Comment: Is nothing sacred in Football anymore?

Tom Wills 6 November 2009

I have no love for Newcastle, and even less for the soap opera of a club that has emerged in the last few years. Poor choices of manager (the late Sir Bobby excepted, clearly), a nasty self-seeking owner and an insipid style of play from a mediocre squad have seen Newcastle slip from the England’s 5th team in 2004 to the lowly confines of the Championship. I watched all this with amusement, glee and derision, which I concede isn‘t especially adult of me, but such is the nature of rival fandom. The premature sacking of Sam Allardyce, the needlessly damaging appointment of Dennis Wise, Joe Kinnear’s extraordinary press conference rant, Alan Shearer’s ‘second coming’…it’s made priceless viewing.

But this week the comedy went too far, and I’m left feeling slightly dirty and disgusted. This is the news that Mike Ashley, Newcastle’s millionaire owner, is open to bids for the naming rights to St. James’ Park, home of Newcastle since 1888. Now shameless advertising in football is far from a new thing; 1976 saw the first strips emblazoned with a needlessly garish logo and the modern football fan has become used to being visually bombarded by advertising hoardings, multiple sponsors and ‘official partners’. South Africa 2010 has no fewer than seventeen partners including Budweiser (the Official World Cup beer), McDonalds (the Official World Cup burger) and Continental (the Official World Cup, er, provider of bicycle tyres). Stadium sponsorship too is nothing new, as fans of Bolton and Wigan will attest.

But surely there must be a line drawn somewhere. Geordies are proud of St. James’, it’s a massive part of the city and, grudgingly though I admit it, has been home to great Newcastle teams and some outstanding talents. The notion of Newcastle’s home games being held at, let’s imagine, The Argos Arena or Sainsbury’s Stadium just seems horrific and entirely disrespectful of a long heritage. Obviously the need to balance the books is as crucial to a club’s survival as the ability to beat Doncaster in the league, and Mike Ashley has been quick to emphasise that it’s all about “maximising revenue streams”. Fair enough, you might say. The man’s a realist, a successful businessman. Let him do his thing.

But really, is nothing sacred? Some elements of the game must remain immune from the temptation of corporate cash if any soul and sense of tradition is to be retained. The FA cup must remain thus named, for example, and 15 minutes is quite enough for half time, despite the easy advertising money to be reaped by Sky.

Put simply, I just can’t imagine the nation whipping itself into quite the same passionate fervour for a summer of watching England in the Starbucks World Cup.

Tom Wills