The Story and the Plot: Why people like stuff that sucks

Spoiler alert: Some things suck. Objectively suck.

Wait! You shout. That’s just like, your opinion, man.

Well a smidgeon of yes, and a lot of no.

In any piece of fiction, there are some murky, ephemeral rules that define whether something is actually worth applause. I’m not going to get dragged into a slanging match about whether I’m right or wrong here, so please don’t take this personally. Creating good fiction is hard. It stumps otherwise excellent writers of anything else, be it journalism, blog content or recipes. Just as with food, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying a bit of junk food, but once you know how it’s made the meal can become either more appetizing or a little disgusting.

Ask somebody why they enjoy Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, whatever her names’ 50 Shades of Grey or something as dumb as Guardians of the Galaxy and they’ll often tell you that they are good stories. To other people, that is sacrilege. Nobody pisses on the altar of greatness! You can’t have that shit up there with Star Wars, Blade Runner, the Count of Monte Cristo or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

I’m gonna translate the theory behind this weird phenomenon, which I am going to dub ‘Why people like stuff that sucks’.


Point numero uno is that a story is not a plot. Why do you like Da Vinci Code, Grandma bumkins?
‘Well I like the story, he goes to france and unravels a plot, and there’s a painting and a big albino willy and-‘

Shut up Grandma, you don’t know what you’re talking about. That’s not the story, that’s the plot.

See, the plot is a skeleton. It’s a series of events, moments in a piece of fiction that tie back from end to front like a little breadcrumb trail of ridiculous moments. It’s the set pieces. Luke meets Obi Wan, leaves Tatooine, finds Leia. People can often fool themselves into thinking it’s this sequence that draws their attention, that it’s this that makes them continue.

As is often the case with people, they’re wrong. That’s not what it is even if they don’t realise it. No, the thing that keeps people pulling forward through fiction is the story. If the plot is a skeleton, the story is the weird ghosty that animates it. It’s the virus inside the zombie, the blood in the vampire, the booze in the hobo’s paper bag.


To put it bluntly, a story is the accumulated consequences of Characters saying things, doing things and thinking things. Then another character has something to say about those things, and he then does something in response. Before you know it, some big shit goes down and BOOM, people change. You ever had a friend who was cool, then he got a girlfriend, and you never see him anymore, and now he doesn’t play videogames anymore and just posts pictures of his cats on facebook and listens to ABBA and…Whatever, that guy is a dick.

Point being that your bumhole of a friend has undergone a change. He started out at A, and for reasons he doesn’t fully understand the things he wants in life have led him to B, and that’s just who he is now. In fiction, a story is that happening, several times with a half dozen or more characters.

50 Shades of Grey is not just about thumbs up the bum. That’s a big part of the popularity, sure. Twilight isn’t just about Vampires. In fact it’s barely about Vampires, and that isn’t the reason people like it. In both of these examples, you have an accessible and immediate window into how someone like you undergoes a change. They start out as prissy poppet pants nobodies. Because of events external to them, they start to do stuff. They talk about it some. Then they think about it. And more stuff happens. Then they change. They change in such a way that it makes the reader feel something, even if that character is a total ballbag. This emotional investment/payoff is called Catharsis, and it’s something that fiction has been built around invoking since we were clubbing each other with rocks and thighbones.

Oh! An important point which should never be neglected. Characters have WANTS and NEEDS.
These wants and needs tie deeply into what the story will end up becoming, because they are the driving forces behind what they say and do. This is true of villains and antagonists, too. A good hero/villain story only works if the wants and needs of a hero and villain mirror each other, like ying and yang. They have to complement each other’s flaws and virtues, their wants and needs tugging at the opposite spectrum.

Iron Man: WANTS to save the world. NEEDS to be seen as an all-round genius and savior.
Vader: WANTS to destroy the rebellion. NEEDS to bring Luke to the Dark Side.
Hamlet: WANTS to avenge his father’s death. NEEDS to avoid spiritual damnation.
Woody:  WANTS Andy’s affection. NEEDS to keep his animated nature a secret.


