Thursday, November 11, 2010

Clouds, Mountains and Waterfalls - A Trip to Sikkim

That we were not going to stay back in Kolkata during the festive season (the Durgapuja holidays in October) was decided in August. Unfortunately, almost every other resident of Kolkata apparently made the same decision, and we couldn't find anything better than a wait-listed ticket on the train. The initial plan was to visit Arunachal Pradesh (on the far north-eastern border of India) - places like Tawang, Bhalukpong. Infact, I purchased the train tickets with Arunachal in mind - departing from Kolkata on Kanchanjungha express on 15th October, and coming back on the same train from Guwahati on 22nd.

But that didn't happen. No where in Arunachal we could manage to find accommodations, and had to scupper the plan. I thought of Bhutan, but that seemed to be too costly. And then I started thinking about Sikkim, especially North Sikkim, where I wanted to go since I saw some photos of the Gurudongmar Lake. So the final plan was to visit Gurudongmar via Gangtok, and then the Yumthang Valley and then Pelling (in West Sikkim) on our way back. I started searching for travel operators in that area - mainly for North Sikkim - because you cannot drive up there in normal cars, and managed to find one operator, Tibet Tours & Travels, who run their own chain for Fortuna Hotels at Lachen and Lachung. They have a 2night/3days tour of North Sikkim, covering Gurudongmar, Yumthang, Katao and Zero Point, starting from Gangtok and coming back to Gangtok at the end. You just have to reach Gangtok and they will (or are supposed to) take care of the rest. Damayanti, a friend of mine, was planning the same trip too, and we thought of sharing the vehicle cost. We started sending all the necessary documents (required for the permit to enter North Sikkim), and the holidays came up - our train tickets still on the waiting list.

I had a booking on Jaidada (the AC Volvo service to Siliguri), but took a chance on the Indian Railways Tatkal booking - and luckily was able to get confirmed berths on Kanchankanya express on 15th October - leaving Kolkata at night, and reaching New Jalpaiguri in the morning next day.

15th was the Ashtami. For the past three days, the electronic media had been screaming about the unimaginable festive crowd - millions out on the street - causing gridlocks for vehicles. There were news about people not being able to catch flights or trains because of huge traffic congestion on the streets of Kolkata. A bit scared and tensed, we started off from out place at around five in the evening, although the scheduled departure time (for the train) was half-eight. Did someone say "huge traffic congestion"? Well, normally it takes an hour to reach the station from my place, and on that day, we made it in 35 minutes. And found a fully crowded waiting lounge - because it seems all the other travellers were as careful as me. So we sat there - trying to kill the remaining three hours somehow - in that crowded waiting lounge, with two unstoppable kids, who seem to have roller-skates fitted on their feet...Why isn't there a Noble Prize for being patient?

The first living thing we met on the train was a rat - even before any other co-passenger. As soon as I dumped my rucksack on the side-berth, it ran out from beneath the seat, dodged between our feet and soon vanished. I wasn't that suprised - because only a few days back my parents went to the Valley of Flowers, and had an encounter with a similar species on the Hemkund express. But that one was probably a bit lazy one as my mother smashed it with her sandal (my dad actually took a snap of it, and keeps it as a part of his screensaver). The bottomline was - I had to change my plan of storing the rucksack beneath the seats, and with the risk of breaking my neck, I had to lift them up on the upper bunk.

There's no dining car on Kanchanjungha express, and we had our dinner with the homemade "puri and sabzi" and fell asleep. The train reached New Jalpaiguri on 16th morning, delayed by around half-an-hour.

(to be continued...)

Friday, June 11, 2010

An appeal for Bhopal

I am sure all of you know about the injustice in Bhopal. The punishment for killing 20,000+ people in the world's worst industrial disaster has been reduced to the equivalent of a road accident. Seven persons, who knowingly approved cost-cutting measures compromising the safety and disaster mitigation in the plant, have been let off on bail.

India lives cannot and should not be seen as cheap. Please fax the Prime Minister directly to let him know what you think. Click here:

People around the world are angry. Angry at the Indian Government for betraying its people; angry that the world's largest democracy has succumbed to the power of the corporation.


