True Faith Interview

Ahead of Monday night’s game against Newcastle United – one of those fixtures that always feels like a ‘proper’, traditional English game in the best sense – we had a few words with Michael Martin, head man at the consistently excellent True Faith fanzine.

If you are interested in having a look at their fanzine, and it really wouldn’t do you any harm at all, then have a little butcher’s at their website.

Anyway, let’s get this thing rolling.

 You lot used to be shite. What happened?

And before we were shite, we were quite good. So let’s take it from the top.

Sir Bobby Robson had done a great job with us (we’ve played loads of Champions League games) but was in his last stages of management and we needed a succession plan. Remember when Liverpool invited Gerard Houllier into the boardroom, gave him a big glass of brandy and thanked him for his efforts and sent him on his way with Benitez in the wings? Well, you might not like me saying it, but that was good management of the type they were known for.

Freddie Shepherd made some kind of crack about not wanting to be the man who shot Bambi and instead treated a good man appallingly. He signed players behind Robson’s back and made a nonsense bid for Wayne Rooney – something I have my own libellous opinion about. He then sacked him with all the decent managers taken.

Despite being only two bad results away from the sack at Blackburn Rovers, Graeme Souness was appointed as Newcastle United manager. There is some competition, but he is probably the worst manager in the club’s history. His man-management of players was desperate and his signings were a scandalous waste of mone. Celestine Babayaro, Jean-Alain Boumsong, Amdy Faye – all utter shite.

Just ask the average sentient Mag what they think of the Boumsong signing: a free transfer to Rangers from Auxerre in the summer and £8.5m to United in the January. Hmm.

He probably had no say in it but we also signed Michael Owen on his watch, and he is the biggest cunt we have ever had on our books. I could go on but I’ll stop here. Souness had to go. Shepherd tried to get Martin O’Neill, who is apparently a notorious ditherer but probably made the right call in not taking over at St James’ Park.

Shepherd then turned to Glenn Roeder, a managerial failure at West Ham but ex-club capo who was well liked and had led us to a never forgotten romp at the Stadium of Shite when, despite playing poorly from start to finish, we managed to beat the Mackems 4-1. And that is just about the most fun you can have with your clothes on.

Inevitably, Roeder didn’t deliver and Shepherd’s parting gift to us ahead of the Mike Ashley takeover was to appoint Sam Allardyce as manager. His football philosophy was never going to win friends on Tyneside but in one mad summer Ashley allowed him to sign shite players on huge salaries. Mark Viduka, Alan Smith, Geremi, Claudio Cacapa, Joey Barton (he had one decent season in four), David Rozehnal – all on top dollar and all absolutely rotten.

Allardyce only lasted to Christmas before he went out the door. And then the really mad stuff started.

Back came Kevin Keegan, a good manager – don’t believe the shite from snide journalists – who is loved on Tyneside for his exploits as a captain and his previously spell in charge. However, Ashley had a different role for him and it wasn’t one that was at least clear to our ex-number seven, as was proven in a court of arbitration for sport.

In came the odious Dennis Wise as Director of Football and it was time to light the blue touch paper and retire.

A staggering relegation followed that should never have happened with the players we had on the books but there you go, it did. Following that, having failed to sell the club, Ashley hasn’t got many of his decisions wrong. I was flabbergasted when he sacked Chris Hughton but Alan Pardew is much the better manager.

Likewise I was heartbroken when he sold Andy  Carroll but now that looks like a staggeringly good piece of business. I was also gutted when Kevin Nolan left but Yohan Cabaye is better and Cheik Tiote, Demba Ba, Pappis Cisse, Hatem Ben Arfa and SylvainMarveaux are massive improvements on the players they replaced.

By common consensus the relegation actually did us the world of good. The real shitty arses like Damien Duff, Owen, Viduka and Obafemi Martins did the off and the squad that remained had a good spirit and that has continued to be the case. We were top of the old Division Two for all of the season, got used to winning again and came back up with a good bond between the players, manager and supporters.

It won’t last.

Not so long ago there was a lot of militant anti-Ashley feeling – what’s the mood like now?

I think people are still suspicious. I know I certainly am. But there isn’t the outright hatred that was prevalent in 2008/9, and that’s healthy. There is also a grudging respect for some of his achievements.

We aren’t the financial basket case we were becoming under Shepherd and Sir John Hall and but for his interest-free loan of over £100m we would be in the box marked Portsmouth FC.

He has a plan, which is a novelty at Newcastle United. I support it but at times it is unduly inflexible and so the last window saw us with a net spend of less than £3m and I doubt all the Carroll money has been spent yet. That’s fine, but the squad is thin in vital areas.