Ever seen a film where for seemingly no reason there’s a love story tacked on?
Do you think that’s because some studio exec said ‘The audience demands titillation!’

In some cases yes, in a lot of cases no. The most incomprehensible, baffling love stories in otherwise decent films or books exist because characters need not one story, but multiple stories. The assumption that people sit down and work forwards in a straight line is bogus. Anybody who has ever attempted to write a story will tell you that the hardest part is hitting a point where you think ‘Man, I have no idea what the fuck to do next’. They started with a cool idea- Vampires fisting personal assistants to start a race war, for example- then they hit the brakes, because that in and of itself doesn’t make things happen. It can’t move people from A to B, from place to place, without it looking artificial. So what do writers do? They give characters multiple stories. Because stories emerge from the interactions between characters, making two of them fall in love unexpectedly can create new scenarios for the writer to move the plot forwards. I’m not excusing this bullshit, I’m telling you how it works.


So we’ve got the doing and the saying and the thinking covered. This is where we converge Plot and story somewhat. The big turning points-the ‘Pivots’-should emerge from a character making a big fucking decision. Does Luke go to Cloud City to save his chums? Does Clarice Starling take Lecter’s advice? Does Simba take the easy road and stay the fuck out of Scar’s way?

Congratulations. You’ve just made a STORY and a PLOT move forwards in one fell fucking swoop.


The final caveat? People who know how to tell stories well can fuck all of this off from the get go. James Joyce? His books were about people realizing they’re heroic geniuses in a mythic, eternal kind of way. The plot? Man goes for walk around town. Man goes to University and realizes he hates his family.

Shakespeare was another. His plays were taken from older sources, nearly beat for beat. What made them different? That’s right, the fucking story! THE ACCUMULATED EFFECT OF CHARACTERS DOING, THINKING AND SAYING, AND OTHER CHARACTERS RESPONDING IN KIND. It’s just how we are wired. Blame the lizard brain.

Now go. Watch and read your bullshit, and analyze why you like it, then come back and tell me I’m wrong if you very fucking dare.

The Gaping Dragon and Pursuit by the Shadow

In recent months I’ve been haunted by a looming terrible thing. It occurred to me at the start of the year that this was realistically the last time I’d ever be able to look at myself seriously as a ‘young person’. As I experience a full orbit for the 26th time, I’ve felt under increasing pressure to do something. I have a great job, potentially a long and fruitful career ahead of me. I do, however, have a weakness. I can never be happy unless I’m coming up with ideas, concepts and things that chime with other people. Unless people listen to me talk and like it, or read words that I’ve arranged into neat little piles and come away from it thinking about something I cannot escape a feeling of having failed.

This isn’t a depression thing. I don’t have a problem with self-worth (evidently). It’s like my subconscious is awakening to the realms of being a full, card carrying adult. With SERIOUS THINGS to worry about on the horizon. I have friends who are getting married, having kids. My number 1 bro is wrapping up production on his third album. These orbits are getting faster, chief. If I’m not getting better I’m just getting old.

So while everybody is getting hitched, buying houses and pro-creating, I’ve decided to have a baby myself. This is going to be an evil baby. It’s going to be the kind of kid that freaks out the other kids in school. The kind of kid the teacher approaches with a cattle prod. I’m putting in the prep work, similar to how the rest of these chumps did behind closed doors as teenagers. Bashing out vignettes, 1000 word samples. I’m lubing up and expanding, for I am determined to deliver a mind-baby. Pure, unadulterated head nonsense, carefully arranged for the perusal of others. It’s going to be long and torturous, a barbed wire turkey baster process, but it’s going to happen. In the name of the old gods, it will be true.

When that’s done, I’m going to make a second one. Uglier, crazier perhaps. By the time that one is tottering off to torment others with scissors at school, I want a third one. And a fourth. See where I’m going with this?