Take action for justice in Bhopal, and to reclaim our democracy. Send a fax to the PM and let him know what you feel.

Monday, June 07, 2010

A Walk In The Clouds

The British used to call Cherrapunjee "the Scotland of the East" - and only a visit would justify the reason. Most tourists tend to visit Shillong (the capital of Meghalaya) and make a day-trip to Cherrapunjee to see the landscape and few waterfalls. But that is not how you could get the complete taste of this mesmerizing place. You need to stay there - at least for a couple of days, if not more. You need to venture around on the narrow winding routes over the hills. You need to lose yourself inside the clouds. You need to walk in the rain and look at the silver drops of water hanging on the fern leaves just after a shower. Only then you would be able to "see" Cherrapunjee - otherwise it would remain as just another trip to some remote place, nothing more than that.

3rd June, 2010

Waking up in the middle of the night was a pain as always. But to catch the flight at 6.10AM, we had to reach the airport by 5.00AM, and for that we had to start from home at 4.00AM. The flight was uneventful and we reached Guwahati at around half-past eight in the morning. We took a taxi to Shillong. Usually it takes about three and half hours for the 120km distance, but some ongoing roadwork before Jorabat (at Assam-Meghalaya border) created a huge traffic snarl and it was raining as well. The road beyond Jorabat (Shillong Road, NH-40) was beautiful - winding between the smooth green hills of Meghalaya. We stopped at Bara Pani (a reservoir) just before Shillong - there isn't much water though, but still it's worth a stop. We reached Shillong at around 1PM and took another taxi towards Cherrapunjee.

This stretch of the Shillong Road was spellbinding - and I can only compare it with the Highlands (of Scotland) - waves of green vacant land on both sides, hills, free-flowing water creating picturesque waterfalls alongside the road. We crossed a small bridge (named after a king of Cherrapunjee) and we were in front of the Dympep Valley - a lush green gorge lying for miles after miles on the left side of the road, with chunks of white clouds hanging down in the valley, sometimes climbing up the hills...Beyond this valley and the green canyon lies Cherrapunjee (Sohra) Town.

We were going to the Cherrapunjee Holiday Resort at Laitkeynsiew village - another 15 km beyond the Sohra town, almost in the middle of nowhere. This stretch of the road, though narrow and winding between steep hills and valley, was stunning, as if we became a part of an immense picture. And it was almost no-man's land - you won't see any people till you reach the resort. And the resort? A picturesque lodge surrounded by the clouds on the top of the last hills of India beyond which you can clearly see the flooded plains of Sylhet (Bangladesh). It rained just a while ago, and little droplets of water were falling off the lush green fern leaves on the side of the road, few bottle-brushes were blooming inside a small cemetery, and water was flowing by the side of the village road like a tiny river...

4th June, 2010

I woke up at the sound of the alarm at 5AM in the morning hoping to see the sun coming out of the clouds. Unfortunately, it was too cloudy. At other places (say Lolegaon or Rishap) this would have been annoying - but not here. We've come here to lose ourselves in the clouds, and discover the romancing rain. It started to rain soon - first drizzles, then slowly heavier, and then like a white curtain all around us. We put on our raincoats and went out to the village below the resort - on a narrow road winding through the village with only a handful people in and out of the small houses. Water flowed over the road, Rik and Riti started splashing over the water and Rik named the flow "Chhota Pani" (or Small River, an opposite of Bara Pani). After a while we came back inside the resort with our so-called "weatherproof" walking shoes completely soaked...

