NEWCASTLE-UPON-TYNE, England — Former Newcastle defender Steve Howey can vividly recall the day he was on the open-top bus that was welcomed back to the city by 250,000 supporters, the day after the 1998 FA Cup Final against Arsenal. As it snaked towards St James’s Park, there was a sea of black-and-white shirts, all the way from the banks of the River Tyne, ready to greet the players.
“It was kind of embarrassing really,” Howey told ESPN. “We had just lost the Cup final [2-0, via goals from Marc Overmars and Nicolas Anelka], so had nothing to show off to the fans, but the turnout just rammed home how the club had been, and still is, starved of success.
“I actually felt really proud to be a part of it. The football club matters so much to everybody in Newcastle and the fans are absolutely desperate for some kind of success, but unfortunately I don’t see that happening anytime soon.”
The scenes in 1998 were replicated a year later when Newcastle lost the Cup final again, 2-0 against Manchester United’s Treble winners. It had been the same after the 1974 FA Cup final (a 3-0 loss to Liverpool) and the 1976 League Cup final (2-1 to Manchester City). Nowadays, Newcastle fans have given up dreaming of success and even the consolation prize of finishing second.
When Steve Bruce’s Newcastle travel to League One side Rochdale in the FA Cup third round on Saturday (Stream LIVE on ESPN+ at 7:25 a.m. ET), they will go there as arguably the most unsuccessful big club in world football.
Historical clubs of a similar stature elsewhere — think Hamburg in Germany, Torino in Italy, Valencia in Spain — have all won silverware since Newcastle last brought a major trophy home. It is 65 years since the club won its sixth, and last, FA Cup and they haven’t won the league title since 1927. The last time Newcastle won a major trophy of any kind — the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup in 1969 — was 39 days before man first stepped on the Moon. There have been two promotions as champions of the Championship during the past 10 years, but a top-level trophy? Nothing since the 1950s.
“It has been absolutely miserable,” says journalist Ian Murtagh, who has reported on Newcastle since 1995. “They are playing Rochdale this weekend and, in recent years, Rochdale have reached the fourth round more often than Newcastle. That tells you everything.”
So how has a club of Newcastle’s history and stature failed for so long?
On Wednesday, Bruce’s team lost 3-0 at home to in-form Leicester in front of 52,178 supporters, a figure just short of the average attendances this season at Manchester City (54,386) and Liverpool (53,098). The club has a huge and passionate following away from home and, as recently at 1996, broke the world transfer record by beating Manchester United to the £15 million signing of Alan Shearer from Blackburn Rovers.
It is a one-club town, with St James’s Park towering above the city like a sporting cathedral. If you are from Newcastle, you support Newcastle. When Kevin Keegan signed for the club in 1982, they were in the second tier and Keegan, England captain and two-time Ballon d’Or winner, dropped down a division from top-flight Southampton to honour his north-east roots — his father was coal miner from the area — and he was dubbed the ‘Messiah’ by the Geordies (a person born in Newcastle).
There is almost a mythical element to playing for Newcastle. Successful centre-forwards wearing the number shirt become icons — Jackie Milburn, Alan Shearer — but for all the support and desperation for success, there is a sense of Greek tragedy with the club too.
In 1995-96, Newcastle finished second in the Premier League under Kevin Keegan after being 12 points clear in February), reached FA Cup finals under Kenny Dalglish (1998) and Ruud Gullit (1999) and qualified for the Champions League three times between 1997 and 2003.
But since being bought by billionaire businessman Mike Ashley in May 2007, it has been a tale of decline and disharmony, with the club relegated twice from the Premier League — though they were promoted within a year by winning the Championship on each occasion — and failing repeatedly in the cup competitions.
The relationship between the supporters and the Ashley regime has also hit rock-bottom. Attendances are falling because of the owner’s lack of significant investment. When Miguel Almiron was signed from Atlanta United 12 months ago, he became the club’s biggest-ever signing at just £20m — 14 years after the previous record signing of Michael Owen from Real Madrid for £16m. Ashley delved into his pockets this summer to break the record again, by sanctioning the £40m signing of Brazilian striker Joelinton from Hoffenheim, but he has proven to be an expensive flop having scored just once for the club in 21 appearances.
