Relegation from the Premier League had initially brought despair to supporters of Newcastle United but it did not come as much of a surprise. Owner Mike Ashley and managing director Lee Charnley’s model of running the club had been failing to produce success for years, and at the time it seemed inevitable that Newcastle United would return to the second tier sooner rather than later.
The 15/16 campaign failed from the beginning as Steve McClaren proved himself to lack the leadership qualities to turn around the club’s fortunes, just as the purchase of a few players from the continent did little to correct years of chronic underinvestment. The club had been in a relegation battle for two of the previous three seasons, and under McClaren this was all set to continue. With ten games left to play, Rafael Benítez was offered the chance to save the club from impending relegation, and to the disbelief of Newcastle supporters he snatched up the job. The team’s downward momentum was however regrettably too strong for Benítez to counteract and in May 2016 Newcastle United found themselves relegated for the second time in seven years.
The most surprising news emerged a few weeks later: following talks with owner Mike Ashley, Benítez, assured that he would have final say on all incoming and outgoing players, decided to stay at the club through the Championship and the following few seasons. No longer would a Newcastle manager have to battle with upper management on every key decision. This was very significant, it signified the beginning of a new chapter in the Mike Ashley era.
At the time of writing, Benítez has seemingly transformed the club. Newcastle United have won the last seven league matches in a row, they are the current Championship leaders and are mostly a joy to watch. But although the Championship has brought success to the team, and optimism to the fans, it has also made it harder to see games, especially for supporters that do not live near the city. Those that were accustomed to the abundance of televised Premier League matches have initially had to settle with listening to the match on the radio or perhaps catching the odd replay on Sky Sports News.
Newcastle United supporters have however responded to the shortage of online streams by filming and sharing the games from the stands themselves. Most feeds are shot by smartphone and shared in real time via social media sites such as Facebook (by exploiting the new ‘live video’ option) and Periscope. These democratising feeds offer a peculiar experience to those familiar with professional broadcasts.
Often, the filmmakers become part of the action, responding and commenting on the events that unfold on the pitch. Camera-shake increases in direct proportion to the team’s performance, with each goal provoking up to a minute of convulsing. Supporters in front of the filmmaker intermittently obscure the picture, standing up to cheer on the players or gesture at the referee. And as replays are foregone, sometimes the action – a goal for example – is missed by the filmmaker forgetting to adjust the view. These broadcasts can therefore provoke anger, with comments urging the filmmaker to ‘zoom in!’ or ‘move it left man!’.
The handheld stream can occasionally feel closer to the direct of experience of attending a game. There are no alternative angles, no smooth zooms, no authoritative commentary. Football chants once dimmed by professional broadcasts are suddenly audible, every syllable in ‘Ritchie’s Magic Hat’ is now heard. There are even added elements of dramatic conflict. Stewards may try and disrupt filming, and so in some streams the filmmaker alerts us that he/she is being monitored and that the stream could be discontinued at any point.
But we are usually forced to watch the game from a position far from ideal, from the corner of the stadium or from directly behind the goal. Shot from a low angle, the activity of the game can become a pixelated mess, with only an occasional ‘Sports Direct’ legible on the screen. There are therefore limits to success of such streams.
Another form of the handheld stream is the one shot at NINE (formerly Shearer’s) Bar at St. James’ Park, often the only bar in the world that televises the match. Here, Mike Ashley has an absolute monopoly on the transmission of the game and so as the laws of supply and demand would determine, the bar is always packed and punters are usually coaxed into purchasing expensive pints through their inability to go elsewhere. This is the most successful handheld stream. Here the television is filmed by smartphone and broadcast by 3G or 4G to social media. While there are again no replays, alternative angles or commentary, the play is legible and its events are generally clear.
It was thought at the start of the season that St. James’ Park would enjoy a monopoly on the game and that this season would signal a return to the past, to the years before football games were available online for free. Newcastle supporters through their tenacity and determination to share the fruits of the game with the ticketless have so far proven such a notion mistaken.