The owner of the resort, Mr. Denis P. Rayen (a Tamilian who married a local lady and settled here, and helped the local economy) said that the rain will stop at around noon, and we decided that we'd trek to the nearest Living Root Bridge (approximately two and half kilometres and takes 4 hours) after lunch. We started at 1PM, and soon after crossing the tiny villages, the path turned towards the forest and downwards along the hill (technically, a mountain - nearly 1000m above the MSL). The path was actually a set of steep, narrow and non-uniform lichen-covered stone stairs with a dense forest on both sides laid out by the local people. And the recent rains made them even more slippery. My shoes started slipping soon and I wasn't able to step fully on the stairs as they were quite narrow. And we soon discovered that whatever Woodlands say, those "walking boots" were not all-terrain at all. I slipped few times, and was having trouble going down those steep steps because of my torn knee ligaments. And possibly, my confidence level wasn't as high as it used to be because of the recent remarks made by the doctor treating my knee. I fell over a couple of times - extremely lucky to escape fatality. It was drizzling when we started - so we had our raincoats on, but they were becoming more and more uncomfortable. We took the raincoats off and I was amazed to find that my shirt was completely soaked with sweat as if it was just washed in water. All the raincoats were packed inside my rucksack, and we started to walk. But it became impossible to step properly on the slippery stones with those shoes on - and so the shoes came off too, increasing the weight of my rucksack. Walking was easier with just the socks on, but the feet started hurting as we were moving on a very uneven surface. Rik though, didn't face any problem what-so-ever - may be because of his less weight, or may be because of his flexible shoes, and Riti was so tired that she fell asleep on our guide's shoulder. And watching him walk down that path with Riti on his shoulders was scary. We lost count of the number of steps and kept on going down and down - our legs tiring, and there was less and less light because of the dense forest and the clouds...Ultimately, after almost two and half thousand steps (yes, that's right - almost equivalent to climbing down the Empire State Building, could be even more as the steps were steeper) we reached the "Living Root Bridge".

It was fascinating - the bridge. The little stream below the bridge was even more so. We sat on a set of stones and watched that mesmerizing scene for a while, and then started climbing up the Empire State Building again...I don't know how I managed it, but I could feel the lack of strength and balance on my knee - my 85 kilos, plus the heavy rucksack, cloud, rain, lichen-covered steep steps, bare feet - all combined to create a fatal combination. But it was worth it. The experience was unforgettable - raw nature at its best - the scenery, the weather, the surroundings - it was something to remember for ever. It was Lothlórien - almost, and we were the hobbits eagerly waiting to get a glimpse of Lady Galadriel...

After-effect: After two days, even now, my legs are as heavy as lead. And I'm suffering from stairs-phobia. I'm still climbing stairs in an awkward way - but that's never going to stop me from going there again. May be some time not so far...

5th June, 2010

Our condition became evident as soon as we got up in the morning. Both of us had legs as heavy as lead, and they simply refused to go for another walk in the morning. This was our last day at the resort and we booked a taxi which would take us for a sight-seeing around Cherrapunjee and then drop us at our hotel in Shillong. Heavy rain had started by then and we were afraid that we might miss most of the views. But again the rain slowed down at around 10AM and we started on our journey back to Shillong.

I should write few lines about the resort at this point. It's a family-owned resort, run by Mr. Denis, his wife and their daughter. Few girls from the nearby villages work here as cooks and cleaners. Young men work as guides. The guide, who took us to the Living Root Bridge, studies in the 10th Std. and works as a guide during his free time. The resort literally helps the nearby villages economically, as this is the only place where tourists can stay beyond Cherrapunjee town. Some village youths take part in a cultural programme at the resort during the evenings - singing Khasi (local dialect) songs, sometimes famous English and Hindi songs too - which helps them earn a little extra. Mr. Denis has been working with the Government of Meghalaya to promote tourism at Cherrapunjee - before that, most people used to come on a day-trip, and that too just to the town. The thing that we liked most was a personal touch - either Mr. Denis or his daughter would look after the guests personally, talk to them during lunch/dinner time, have a leisurely chats at other times, bid farewell to each individual guest - something that we don't see anymore in the corporate chain hotels. The cost of food may have been a bit on the higher side - but I wouldn't expect anything different at such a place "in the middle of no-where."

The taxi took us to several view points around Cherrapunjee - and we had mesmerizing views of the hills, the greenery, the flowers, the rain, the majestic waterfalls, the flooded plains of Sylhet and our all-around partner - the cloud. But even with the cloud, we didn't miss a single thing. Wherever we went, the rain and cloud soon cleared - just to unravel the beauty for us and us only - and then covered everything again when we left. The Daithlen Falls was the only thing we couldn't go to - as the road was closed for vehicles. And at the Nohkalikai Falls (the highest in India, 4th highest in the world), we really thought that we won't be able to see anything and will have to leave with only the sound of the falls. But as we were coming out, the lady at the counter called us back - we rushed to the view point - and saw the cloud has started to lift. Soon it was clear again - and we could see the majestic Nohkalikai jumping a thousand feet from the top of the cliff...

