Newcastle United, one of the best-supported clubs in England, have been torn apart and now face life in second tier
When Leicester City step on to the Stamford Bridge turf – the new champions of English football at the home of the outgoing ones – Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez will be wearing Nike boots made especially for the occasion. Vardy, who was plying his trade for non-league Fleetwood Town four years ago, has scored 24 goals to spearhead the most improbable of title campaigns. There have also been six assists.
Mahrez, who came to Leicester from Le Havre in France’s second division, has been the creator supreme, laying on 11 goals for his teammates while scoring 17 himself. He, like Vardy, has also chosen some of the biggest stages to make a statement, with his display at Manchester City – Leicester threw down the championship gauntlet with a 3-1 win – a candidate for performance of the season.
Newcastle United fans in a sombre mood during the EPL match against Aston Villa in Birmingham on May 7. Pic/Getty Images
The custom-made ‘Vahrez’ boots are mainly in black and white – white for Vardy’s right foot, black for the left, with the colours switched for Mahrez – and they also feature the national flags, the cross of St. George and the Algerian one. Leicester fans will fervently hope that the partnership is still intact when the new season begins.
Vardy is unlikely to leave, but Mahrez is the hottest property in world football. The celebratory mood among the travelling fans at Chelsea will be in stark contrast to the funeral atmosphere at St James’s Park in Newcastle. Sunderland’s midweek thrashing of Everton ensured that Newcastle would start next season in English football’s second tier. One of the best-supported clubs in the land, Newcastle have been torn apart by questionable decision-making over the past decade.
The appointment of Rafael Benitez came too late in the day to salvage a dismal season. Benitez has been overwhelmed by the adulation from the stands, but it remains to be seen whether he’ll stick around to oversee a promotion campaign. For that to happen, Mike Ashley, the owner who has held the reins for nearly a decade, will need to give him considerable powers, especially when it comes to player recruitment.
Newcastle fans of a certain vintage will wonder how it ever came to this. On Valentine’s Day in 1996, the club sat atop EPL and appeared to be running away with the title. They were nine points clear of Man United and 11 in front of Liverpool, and had a game in hand on both. But in their final 13 games, Newcastle took just 18 points. United finished their season with ten wins, a draw and a loss.
The enduring image of that Newcastle capitulation is from perhaps the most famous EPL game of all. As Stan Collymore scored an injury-time winner at Anfield – Newcastle had led 3-2 till then – Kevin Keegan, former Liverpool legend-turned-Newcastle manager, slumped to the turf, wearing the expression of a man who had seen a ghost.
Just over six months later, Keegan was gone and all hopes of a northeastern football dynasty unravelled. With Alan Shearer scoring lots of goals, they finished fourth and third under the late Sir Bobby Robson at the turn of the millennium. Since Ashley’s takeover though, the trajectory has largely been downward, save the 2011-12, when Alan Pardew took them to fifth place.
Newcastle are not the only big club staring at an uncertain future. Twenty years ago, Aston Villa, champions of Europe in 1982, finished fourth. This season, they’re rock bottom and the circumstances around the club are such that there seems to be little hope of a quick return to the top flight.
Sunday will see both sides of the emotional spectrum. Leicester will savour their moment in the sun, while Newcastle and Villa look to summers of turbulence, hoping against hope that they don’t go the way of Leeds United.