There were 20 minutes to go, and the game was petering out. In truth it had been from the beginning. My mate had left for more interesting pursuits – tax returns, perhaps, or sleeping. We’d been too late for tickets so I now found myself, surrounded by fellow supporters but alone, watching a desperately dismal Newcastle United performance at Shearer’s bar on the side of the ground. I was within and without, but very much wanting to be the latter.
Suddenly a touch from Hatem Ben Arfa, Newcastle’s Parisian midfielder, set the match alight. In receiving the ball from Yohan Cabaye, he flicked it between his own legs and in the same movement turned and ran, leaving Bolton’s Sam Ricketts contorted on the ground. For his next trick Ben Arfa knocked his toy the perfect distance beyond Mark Davies. Two brushstroke touches tempted Davies into a futile lunge – this wasn’t gentle teasing, it was outright mockery. David Wheeler, a brute of a tackler, stepped up to take control and clear, only to swing through the air as the black and white Merlin weaved past. Defensive partner Tim Ream was lost to the mesmeric sway of Ben Arfa’s limbs. The Frenchman waited until the last possible moment before applying the coup de grâce; with supreme Gallic nonchalance he nudged the ball past Adam Bogdan, Monet signing off on another masterpiece. You will not regret watching it now.
The happiness in that bar was so pure it should’ve been illegal and sold in eighths behind train stations. It is moments like these that we watch football for.
Fast-forward two and a half years, and such moments have been rarer than a pregnant panda. Ben Arfa has appeared infrequently for the club, often as a substitute, given 20 minutes to win a game having not played for weeks. My fantasy football trophy cabinet shows I’m no José Mourinho, but I would not imagine such sporadic appearances are conducive to, well, good performances and goals. Meanwhile off the pitch the fans suffer a whirlwind of mixed signals; manager Alan Pardew welcomes him back, but then their hero is overweight. He is dropped from the squad, but then we are told he is growing as a person. This contradictory tale reached a stop late on Monday night when, having not played for the first team since 12 April (a 17 minute substitute appearance) and without even a squad number for this year, Ben Arfa was loaned to Hull City for the 2014/15 season.
Football fans have long had an odd relationship with the media. They devour it like no other group in society – studying match reports, opinion columns and now twitter feeds for something to sustain or develop their knowledge, sharing videos of the latest goal or incident at the speed of a Barcelona passing drill. A truism in the tabloid industry is that a majority of readers check the first page and then go straight to the back for the sport (invariably football in the UK); a modern equivalent is the football takeover of trending topics whenever any match of note is happening. And yet it is not the media itself that they truly love – it is the game, the intricate movement of highly-trained sportspeople, the 30-yard screamer and the crunching tackle. Just ask Ron Manager. The media is the conduit for most of these memories.
Newcastle United are owned by retail billionaire Mike Ashley, a man whose reclusiveness is exceeded only by his riches. Under his stewardship not only has the club sold their best player in 3 of the last 4 years, but the magic and artistry that streamed so readily from Hatem Ben Arfa that day in 2012 has been extinguished. In recent times Ashley has restricted the flow of information from the club, whether by refusing interview requests from all comers or more perniciously issuing an outright ban to several local publications. Rather like Ashley’s own persona, NUFC is starting to resemble the Wizard of Oz – powerful over many, much discussed but never speaking the truth or allowing it to be spoken. That is among the more gentle of the potential comparisons; alarm bells should ring for anyone who believes in freedom of speech and information.
Many suspect Ben Arfa’s exclusion is financially motivated; as recently as Monday Lee Ryder, chief sports writer at local paper The Chronicle, tweeted of the ‘£2 million’ cost in wages if he had stayed this season. Some will claim the reasons for his descent involve the player himself; the weight stories are true, his attitude is wrong, his agent is causing trouble or St James’ Park just isn’t warm enough. They may be right, but the issue is that we do not know. And an organisation that issues dozens of public messages a day through their official website and social media accounts can’t find the space for one post explaining to the fans the troubled case of their favourite player. The dark truth is that this ultimately isn’t about Hatem Ben Arfa, manager Alan Pardew, or anyone involved in the football part of Newcastle United Football Club; it is about an immense business run by immensely wealthy men, who are showing sickening contempt for the people providing their wealth. ‘No-one likes us, we don’t care’ has been the chant of Millwall fans since the seventies, but it briefly expresses the attitude of those with power in football for those without. They don’t care because if people keep spending, they don’t have to care.
Newcastle United are the example with which I am most familiar, but make no mistake, this is occurring at football clubs around the country and world. The grotesque spectacle of #TransferDeadlineDay involves rumour, hypothesis and plain lies; keeping the fans confused so the wealthy can continue making their money. It would take the average UK earner well over 2000 years to make the £60 million Manchester United have just spent in transfer fees alone on Angel Di Maria – the figures are in truth too monstrous to properly consider. With this kind of finance involved at the top of the game, the very least those at the bottom of the pyramid deserve is honesty.
Hull City play at Newcastle on the 20th September, and although Ben Arfa is ineligible for this game you can be sure there will be a rousing chorus of his name from the home crowd. Mike Ashley will pay no attention to them. These most passionate and maligned of fans should pay a lot less of everything towards him.