After Nohkalikai, we started our journey back to Shillong. The cloud didn't allow us to get another glimpse of the Dympep valley. But the tiny waterfalls on the side were even more beautiful after two days of rain. Just before entering Shillong, we took a small diversion to the Elephant Falls, one of the famous tourist attractions near Shillong. And then we went straight to the Pinewood Hotel. The hotel looked majestic, built by the British during the Raj, but a severe lack of maintenance is turning it into a mess - a little care would have turned it into a paradise.

6th June, 2010

Nothing much to write about the day. We checked out of the hotel in the morning and went to the Shillong Peak - a famous tourist attraction, but after what we had seen at Cherrapunjee, this looked pretty ordinary. The twin falls - Beadon and Bishop - didn't impress as well. We would have visited the Don Bosco Museum if we had time - but that particular thing was short - and we had to rush to Guwahati airport (another four hour drive from Shillong) to catch our flight. Finally, we reached home at around 11PM in the night - tired, but satisfied. Cherrapunjee didn't hide herself and showed us the raw beauty of nature...

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Newcastle fans launch takeover campaign

From The Times, another one from George Caulkin...

The emails were dispatched at 2am on Tuesday morning. All 40,000 of them, which the Newcastle United Supporters Trust [NUST] believes might just make it the biggest-ever mail-out to football fans. In spite of the bleary-eyed hour, within the first 20 minutes, 120 people had signed up for more information and pledges of financial backing had come from as far afield as Australia.

There was a humbling message from an orphanage in Ghana, where the NUST have previously sent Newcastle shirts to disadvantaged children, kids whose lives put notions such as sport, victory and defeat into its proper perspective, with an offer to invest £5. In emotive terms, a value could not be placed on their gesture and at that moment, their challenge felt that bit more manageable.

Eight hours later, the NUST officially launched a six-week campaign to raise awareness about their ‘Yes We Can‘ proposal to buy Newcastle United from Mike Ashley. Organisers stood on the Millennium Bridge their backs to a mural on the exterior of the Baltic art gallery. “Victory to the miners,” it read. “Victory to the working class.” It felt like a symbolic message.

Their scheme is bold and it has to be, but it has not been formulated on the back of a cigarette packet. Over the past few months and weeks, they have spoken to fans‘ groups, local businesses (it is understood that Barry Moat, whose recent takeover attempt failed, is not one of them), institutions and politicians about the viability of their project and how to take it forward. As they put it, “It’s about reclaiming our football club for the city".

They mean business. About £35,000 will be spent on an advertising campaign, the initial aim of which is to raise enough money (£10million would be a decent start) to demonstrate their intent to larger investors who, the NUSC insists, are already committed in principle. And, indeed, to Ashley. They have, they say, some impressive partners on board, whose identities will be revealed over the coming days.

The ultimate goal is fan ownership of Newcastle, a model operated, famously, by Barcelona, but also elsewhere, with a president voted for by members who would themselves be able to stand for election to the trust’s board. It will require investment from individuals, from a minimum £1,500 in cash or the reallocation of pension funds. All of that information can be found here.

Could it work? Yes. Will it? That, of course, is the £80m question (or however much Ashley now values Newcastle at), and it is not coincidental that the NUST have appropriated Barack Obama’s optimisitc, against-the-odds campaign slogan for last year’s American presidential election: ‘Yes we can’. What cannot be doubted is that they are good, decent, serious people who adore their football club.

A lot has been written and said about Ashley’s stewardship of Newcastle (even he has called it “catastrophic”). Most depressing about it is that alternatives have dissolved away. Aside from apathy or anger for the sake of it, only one remains. What follows is a brief chat with Mark Jensen, editor of the respected fanzine The Mag, who is acting as a spokesman for the campaign.

What is ‘Yes We Can’ all about?