We all have a talent, most of us multiple talents. Things that come naturally to us that others may struggle with. Thing is, those talents aren’t born whole. It’s hard to deny that there are people out there, freaks of nature with preternatural gifts who fart out success without thinking. Without caressing my own hoop too much, I’ve more or less sailed through the 25 previous orbits. I’ve had a few times in my life where I’ve genuinely had to work hard at something. I’ve always been the dickhead who sits around thinking about dinosaurs and ghosts while the others slave away in the library, about-par competence flowing freely as deadlines approach and the subconscious clamps down into survival mode.

As an adult, this shit does not carry. It’s true. There are too many mitigating factors, too many complications for this to go on forever. Other people catch up. Fat kids get muscles, stupid kids get glasses and dyslexia diagnoses and before you know it that puddle jumping autistic kid is landing satellites on UFOs. For me, writing is about slaying dragons. It’s about taking on huge, mental and metaphysical problems of my own creation and whittling it down with the blunt edge of a teaspoon. I regularly seethe with envy as I see others produce content, parading their own mind babies around, taking selfies with them, buying them ice cream. The internal pressure to create one of my own, to bully those little fuckers by proxy, is undergoing alarming entropy. Where is it coming from? Fuck knows. It’s seeping out from inside me. All of a sudden the thing that’s mattering most is measured improvement, output, the ability to finish something I’ve started and apply due care and attention.

So that’s where I am. I’m hunting dragons, chasing them across space and glaciers and deserts. I can’t stop and give up now, because an evil shadow looms behind me. It watches me pursue from the horizon, with a frowning look that I recognize from teachers that hated me from times gone by, it wants to tear me down and prove to the world once and for all that I am a perennial fucker-abouter and abandoner of dreams. It knows my inner fears. It can taste the dread of waking up on my nth dozen orbit and choking on my own tears, tears of laziness and unfulfilled promise and a talent wasted.

Right now I’m back to the starting blocks. I’ve coughed up bits and bobs of half-arsed wordmongery too lackadaisically, too sporadically. I’m definitely, CERTAINLY turning this shit around and making it a thing.

We’re approaching thirty days. I have around 25000 words of middling bullshit to show for it. It’s highly probable that this will help me achieve precisely nothing in the short term, but I recognise myself that it’s getting better. Some days are hard, others easier. I am the captain of this sentence ship, and we’re sailing toward the magical land of publishing. Mileage may vary. I may be getting older, more stretched, flabbier, rustier. I’ll only be truly fucked if I neglect to get better.

The Family

Dig, if you will, a picture.

A man stands at the head of an organization. The organization itself is woven with the dreams and aspirations of ordinary people, from every corner of the earth. The man assumes total power and control, exercises patronage, rubs shoulders with political titans and signs off the blueprints of the financial canals that siphon off a river of hot cash.

He raises petit criminals to grandeur. He promises the moon to undignified, backwoods crooks in far flung forgotten lands. He garners immutability and respect with unswerving loyalty. He is untouchable. Operating outside of the rule of law, he anoints his congregation and produces licenses to print money. He talks of his business as a family, an inbred hodgepodge of ne’er do wells, failed or potential despots, grasping bastards ankle deep in the trough.

Nobody can do anything about it, it would seem.

There are many comparisons that can be made to rotten orchards of history. Some would compare this man to a Pope, or a Dictator. The curious nature of this stateless, untouchable font of glory has the ring of the Catholic Church. The church of the Borgias rather than the Church of Pope Francis. A Robert Mugabe level despot, canny enough to avoid the trappings of full blown Napoleonic Idi Amin madness. The man is akin to the descendant of a Muslin or Mongol warlord, bulldozing his way into the status quo of Asia and Africa, dangling the keys to celestial bliss in one hand and the scythe of unbidden wrath held with subtle threat in the other. He’s an absolute monarch in a hereditary line, his position a means of life support so much as power. He is possibly the greatest of his stock, a Habsburg tree of geriatric fiddlers and takers.