No Newcastle manager has admitted to being pressured into treating the cup competitions lightly, but whatever the directives, the club has not gone beyond the FA Cup fourth round since Ashley took over.
“The fans feel the club is not giving it a go,” John Anderson, whose association with Newcastle as a player and then radio pundit dates back to 1982, told ESPN. “Nobody expects Premier League titles, but they don’t give the cups any respect whatsoever. The fans feel the League Cup and FA Cup are the two chances to get some silverware, but successive managers have got to cup games and rested players. So there is pressure on Steve Bruce at Rochdale. He has to play his strongest possible side.”
Wednesday’s defeat against Leicester has not helped Bruce in terms of his approach to Saturday’s game. Three players (midfielder Jonjo Shelvey, full-backs Jetro Willems and Javier Manquillo) limped off with injuries and were replaced before half-time, while centre-back Fabian Schar suffered a groin strain before the game was 50 minutes old, leaving them to play the rest of the match with 10 men. DeAndre Yedlin suffered a broken hand and played on through the pain barrier, but all five players are expected to miss the trip to Spotland.
“I have 10 players missing out of a squad of 22,” Bruce said after the game. “We will try to get a couple back for the cup tie, but there are no guarantees.”
For the supporters, it’s a familiar story of players suddenly being unavailable ahead of an important cup tie. Alex Hurst, editor of Newcastle fanzine and podcast True Faith, admits the fans have grown tired of history repeating itself.
“When Alan Pardew was manager, the team was in no danger of relegation and we still ended up with second-string sides in cup ties,” he told ESPN. “The club just do not see the cup competitions as a priority.
“It’s quite funny that the Premier League has introduced a winter break for the first time this season. Newcastle have had one for the past 15 years because we never play on fifth-round weekend. I still live in hope. We had 25 points on Christmas Day and relegation seemed unlikely this time around, but three defeats and all those injuries means that I am now beginning to think we won’t win against a League One side.”
Howey also fears the worst, with Rochdale lying in wait to inflict more misery this weekend.
“It’s been 65 years since Newcastle last won the FA Cup, but that doesn’t surprise me given the recent run,” he said. “It’s just sad, really. In the 90s, we were probably the best team never to win a trophy. We blew a 12-point lead in the title race in 1996 and then lost two Cup finals, but Arsenal won the Double in 1998 and United went on to win the Treble in 1999. We came up against the best teams in the country each time.
“Those days are gone and nobody expects Newcastle to challenge for the title now. The fans are fed up, they want to see the back of Mike Ashley and just want a team to be proud of. But it’s hard to see anything changing as things stand.”
For Hurst, nothing will change until Ashley sells the club.
“It would be absolutely massive for Newcastle to win something,” he said. “It would re-energise the club and the city, but I think it needs Ashley to go first. Once that happens, the positive momentum that would generate would see Newcastle have the ability to be successful, very quickly.”
1927. The last time Newcastle won the league, everything was in black and white… pic.twitter.com/S6cCXj5sy9
— Mark Ogden (@MarkOgden_) January 1, 2020
As of now, though, the responsibility for ending the long trophy drought rests with Bruce, a two-time cup winner as a player with Manchester United and the man who guided Hull City to their first FA Cup final in 2014. Even on the day he was appointed manager at Newcastle, Bruce insisted he would treat the cups differently to his predecessors.
“We got to the FA Cup final at Hull and if you ask the supporters what their biggest day was, getting into the Premier League or getting to the FA Cup final and they’d say the final,” he said. “Surely, as a club, we can win five games? If the draw is kind to you, like it was at Hull, that’s got to be an aim. It’s not just about staying in the division and being happy with that — that would be wrong.”
In The Strawberry Pub, behind the Gallowgate End at St James’s, faded memorabilia from Newcastle’s past glories hangs on the walls. There are pictures from the three FA Cup triumphs during the 1950s and a framed shirt from the 1927 title-winning team. Everything is in black-and-white. But nobody expects the walls of The Strawberry to be updated with a colour picture of a Newcastle captain lifting a trophy anytime soon.