MJ: “Everybody has seen the protests, both verbal and visible, against Mike Ashley and what’s happened at the club, but it’s not just about him. For years before him, the club wasn’t run in the way it should have been in most people’s eyes and the biggest protest comes now: the fans are leading the way in looking to buy the club. It sounds very ambitious, but everything we’ve done in the last few months behind the scenes - the research we’ve done with businesses and supporters - leads us to believe that it's definitely achievable. We’re putting the final touches to the business plan and this six-week campaign will see us advertising in the local media and doing various events to raise awareness. The first base is to get a seat at the table whereby representatives can negotiate with Mike Ashley the full amount to buy the club then that would become the target. In private, we've been meeting with very, very credible local businesses and people. They’ve assured us that as long as the fans have the appetite to raise X amount, they’ll come in behind it and make this all a reality.”

How do you persuade people that buying the club is a viable proposition?

MJ: “You only have to go back to 1997, when the club was floated on the Stock Market: the fans bought 10 per cent of the club then and, actually, the offer was oversubscribed. They were prepared to raise money then. The point has been reached now where everybody who is willing and able to could and should invest in the club. We’ve got an opportunity for Newcastle United to be the shining light in this country, as to how a club should be run. That’s the carrot being dangled in front of everybody; as well as having a club that could hopefully go on to win things, it would also be run in the right way and for all the right reasons. It isn’t just a few fans expecting to turn up and the run the club. It’s about fans giving the platform whereby fans, businesses and local institutions could all invest to make a viable club and then appoint people who could run it on a day-to-day basis. Nobody could tell me that what we’ve got in mind wouldn’t end up being better than what we’ve got now.”

So it’s about giving the club back to the city?

MJ: Reclaiming it, yes. That’s it in a nutshell. People are so fed up. But it’s been unbelievable this season. If you’d told me in the summer that Newcastle would be averaging crowds of more than 40,000 in these circumstances ... People are showing their opposition to Mike Ashley but also showing their support for the team and there was no better example of that than on Saturday. The atmosphere was brilliant and we were playing Peterborough United with nearly 44,000 people there. It was more than Liverpool had at home in the Premier League on Monday night. If anybody asks ‘how can Newcastle be a success in the future?’, that tells you everything. The fans desperately want to go and support their team and this is their opportunity to have much more than that.”

Newcastle are top of the league, but how perilous is the club’s position away from that?

MJ: “In the short-term you can look at the results and how we’re doing in the Championship and think that things aren’t too bad, but the more games we win and the more that promotion becomes a reality, the more it looks as though we would have to buy pretty much a whole new team. Judging on their past performances, I don’t think anybody would have faith in Ashley or Derek Llambias to successfully do that. People have been hoping that some white knight would be out there, but they have to accept that it’s very unlikely to happen. And that’s how we once felt about Ashley, too. He’s proved to be anything but. Maybe the salvation for Newcastle United is with the people who care most about it, ordinary fans and business people.

You’re asking for a big financial commitment from people. What guarantees do they have that their money will be looked after properly?

MJ: “Firstly, it’s not a case of fans looking after other fans’ money. It’s about appointing proper professional people, the best people possible, to do that job. As things stand, is Derek Llambias the best qualified person to be in control of the money that comes into the club now? I think we know the answer to that. We would emulate what successful clubs have done and learn from them - up until now, Newcastle haven’t done that and that’s why we’ve ended up in this position.

So you have substantive people waiting in the background who will become involved?

MJ: “Yes. Newcastle is a damaged brand - that’s one of those phrases we have to use these days - it’s a business and to be successful on the pitch, it has to be successful off it. There are very, very credible people from the local business community - names that people will recognise - who are committed to coming on board. But they need the fans to show they’ve got the appetite to do their bit and then, together, we can turn the club around. Maybe it wouldn’t work for those businesses to come in by themselves. Why can’t we create something much bigger and better than just expecting local businessmen to come in and do everything? Why shouldn’t we do our bit and, potentially, have a really sound, long-term investment in a club we all invest in week after week?

Long-term is the key, isn’t it?