He is the conductor of an orchestra of bad men, the worst men. He’s an old school 18th century capitalist. He is the scourge of ordinary workers and is a pied piper of death, drawing in the vulnerable to third world countries and working them half a dozen feet into the ground.

True to the tyranny playbook, he silences all opposition. His charisma and candor smear him in WD40. He wriggles and slithers and squirms his way out of seemingly insurmountable traps. He sets up secret courts and bestows extra-legal justice. With a smile and an energetic gesticulation he waves away criticisms, safe in he knowledge that he is beholden only to the will of his electorate. His electorate is the gaggle of thieves and confidence tricksters too dumb and ineffectual to ever make their way in politics proper. Nobody else has a say in whether the man stays or goes. He exists to protect but also to smear. Upon his desk is a box, within it a Santa Claus list of who is naughty or nice, the deeds of evil men writ large in black ink.

The man is emblematic of the stuttering of progress, yet also he is a beacon of growth. He has presided over unimaginable global corruption and siphoning of funds, yet he has also overseen the booming of a global religion. He has not only changed the product which all else relies upon; he has made it.

He is such a benefactor that world leaders entrust the careers of their sons and daughters to his patronage. He brokers deals and stands above and beside global conflict, centuries old antagonism. He soothes the pain of old style colonialism with the medicine of old style colonialism. His lackeys lap it up none the less. They speak in the language of brown envelopes. It is a hypnotic dialect and it blindsides better men. When that will not do the collective force of the organization can bring its influence to bear, its entropic tentacles closing like a vice on enemies ordinary and august.

Such an organization, bound as it is with the glue of dishonesty, ruthless grasping and astonishing bare faced incompetence is a relic of antiquity. It is a monument to Roman politicking of the ailing Republic, a throwback to the oldest rackets of history. His hagiography is real and flaunted with cringing, ancien regime levels of self awareness.

The man divides and conquers his opposition. His bedfellows are evil, unscrupulous and powerful way beyond their merit. Despite this there are millions of voices praying and deifying his every move, sucking and pleading and begging for the right to continue bathing in the waters of influence and affluence.

Despite this, the end times may be upon the man. His choir has been infiltrated and some of the members ensnared by bigger gangsters with a more serious mandate. He will never be removed by his own; he has detailed maps of the killing fields. Let us hope they are out-mobbed.

The Dead Cat

Getting people to do what you want them to do is difficult. Whether it is selling a product, trying to get laid or setting people against each other or squirming out of trouble, your mission is fraught with danger from its very inception. The brightest minds in the world can form intricate plans and pathways, but nothing is ever guaranteed, and there is one aspect of all of these things that has been true for all of eternity and shall forever be. In order to get people to do what you want, or to decide what you want them to decide, you have to control a conversation.

You’ll see it around you every day. At work, at school and at church. At home with the spouse, in the car with the kids. Your power and influence over others is directly linked to your ability to control the story. Controlling the story is the most difficult part.

It is generally accepted that the rule of Strategy over Tactics is paramount. Your strategy is your story, and your tactics are the methods with which you keep to it. This is why when you lie, you spend extraordinary effort in keeping the changes to the lie minimal but believable. The lie has to be malleable without stripping away the integrity of the story.

In the world of politics, this is the lifeline of any campaign. When one person is competing against the other, invariably their success is drawn from which of them is telling the story that the other is reacting to. This battle over the control of the strategy is a long drawn out, bloody cockfight. Pecking holes in the story is one thing, a trap that is subtle and engrossing. The big boys, however, turn the tables and take control of the narrative by eschewing it completely. This is known as ‘the Dead Cat’.

Boris Johnson, cunning and false buffoon cum-Bond villain that he is, illustrated it excellently in an article penned for the Telegraph.

