This last week has been interesting in United have been out in the transfer market and signed (well, barring a disaster) AC Milan and Italian international, Sandro Tonali for a fee reported to be c.€70m. The recruitment of the highly rated midfielder has generated quite a reaction but it’s one we need to get used to.
We’ve signed players from the Milan clubs before – Pistone, Andersson and Martins – off the top of my head – but none of that trio triggered the response that has stretched from Lombardy to Longbenton as Tonali’s transfer has done.
It’s a transfer AC Milan fans (Milanista) have struggled to get their heads around and I understand why. If a club such as AC Milan can’t have a high opinion of itself then who can? The Rossoneri are genuine, nailed on, bona-fide European football aristocracy. They have 17 Scudetto (Serie A championships) and 7 European Cup/Champions Leagues to their name amongst other silverware and play their football in the iconic San Siro stadium. Baresi, Gullit, Pirlo, Kaka, Maldini … there is a roll call of superstars who’ve pulled on their famous Red & Black shirt. I’ll be honest, I’m a bit of a fan-boy.
They are a staple of the Champions League and in the last season reached the semi final before succumbing to their city rivals, Inter. They are without question one of the world’s storied clubs in a city which is one of the most famous football centres of football anywhere.
I won’t deny it but on my one and only visit to the San Siro (or Stadio Guiseppe Meazza to give its proper name) see United play Inter back in 2003, I was starry eyed entering the stadium AC Milan also call home. I wanted to draw them in the Champions League before we signed Tonali but I really, really want us to now.
I’ll confess a personal weakness at this point – I love Italy and my missus and I will take every opportunity to travel there and we’re suckers for its culture, food, architecture, climate, country-side and people – we adore the place. We’ve been in and around Milan several times and we’ll go back, me with a Geordie swagger in the knowledge our beloved Newcastle United is a name burned into the football sensibilities of the cognoscenti over there. Kielder v Garda?
Only a short while ago it would have been inconceivable for Newcastle United to go and take one of AC Milan’s best players. Add to that one of its best players who is also a supporter and a local raggazo.
For all I wear B&W goggles most of the time I can understand the bewilderment amongst the ranks of Milanista that Tonali could be tempted away from AC Milan by a football club which has been a stranger to success and is outside the areas of traditional football success in London and the North West.
The transfer has happened for several reasons. Number one is that structurally Italian football is falling apart at the seams. It is unrecognisable from the league it was in the ‘80s. When AC Milan was bankrolled by Silvio Berlusconi, they could take virtually any player they wanted and frequently did.
The Italian league is commercially moribund, TV deals are a fraction of what is provided to the Premier League and gate money is tiny to what English clubs generate. Our attendances are vastly superior. Despite its great tradition within the game, the stewardship of Italian football is abysmal – it is directionless and drifting.
That is why its clubs are vulnerable and it is how a club such as ours, upholstered financially by our new owners, can go there and take one of their star players. It explains why we could out manoeuvre Milan financially last summer when both United and they competed for Sven Botman’s signature. It is why a disillusioned club legend Paolo Maldini has walked away from his post as Sporting Director.
I’ve been entertained by the reaction of some Milanista online to the transfer and their frustration has led them to attack the Tyneside weather, British cuisine, NE countryside and the city of Newcastle itself.
The whole twitter furore descended into something rather unedifying as Judith Chalmers went all Italian Ultra on us. For what its worth nothing spat in our direction from the bedrooms of Milan’s self-styled tifosi wasn’t appropriate to any British city really. There’s nothing in every provincial city that isn’t in Newcastle. That’s just a fact. Newcastle has everything that’s in Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham … London is a different proposition but its not that its on the moon as opposed to 30 mins on a private charter from Ponteland.
Tonali is joining us to play football, not write a travelogue and he’s coming here because he believes his career and prosperity are better served at St James’ Park than the San Siro.
There’s a level of bitterness coming our way from Italy’s second city which I couldn’t have predicted two short years ago when Steve Bruce failed to get Choudhury on loan from Leicester reserves. But then I hadn’t expected the much maligned Rafa Benitez signing Joselu scoring winning goals for the Spanish national side and being signed by Real Madrid so these are heady days for Mags.
There’s now an edge coming from the massed ranks of the Rossoneri towards the Black & Whites of Barrack Road which speaks loudly of our rapid ascent into the consciousness of fans of the biggest clubs in Europe.
In recent months I’ve noticed a hardening of attitudes towards us from fans of those clubs who have enjoyed life further up the food chain to the place Mike Ashley ordained for us. It is far from scientific but having a look at the club’s twitter feed after the published interview with Chairperson Yasir-al-Rumayyan and there are followers of several different clubs piling in to snipe and sneer. I’ll be honest, I love it and treat it as affirmation we are definitely on the rise.
There is nothing more enjoyable than watching a middle-aged Irish Liverpool fan/You-Tuber getting teary-eyed about the growing strength of Newcastle United without any sense of irony whatsoever.
Fans of Man Utd, Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea et al largely ignored us when we were down amongst the dead men but are now closely following events at St James’ Park and forming opinions they feel bound to share with us.
This is the shape of things to come.
I had wondered what would fill the vacuum once provided by Sunderland and the regional spat we’ve had with them for so long. That had descended into what was widely described as two bald men fighting over a comb. It was a football argument the rest of the country found irrelevant. I’d started to resent it because it occupied too much head-space in the absence of the club being run properly and having no ambition beyond staying in the Premier League. I’ve never rated Sunderland as a serious, powerful football club (because they have never been one in my lifetime) and scrapping with them for “bragging rights” or whatever pointless bullshit they’re called was completely depressing. That we ended up unable to buy a win against them before their implosion just put the tin hat on the confirmation of how far Ashley had dragged our club down.
We’ve now gone six seasons without a fixture against Sunderland and given the targets United now has for itself set against their exile between League 1 and the Championship in that period, time and events have rendered that NE rivalry null and void.
Given how Sunderland is run, I don’t see them returning to the Premier League any time soon. If they were to creep up via a fortuitous play-off route I see little chance of them retaining PL status or progressing to trouble us at all.
While Mags endlessly discuss ways to extend St James’ Park to 60K, 65K, 70K capacities, Sunderland slap themselves on the back when they open parts of their stadium that have been closed for several seasons.
Without being silly, I’ll say Sunderland is a very well supported club and have a greater claim to be a sustainable Premier League club than more than half of those who are in it. But a large, passionate support is worthless if those running the club lack the wherewithal to do that – we know that only too well.
They have stopped being our rivals and the game with ‘Boro for them has far more meaning than any relationship they imagine they have with us. I suspect the more cerebral of their number realise that amidst the brooding resentment of the different routes we’re on.
Next season is going to be different for us. We are no longer a surprise package and when we visit every opposition ground in the country we’ll go there with the expectation of winning.
Opposing fans know that. We aren’t going to Old Trafford, Anfield etc with an inferiority complex and they don’t expect an easy three points. They’ll be up for it.
That will change the atmosphere inside those grounds and we can expect that will generate a greater degree of hostility to us off the pitch too. The fans of Arsenal, Chelsea etc will fear us and understand we are no push-over. All of that will translate to the stands and well, also to the national media.
We know some national journalists whose obsession and preoccupation with our ownership prevents them from reporting on us objectively. As we await the Champions League draw, sign more players so will the antipathy grow.
Who are our rivals now? Everyone from Milan to Manchester and I love it.
Keep On, Keepin’ On …
Michael Martin, @TFMick1892