MJ: “How quickly things can happen will depend on how many people respond. We’ve sent out 40,000 emails to names we’ve collected over the last few months and we’ve already had a very good response from them. The financial plan will be ready in six to seven days’ time, whereby people will have all the information they need as to how they can go about making an investment. We’ll be pointing towards independent financial advisors, because the level of investment possible depends on individual circumstances, but if it’s right for them, hopefully they’ll come on board. The committee members are all putting money into it - it's not throwing money down the drain, it’s about investing in what could be a great club again and a very successful business.”

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

I love Kevin Keegan, love him

Seven years in that city made it my home - even now when I'm away from it. I queued up in front of the gates at St. James' when Keegan returned. I took my six year old son to a reserve game where he had a glimpse of the King at the stands and he still talks about it. From thousands of miles away, I open the fanzine pages first thing in the morning. I haven't seen a premier league game since the beginning of the season, but check out the championship results on a match day even from my mobile phone - such is the "pull" of this city.

Following is another excellent piece from George Caulkin - about my home and my home town football club, and the man who won't be forgotten...

I love Kevin Keegan, love him

- George Caulkin

I love Kevin Keegan, love him. I don’t love him because he has been attempting to wrest compensation from Newcastle United and I certainly don’t love him because I’ve got a Messiah complex (and it would be greatly appreciated if somebody, anybody, took notice of that). I don’t love him because he left the club at a difficult moment a year ago, nor do I love him because he has held his tongue since doing so.

Before anyone gets any funny ideas, I love other football people, too.

In no particular order, I love Niall Quinn, Steve Gibson and I ****ing love Peter Reid. I desperately love Sir Bobby Robson, I love Alan Shearer and I’ve got a feeling that I’m going to love Steve Bruce and Darren Bent. I’m pretty damn keen on Steve Harper and Gareth Southgate. I love Newcastle, Sunderland and Middlesbrough. I love my home.

But this is a column about Keegan, who has been thrust back into the headlines recently. I loved him as a player, the belief that everything begins with hard work, the (Mag)Pied Piper qualities he demonstrated at St James’ Park. I love him because of his approach to football, the freedom he nurtured in his teams, the self-respect. When he returned as manager, I love it that the first thing he did was fumigate the dressing-rooms.

After he dragged Newcastle off their knees, I loved 1992-93, when the side shimmered with neat, quick, triangular football and were promoted as champions. I loved it because Keegan urged supporters to gaze at the stars and believe anything was possible. I love it even more now, because so much of football feels hemmed in. I loved it that the glorious mania prompted rogue sightings of Roberto Baggio in Wallsend chipshops.

I loved it when Keegan opened Newcastle’s training ground to fans and hundreds of them turned up. From a professional point of view, I loved it that he welcomed reporters to Maiden Castle every day, where they could tap players on the shoulder and, if they agreed, talk to them. From a personal point of view, I loved it because one of those players became my best man, even if our friendship lasted longer than my marriage.

I loved hearing about Keegan’s powers of persuasion, convincing Robert Lee that Newcastle was closer to London than Middlesbrough and then moulding him into an England international. I didn’t care that his tactical prowess was mocked, because he made players feel like gods and somehow prompted them to overachieve. I loved his unshakeable faith in attacking football.

I loved the headlong tilts at the title, the acquisitions of Les Ferdinand, David Ginola and Shearer. I wish that Newcastle had grasped the championship ahead of Manchester United, although I loved that season anyway and never winning anything but singing regardless is now ingrained as a defining feature of those born with a black-and-white lifetime sentence.

I didn’t love it when he took his leave of Tyneside in 1997, although I understood it. In the space of five years, the club had been transformed beyond all recognition and in the rush to embrace the City, they would be transformed further. I never loved the Hall or Shepherd families, although like many people, I was blindsided by the ambition, the changes to the ground and convinced myself that the shares, dividends and salaries were forgivable.

In the face of widespread bewilderment - including my own - I loved it when Keegan came back to Gallowgate in January 2008. Anybody who was present in the city on that heady day will have felt something similar; a veil lifting, eyes opening, hearts beating. It had not been that way for a very long time and this was a reminder that football could be fun, impetuous, beautiful, mad.