“Let us suppose you are losing an argument,” opined Boris Johnson earlier this year.

“The facts are overwhelmingly against you, and the more people focus on the reality the worse it is for you and your case.

“Your best bet in these circumstances is to perform a manoeuvre that a great campaigner describes as ‘throwing a dead cat on the table, mate’.”

The key point, says my Australian friend, is that everyone will shout ‘Jeez, mate, there’s a dead cat on the table!’; in other words they will be talking about the dead cat, the thing you want them to talk about, and they will not be talking about the issue that has been causing you so much grief.

It’s something that comes naturally to humans, even when they’re still toddling. In any online discussion, there are those pleading whataboutery in comment sections. Distraction is a survival mechanism, but it is also a deft tool. The art of politics is the art of controlling your external environment, something which affects us all directly, for we do it in every aspect of our lives and in every interaction we take part in.

This is why honesty comes as such a burden to politicians. There are dead cats, everywhere. Opening your mouth could strangle another, unless the ramifications have already been planned out in full.

The lesson is not necessarily how to deploy the Dead Cat. The important thing to learn is how to react to it. Mastery of the Dead Cat will carry you through your career. It’ll win you the hearts of friends and lovers, and it may even get you elected.

The Force

In human history there are a handful of stories that have been passed down to us through time. Some are so old that we can never be certain whether they were written by a single human, like Homer and Aesop. Some have laid the groundwork for religions that have lasted the fall of recorded history, and then built new worlds from its pieces. In the early 20th century, a man named Joseph Campbell sought to find a common root throughout all of them. What was it about certain stories (for they are undoubtedly stories) that resonates so deeply with so many people? How can the imaginations of ordinary people outlast the recorded activity of Kings and Princes, of whole empires risen and destroyed by whordes of nations. How can such human scarring become forgotten when such nonsense exists?

Joseph Campbell stood on the shoulders of the Golden Bough. The Golden Bough, written by James George Frazier, was a modernist attempt at fusing psychology  anthropology and sociology into a map of myth and religion. It tried to give rational explanations for why certain people believed certain things, and how the stories had came to fruition. Smart people had begun to assume that most any story has it’s roots in something that actually happened. An archaeologist found the ruins of a city, and the academic community are convinced that he actually found Troy. It began to seem that if you looked hard enough you could find almost anything from the world of Myth. People still look for evidence of King David and Solomon’s mines, Noah’s Ark, the site of Atlantis. Joseph Campbell disagreed. He posited that there were plenty of stories that could never be substantiated through any kind of archaeology, but he did have an answer; the Monomyth.

The Monomyth is a theoretical framework for all of human story telling. Campbell believed that there were various stages of a three act myth that every story owed at least something to.

He broke down the famous myths of every culture, and applied his thinking to them, and proved that there was a direct link between early religious worship, fiction and the conscious awakening of humans as Adults. The way we tell stories is a hangover from the earliest days of humanity, a journey dreamed by the ghosts of early examples of men becoming boys and girls becoming women. It is a metaphor for life itself, and the setting and rising of the sun. The Monomyth is powerful and scientific, drawing upon the works of the psychologist Carl Jung. Campbell took Jung’s idea of the collective subconscious and presented that as the canvas for which the reoccurring tropes and figures of storytelling emerge. He achieved mild notoriety, and would sire future generations of story tellers. His work would be taken up by Disney and used as a tutorial for how to make a good story. As such Campbell’s shadow looms large over us all; he is the architect and root cause of adoration for a great deal of our childhood movies.