Fair play to Ashley, United is more affordable now than it ever was under Shepherd and Hall and he has done some good deals, rewarding loyalty for longstanding season ticket holders.

 Similarly Alan Pardew didn’t seem a popular appointment. Has he proven people wrong?

He has. He does have an image problem in that people presume him to be a cockney wide-boy type which didn’t endear him in these parts, but his backstory is one where he’s had to scrap for everything he’s got.

He did the non-league thing into his mid-20s, and though he may have made a few mistakes at West Ham but here, where the grapevine is on steroids, he has the respect of people who have been around the club for years and who recognise a very hardworking manager with a good eye for detail and an astute tactical brain.

Putting in Sir Bobby’s first-team coach, a Geordie, John Carver, as his number two was a really wise move.

Who knows if we’ll have the same success this season as we did last, although that seem unlikely given the strains of Europa League football and not strengthening the squad in the summer.

My own view is that if we finish in the top ten we’ll have done well.

Graham Carr is portrayed in the media as an almost mythical, genius figure. Is that overplayed slightly?

Of course it is. When we signed Tiote from FC Twente he was genuinely an unknown player but Cabaye certainly wasn’t, he played Champions League football for Lille, the French Champions, and should have been well known to pundits and those in the game.

That the Match Of The Day lot said ‘no one knew anything about him’ says more about them than Carr’s genius. That said, he did spot Ben Arfa’s talent and recognise that he’d be perfect for us. Likewise Marveaux, David Santon and Cisse.

United is run to the Moneyball concept it seems, and Carr has done really well, but he’s hardly the Obi Wan Kenobi of scouting.

I said in When Saturday Comes that Newcastle are almost an inspiration to everyone – in that they have shown that even when things look totally bleak they can still turn around almost in an instant. Is that fair?

Well, it could be but never forget, Newcastle United has incredible support and that helped the club’s recovery beyond description. We are the club with the record highest gate to be relegated and the highest to be promoted. The support never abandoned the club to any great degree.

Newcastle United is a just and righteous cause: a big regional club with possibly the strongest identity of any in the country and that unity helped the club massively.

That and Ashley underwriting our losses in the tens of millions.

Cisse grabbed almost all the headlines last season – who are some of the other players who deserve credit for how you performed?

The most important player at Newcastle United is Fabricio Coloccini. The best central defender I’ve seen in a black and white shirt in 40 years. Granted, that’s damning with faint praise but no mugs get called up to the Argentina national squad.

Tiote is also great. He bullied the Manchester United midfield to such a degree last season that I was resigned to Sir Alex Ferguson signing him for daft money in the summer.

Cabaye is a lovely footballer and Ben Arfa is a good enough reason to buy a season ticket.

Really though, the whole first team squad has a tremendous spirit and that’s down to the manager and his staff.
On a slightly different note, Alan Shearer is rightly a massive hero in Newcastle in terms of what he did as a player. How is he viewed in terms of what he’s done since?

Well, it’s painful to watch his punditry and I’m probably now relieved that he didn’t get the United job as his view of games is so one-dimensional. Then again, Souness is a great pundit and he was an appalling manager. And prick.

Shearer does an incredible amount of work for charity, e.g. the NSPCC and the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation and he’s just launched his own Alan Shearer Foundation that supports children with disabilities in the North East.

He’s very prominent supporting good causes and his benefit game saw every penny donated to charities that have done some good things locally.

I’ve met him a few times and he’s a good bloke once you get over his whole Alan Shearerness.
Finally, how is the fanzine doing?

Very well. We were on a shortlist of six for the FSF’s Fanzine of the Year which was encouraging as we’ve never bothered with that stuff previously.

Sales are steady and they have gone up every season we’ve been running. We seem to have our own niche.

We’ve just given the website a lick of paint which seems to have gone down well and we are doing a podcast and a video blog now as well as the whole Twitter, Facebook and forum things. We also  run transport to away matches.

The main thing however is the printed fanzine. We will publish our 100th issue this season, just before Christmas, and I’m amazed where we are now from where we started in 1999. We really shouldn’t exist as everyone told me to start a website instead at the start, as the printed word was finished.

They were wrong.

I did miss the first flush of the fanzine boom in the late 1980s because my own circumstances didn’t allow me to get stuck in, but instead of seeing the number of United fanzines folding throughout the ‘90s as a sign they were finished I preferred to see it as an opportunity and happily we’ve stood the test of time.

Newcastle United could and does easily support two fanzines which are regularly published. We have a great bunch around True Faith who seem extraordinarily committed to what it’s about and nothing is ever too much for them, and that’s particularly true of our designer Glenn and web lad Sean.

We also seem to be the fanzine Sunderland fans hate the most and I really can’t tell you how enormously satisfied that makes me.