For similar reasons, I loved it when Keegan said the following in an interview with this newspaper: “I want people to dream about their football club. They should, we should all be dreamers at heart. Some people are the opposite and say ‘we can’t do that’, but when you ask them why, they can’t give a reason. Well, I say, ‘Why not?’”. He talked about “unfinished business” and I think he believed he could charm and cajole Mike Ashley.

I detested the way Keegan was treated. Having embraced Geordie sentimentality and appointed a man who dealt in dreams, Ashley strapped his manager into a straitjacket. He brought in Dennis Wise as executive director (football), roles were not defined with any clarity, Keegan was slapped down in public and ultimately left when - allegedly - players were signed without his approval. It was nonsensical and, this time, not in a good way.

The last 12 months have not been kind to Keegan, but that is not his fault. When Sam Allardyce was sacked as manager, his contract was settled within days, but a dispute over whether Keegan resigned or was pushed has meant a long, bitter process. As Newcastle struggled and then suffered relegation, it was natural that some sympathy would swing against him, although he has not been able to speak out. He remained silent in the face of briefings against him.

Keegan stood up for principle; managers should manage. The man Ashley hired might have been weathered by his experiences with England - I would term his decision to step down as honest, not weak - but he had always used his power as a bargaining chip (Freddy Shepherd claims to have letters of resignation from him framed on his toilet wall). For better or worse, he then stood up for what he thinks he is owed.

What I hate is that a day before the Premier League arbitration panel which has been hearing Keegan’s case was due to break up and consider their verdict, a story leaked that Newcastle would be threatened with administration should their former employer win. Derek Llambias, the managing director, had already stated publicly that such a measure was not being considered and the timing felt both risible and transparent.

A source close to the takeover saga at Newcastle (some doubt the veracity of ‘sources’ or ‘insiders’, but there are people who will only speak to journalists on the basis of anonymity - honest), insists that Keegan’s claim is not a concern within Seymour Pierce, the bank charged with handling the club’s sale, and that Barry Moat’s bid is ongoing. But 12 months on - four after their demotion - and suddenly administration is an issue!

For all their heartening success on the field since August, Newcastle is still a club being run by men asleep at the wheel, full of contradiction and questions; a club where ‘Malaysian’ businessmen, who Seymour Pierce said had made no contact with them, can be shown around the ground, where Ashley and Llambias can heap praise on Shearer and then let him dangle. And too many other things, whether before or afterwards.

I will love Kevin Keegan whatever result the independent panel come to. I will love him for reasons which Ashley and Llambias could never understand, because he gave uplift to Newcastle, hope and inspiration, he made a region sparkle and people smile. I do not, for a single moment, suggest that he is perfect, but his team came close to perfection. If circumstances ever allow it, I would love to think he’ll discuss it all.

I love him because of something Robson once wrote. “What is a club in any case? Not the buildings or the directors or the people who are paid to represent it. It’s not the television contracts, get-out clauses or the marketing departments or executive boxes. It’s the noise, the passion, the feeling of belonging, the pride in your city.”

He has human flaws. He might, indeed, have material interests. But Keegan always dealt in love.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Newcastle fans are misery-seekers, not glory-hunters

From The Times - another spot-on from George Caulkin.

Newcastle fans are misery-seekers, not glory-hunters

George Caulkin

It was some time during the late 1990s - a decade which featured the Light Brigade beauty of Kevin Keegan’s title challenge and two losing FA Cup finals - that some Newcastle United supporters of my acquaintance reached a conclusion which altered the tone of their day- to-day existence: they would win nothing during their lifetimes. All the available scientific evidence, all the heartache, offered sustenance to their argument.

At a stroke, weight was lifted from their shoulders. Tension slipped away. It was a eureka moment, a discovery which allowed football to be football again. Sometimes there is a point to embracing the unembraceable and, in this instance, there was a logic to it. If you take as your starting point that a football club will never lift a trophy then ... well, you can never truly be disappointed, can you?

Not winning something is now as much ingrained in the Newcastle psyche as the Cup-heroics of the 1950s, Jackie Milburn, black and white stripes and Alan Shearer. It is part of who they are, part of the celebration and, to digress a little, it is also why criticism of their fans for being impatient or demanding is so witless and inaccurate. Glory-hunters? Through no fault of their own, those who follow Newcastle are misery-seekers.