George Lucas was a student when he first came across the work of Campbell. He began his days in college studying literature, sociology, anthropology and history. He understood something primal about story, and the history of man. After he graduated, he found the vessel through which he would follow in the footsteps of his mythological forbearers. Lucas was trying to become the best film maker that history had ever known. He was talented, daring and very modern. His alumni included Stephen Spielberg, and he became good friends with Francis Copolla. He wanted to exploit advances in technology to return film to spectacle. Like Stephen King, he grew up on dirty B Movies and and the animatronic terrors of Harry Harryhausen. He was an alumni of the school of Buck Rogers. The film that brought him to attention, THX-1138 was not a commercial or critical success. It was an interesting take on an ancient film trope, a throwback to Metropolis. His next film, American Graffiti, legitimised him. It made more money than people had thought it might, and Lucas was given the chance to make the film that he really wanted to make.

Lucas was a Sci-Fi nut. He wanted to make Flash Gordon but couldn’t get the rights to the characters. He became a scholar of Science Fiction, tracing a path back to the earliest piece of writing that he felt was truly SciFi. He wrote a treatment and tried to sell it. After being famously passed on by a great deal of executives, 20th Century Fox eventually gave him a deal and set him to turning the dream into reality. Lucas recognised the poison that corrupted so many Sci Fi efforts, and decided that the premise of Science Fiction being of the future was fundamentally wrong. The SciFi stories that turned Lucas on were those that were truly alien, and not a prophecy of mankind in the millenia to come. They were fantasies with technology, Tolkien in space. He was enamoured with another film from Japan, the Hidden Fortress, which gave him the basic three act structure of rebels destroying the base.

Lucas struggled to write something that made sense to those around him. He began by creating a pantheon of characters and scenarios, then tried to thread it all together, discarding some and locking up others to be used decades later. Through trial and error he was telling a myth. The writing wasn’t coming easy, and the inundation of so many brand new peoples and races and worlds and factions caused problems. Lucas looked for solutions, and after a time returned to Campbell. This time, Campbell took root in George Lucas’ soul.

Lucas applied the Monomyth and it all began to fall into place. He reached into the vault of characters and nouns and sprinkled them over the Monomyth, turning Hidden Fortress in space into a timeless, universal framework. To this day the degree of empathy that people feel for the characters of Star Wars is unparalleled outside of religion. Star Wars is something that lives on inside an unthinkable number of people, it’s tropes and archetypes imbued upon the human consciousness. George Lucas wasn’t a great writer. His dialogue is famously strange and riddled with poor technical understanding. He was instead a vessel for the Monomyth, a C3P0 programmed with the shared emotions and memories of all humans alive and dead.

Star Wars centres around religion and mysticism. The Force is the glue that hold’s the monomyth of Star Wars together. The Force was Lucas’ application of the eastern lessons of the monomyth. It is now a religion in the real world, with enough people seeing more resonance in it than in other religions that thousands answer a census with it as their religion. The Force is a metaphor for the shared experience of the monomyth, and it’s ability to chime with the souls of so many people.

The Game Itself is Irrational

Mike Ashley’s reign at Newcastle United is hitherto unforeseen in British Football.

It’s unconventional in many ways. In an age where an endless lake of money enlarges year on year, placating the terrible business decisions made by many clubs in a bath of hot cash, Ashley has done what many thought was impossible.

He has, through trial and error, imposed his vision of a football club ran like a business on the world stage. This is no mean feat, and his success in doing so reveals many truths of the game which hold true for time immemorial. The game itself may change, but at its very core it lives or dies in servitude to some tribal, mythical tenets:

1) The game transcends the rules of our everyday lives

2) The game itself is irrational

3) Football is tribal

4) Competition matters

Football at its heart is a profoundly irrational game.  Football took root in global societies at a time when Religion was at the beginning of its western decline. Developed societies, industrialising societies, began to switch their communion from the church. They stumbled upon something equally as arbitrary, but far more grounded and verifiable. Football has, over the centuries, captured the imagination of an incredible number of people on the planet. It is its own religion, and it is as justifiable and ludicrous as any other religion. Your denomination is a core part of that experience

Money has long been a part of football. The sport’s popularity was one of the most immediately obvious opportunities of Edwardian England. Teams were visited by tens, hundreds of thousands, because there was simply nothing else to do that was so captivating, communal and inspiring. Before the English codified games, they had a rich history of equal attendance at executions. That St James’ Park is a ground built in the shadow of a Gallows is not an irony lost to history, and indeed the future.

