Friday, January 30, 2009

Con Air going down in flames

Not too long ago, the Newcastle Jets were actually a good team. Last season, in fact, they were so good that they won the championship despite having Mario Jardel on the pitch for most of the season. Even though they'd lost their best player, the gifted Nicky Carle, to England. Gary van Egmond was the new golden boy of Australian coaches, overseeing his band of freewheeling youngsters as they scampered around the field, gleefully embarrassing oppositions with swashbuckling attacks and intricate passing moves.

Now, fast forward to January 2009. Newcastle, usually one of the more consistent sides in the league, have unravelled faster than the overpriced Ben Sherman cardigan I bought last year. They have finished the season in last place, on 18 points and with a goal difference of -18. Their best players (with the honourable exception of Joel Griffiths, at least for now) are abandoning Newcastle like rats from a sinking ship, even as the club prepares for its first ever Asian Champions League.

The situation on the pitch would be unacceptable for any club's supporters. Newcastle are playing like a team of human-shaped sea sponges. But that's not even the worst of it - their current dismal performances (the ridiculously poor 4-0 loss to Sydney on the weekend being the cherry on the cake) seem to be merely a symptom of a much deeper malaise. There is clearly something rotten at the Jets - even when they were playing well some of the club's business decisions seemed extremely poor. Trying to lure Stan Collymore, or signing Mario Jardel and forcing the coach to play him against his better judgement, for example.

Gary van Egmond's honeymoon seems now to be well and truly over. His team has dropped from best in the land to worst, over the past year. And he hasn't handled it very well, taking every opportunity to shift the blame for his team's woes onto his players, with Patafta, Zura and Hakansson all feeling the pointy end of the stick at various times. But the real highlight of van Egmond's season, for me, was dragging Pinto - a young player on his first senior team call up, who came on as a second-half substitute - off the pitch again in the last ten minutes against Adelaide. He defended the move by stating (incorrectly, in my opinion) that Pinto was "the worst player out there". Way to go, Dutchie. He should be a motivational speaker.

As they say, though, the fish rots from the head. In this case, that rotten fish head is local entrepreneur Con Constantine. Constantine has an undoubted love of football - he's pumped millions of dollars of his own money into keeping the game afloat in the Hunter region during the lean times. But he also has a reputation as somewhat of a megalomaniac, keeping a strong guiding hand on all aspects of the club. He's renowned for being extremely tight-fisted when it comes to money matters - you could probably fill an entire matchday squad with past players and staff that have locked horns with Con, often in courts of law, over pay disputes.

You don't become a multi-millionaire without being a bit of a prick, though. These sorts of things are often par for the course when wealthy businessmen own football clubs. One incident occurred recently that went well beyond acceptable behaviour, however, even for an autocratic football club owner. To cut a long story short, Constantine subjected a group of representatives from Newcastle's supporter groups to a lengthy, abusive tirade during which he threatened to throw one of them off a balcony. Their crime? Protesting against club management for Newcastle's diabolically bad season, during a match. Upside down banners, chants, that sort of thing. You can read a thread on the Jets supporter forum about the whole matter here.

Con's rant, during which he labelled the supporters 'worthless' and 'nobodies' and threatened to ban one for life for being a disloyal troublemaker, says a lot about the culture of the club. There seems to be an atmosphere of deep distrust between management, staff, and fans. And that's not a good situation. If you could do a TAFE course on managing a football club, the first thing they would teach you on the first day would be 'Respect the fans'. Healthy support is the lifeblood of a healthy club. I recently got FIFA 09 on my Wii (top game it is, too), and when you play in manager mode you get brownie points for saying nice things to the fans. Choose the 'throw them off the balcony' option and you don't do so well.

You have to feel for the Newcastle supporters, watching helplessly as their beloved Jets crash spectacularly back to earth. As I'm sure Otis Redding would have said had he not perished in a plane crash of his own, all they're asking for is a little respect from the men at the top.

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