oh, and he’s a local fella, of course. There’s also the increase in season ticket prices, the most expensive shirt in the Premier League market, the sale/failure to buy our top two goalscorers from last season, a failure to buy even one player (at time of writing!) as well as a lack of investment in our training ground or academy. And that’s all that’s happened just this summer. There’s 12 more years of Ashley related harm on top of that. Plus the fact the game is live on Sky Sports so will be televised to a national audience.
Enough is enough for some so all roads lead to a boycott on the opening day of the new season. But what will success look like for this? I think a look back at what’s gone previously gives us an insight into that.
Boycott Spurs is, to my understanding, the only time in the Ashley era that a planned refusal to enter the ground went ahead. That day the official attendance was listed as 47,427 — but that did include all season ticket holders being added into the total. The real number that day was a fair chunk less. The message was perhaps not loud and clear, but it was heard in both the local and national press, as well as across social media.
The attendances for recent games against our first visitors of the season, Arsenal, also need taking into consideration — not least because in recent seasons it has been a fixture that has been very well attended.
That final figure is an interesting benchmark. That game was also a season opener, live on TV and after a summer of big-name departures (Nolan, Enrique and, soon after the game, Barton) with few expensive incomings. Maybe ‘wedding season’ had an effect too, but it was certainly the lowest against the Gunners in a long old time.
The other figures to note are recent opening home fixture attendances. Going back to the 2011/12 season, this is what the listed attendances look like.
2016/17: 52,079 (in the Championship)
Those numbers suggest that St James’ is normally packed for the opening game. That gives the impression that Boycott Arsenal might face an uphill task to encourage people to miss the game this early in a campaign.
So what would success look like? If the attendance is near 50,000 (or even above it), it’ll be a massive failure. It’ll likely mean further protests will be put to one side (like The Magpies Group attempts last season after an upturn in form) and the Sports Direct equivalent to the Stockholm Syndrome will continue in earnest.
If it’s under 45,000, I’d think of that as a small success and one which would be a boost to the fan groups’ attempts to put more pressure on Ashley to get out. It may encourage more to boycott further games as the atmosphere inside the ground will suffer. Though some may say ‘what atmosphere’…?
However, personally, I think less than 40,000 needs to be the benchmark figure for true success. The lowest Premier League Ashley attendance is 41,053 against Blackburn in November 2010. That game was on a Wednesday night which often leads to lower attendances anyways. Surely that has to be the figure to aim for.
If under 40,000 fans turn up for the Arsenal game, the media would be reporting solely on that for the next few days regardless of the result of Bruce’s first game. That would put pressure on Ashley to, at the very least, communicate his thoughts about the attendance in some sort of statement. This would really set the tone to ramp up the campaign to get Ashley out. It would set the tone for the season to follow that, at long last, Newcastle fans were at breaking point with the club that we love.
My prediction you ask? Somewhere around the 48,000 mark. A damp squib that will see Ashley chucking in the stands as the Steve Bruce era ends in defeat but Mike feeling like a winner. It will probably be the lowest attendance of the season too. *sighs*