The commercialisation of football has progressed to such a point that the average football fan is often priced out of supporting a club to his fullest desire. Football, like Religion, acts as a cash vacuum. Its inherent irrationality infects us and poisons many a decision. In what other walk of life would we be so blind to truths? In what other ideology, would we find such a willingness to stake claims to the ground and defend them with our very honour? The commentors who view the game as, at best, a sport, often snub and deride those who cannot help but feel that there is a depth to football that invites complex devotion. Other sports have similar scenarios, but globally football is an almost inexplicable success. Its simplicity is astonishing. It is a true meritocracy; war children can become of the richest men on the planet. No other walk of life allows for such equality of opportunity and financial reward.

So how is it, then, that so few Football clubs would survive under the conditions of any other business?

Make no mistake, many circles out of society outside of Footballers and Football Clubs benefit from the never ending merry-go-round. It provides enough intrigue, politics and gossip to consume the average human. We are inundated with reports of enormous, unthinkable sums of money being reported as revenue from the world’s biggest clubs. Manchester United, Real Madrid, Barcelona incomes are higher than that of the majority of the world’s countries. Despite this, there is very little hard profit reported outside of the top echelons. Of all the top clubs who are ran as a business interest rather than a collective of fans, Arsenal stand proudly as an example of how to modernise a truly ‘big’ football club. Arsene Wenger’s relative success over the years following the opening of their incredible new stadium has paid down the burden, and they are finally beginning to take advantage of the promise of a sustainable pool of money big enough to entice the world’s biggest stars. Arsenal, in their own way, still pursue a bargain.

 However they now have the muscle necessary to beat away contenders for the deals which they deem worthy of sanction. 

The usual situation in modern British football is that success is provided on gilded plates by obscene and gross benefactors.  Each fan of a run of the mill club wishing for the resurrection of former glories secretly yearns that they, like Manchester City or Chelsea or indeed Blackburn may be chosen for arbitrary reasons by incalculably wealthy aliens to be used as a weapon that projects unspeakable greatness. That is the promise of football. It is an instrument to win the devotion of a ridiculous number of fellow humans, and perhaps that is why so many people, having experienced unparalleled success in business, find that owning a football club is anathema to their instincts and experience. The game’s irrationality is both seductive and insurmountable, unless the celestial dice gifts you that one part that can transcend the whole, or perhaps multiple; such things tend to happen in football.

It was known for some time that a big football club chasing after glory was a money sink. Those teams of English football that had always traditionally hovered around success were kept away from the top table, reserved for those teams who finished high enough to play European football the next season. To compete, it was long thought, to really entice the top players in other teams in other countries to enjoy you, you had to offer them a place on the world stage. If you couldn’t give them the opportunity to prove their merit, and be reimbursed proficiently, on the biggest stage of all then what hope had you to supplant the teams above you? Experiments in developing more English footballers began to reach diminishing returns towards the turn of the century. Now we are left with no world class footballers, and the generation coming through next do not look to be able to plug the gap between us and the rest of the world.

Then, there is the inescapable reality of football, for most of the clubs, being financial poison.

The gamble is this; there are untold riches, success and unbuyable folkore to be won by investing, yet the inherent irrationality of the game outweighs any attempt to successfully predict success. In the late 90’s and early 2000’s famous football clubs, like Leeds United, succumbed to the inevitable financial castration that has not, as of yet, been repaired. The promise of incredulous money drove men to make incredulous decisions based on hunches, guesswork and lucky feelings, and so very many English football clubs are now Zombies, fighting constant wars against impending financial foreclosure. 