Those friends of mine, while accepting that any quest for silverware was doomed at the outset, had different expectations. They wanted to belong, to feel pride in their city, sing themselves hoarse and enjoy a few drinks. And if the impossible was to happen and Newcastle won a cup, they would happily have torn up their pie charts, pointed to the margin of error in any statistical undertaking and reveled in it.

You may have noticed the use of the past tense. One of those friends has had enough. Midway through last season - post Joe Kinnear and pre Shearer - he stopped going to the match. He’d been a season-ticket holder since school (more than 20 years), but now has a young family to look after. The equation was a complex one - it cost too much money and too much embarrassment - but, purely and simply, he could not do it any more.

Within his circle, the decision caused arguments and distress; give up Newcastle and you give up your essence. But then, a few weeks ago, another one dropped out. He would not be renewing his seat. Because, fundamentally, the conclusion they reached ten years ago has changed.

Following Newcastle now means an acceptance that of all the possible scenarios, the least edifying and most unpleasant will happen. That pain, the loss of faith during the last few seasons, had become too much to bear.

In the long-term, it is not a life-affirming ethos. Perhaps not all supporters accept it and the fact that more than 25,000 people have bought season tickets this summer points to a remarkable level of tolerance, but, in the short-term, it is probably sensible. This has been a summer of limbo, of rot, of waiting, of stasis, and the final outcome may well herald further disillusion.

I spoke to the director of another football club the other day. As usual, the conversation eventually turned to recent events at St James’ Park (it is not only the media who are obsessed with Newcastle). He had met Mike Ashley a few times and actually liked him, although he was less complimentary about his acolytes. “From what I've seen, I think he's a decent bloke. I just wish that one day he would wake up and make a go of things up there,” he said.

Surely it is too late now. Ashley has been incapable of stringing two good decisions together and the outcome has been utterly destructive.

He arrived preaching the long-term and then sacked Sam Allardyce. He tapped into Newcastle’s emotions by appointing Kevin Keegan and then tied his hands together. He recognised the need to have a football department, but chose Dennis Wise to lead it.

He accepted reality last autumn and decided to sell the club. But Joe Kinnear as an interim manager? He took the club off the market, promised to communicate more with supporters and then did nothing of the sort. He vowed to run a dangerously spendthrift club on a sound financial footing, but made a profit in the transfer market when the team was in dire need of strengthening.

Finally, he brought in Shearer, who could do little to prevent Newcastle’s slide into the Coca Cola Championship, but restored discipline to the training-ground, provided a link with fans and reviewed of all playing matters at the club. Ashley admitted his mistakes and said that hiring Shearer was his “best decision”. He then ignored him, putting out the for sale signs, not wishing to leave new owners in the same position he inherited. It has been a compendium of disaster.

The result, three months down the line, is that Newcastle still have no manager and have bought no new players. The season is now underway.

With the transfer market closing at the end of this month, there is only a tiny window of opportunity for Barry Moat or any other potential bidder for the club to influence matters at the club. Once that opportunity disappears, there is no incentive to push through a purchase.

Those friends who still intend to troop up to Newcastle’s ground every other weekend - and who will be there against Reading on Saturday - have already accepted that Ashley will own the club for at least another year. They believe that David O’Leary will be appointed manager (and, make no mistake, this is what Ashley intends to do should Moat not find the money). They hate the idea, but what can you do?

For now, they will put up with it, but discussions about what being a Newcastle fans entails are now commonplace. It feels unsustainable.

The performance of the team during the 1-1 draw at West Bromwich Albion offered some hope and perhaps, perhaps, perhaps, something positive may happen in the next few days. But nobody is betting on it.

This is Ashley’s Newcastle. Things can always get worse.


Tynesiders have been too forgiving so far with Mr. Ashley. I wonder what would have happened if this was my hometown Kolkata. I can surely say - all his Sports Direct outlets would have been mobbed, shut down - no one would work in those outlets, and he probably would never dare to step in the city. Actually, this is exactly what he deserves.

Come on Mr. Ashley - do us (and yourself) a favour and leave.