Newcastle United was such a club. English Football’s sleeping giant, Newcastle were the best team in the country in the 1900’s. Before europe was entertained seriously, Newcastle and their rivals Sunderland were two of the very biggest clubs in English football. Financial mismanagement severely gimped their opportunities in the decades following the second world war, but both clubs had enormous, irrationally big fanbases. The attachment to the two clubs, to their very communities, was closer than in most clubs of the country. People in the North East took football very seriously. More England international footballers have been born in County Durham than in any other part of the country.

Newcastle in particular, was something of an opportunity. Newcastle had a resurgence in the 90’s, rising up from near financial doom and relegation certainty to challenging for titles in the new Premiership. Newcastle became famous for playing attacking football, and became the nation’s second favourite side in two ill-fated title attempts that ended in misery, resignations and the floating of the club as a public company.

Newcastle had been plucked from relative obscurity by Margaret Thatcher’s favourite businessman, John Hall. Hall was a proud native of the North-East, and saw opportunities for commercial gain and a restoration of regional pride with Newcastle United. He took resources given thanks to his pre-eminence in industrial affairs and put them to work in buying success for Newcastle United, rightly believing that the region would be economically and spiritually enriched in the aftermath. Close ties with the local media further cemented the myth of Newcastle United as the people’s pastime; the problem being, these things were not strictly a myth, and were deeply rooted in reality.

During a time of economic improvement and the beginnings of the end of decades of degradation on the banks of the Tyne, John Hall provided the people of the area with a reason for genuine optimism. The difference it made was startling, and resonates sadly in the current time as an echo of an opportunity. The near success eventually gave way to incomprehensible decline. Newcastle floated as a public business, shares primarily held by John Hall’s family and the Sheperds. In time John Hall would step down as chairman, and would bequeath a frittersome financial strategy to two far more incompetent inheritors. Freddy Sheperd rose as the foremost voice of the controlling mechanics of Newcastle United, and tried to spend his way through mismanagement, poor decision making and incompetence, driven by the dream of being adopted as a local hero and being handsomely recompensed as he lived it.

During this time Blackburn had spent their way to success, Leeds tried to buy their way to European and domestic glory and Chelsea, at the end, were bought by a very serious and determined man. Roman Abramovich commanded the mineral wealth of Russia, and took the example of Jack Walker to the next stage, turning a decent Premier League side into the talk of the world. The billionaire buy-up had begun.

Newcastle had never really progressed following the blunders when going public. They began to flirt with relegation, appointed Bobby Robson, saw relative success and a return to europe. The return to europe happened too soon. The money, at the time, was not enough to sustain repeat attempts at spending your way back once knocked out. The repeated gambles and needless spending eventually led to imposing debts. Newcastle had saw Leeds United fall into the abyss, and now it was tip-toeing up to the edge itself.

Enter Mike Ashley. A self-made sportswear entrepreneur, Ashley had become a billionaire during the public flotation of his sports empire, Sports Direct. Ashley’s competitors had failed to fully cope with the new realities of retailing in an internet age, and he went about picking his way to the top of the pile brand by brand. Divorced, unthinkably rich and fearless, Ashely decided to buy a football club.

After a brief period of shopping around, Mike Ashley approached Sir John Hall about selling his shares in Newcastle United. Not believing his luck in being able to shed the toxic asset of Newcastle, Hall cashed in before consulting with his hospitalised colleague, Freddy Sheperd. Sheperd’s profile and finances were dependant on Newcastle United, and Ashley believed that a quick sale would ultimately become a cheap sale. Incapacitated though he was, the sums offered made Sheperd see sense. He sold his shares to Ashley, and Ashley became the sole owner and benefactor of Newcastle United. Ashley would come to regret his haste; a failure to do due diligence severely compromised his ability to make decisions further down the line.

In the beginning Ashley decided to spend. He had inherited the newly hired Sam Allardyce, a man with a strong reputation in football and the kind of gentleman Ashley approved of. He had a reputation as a no-nonsense, rugged and modern coach. Ashley backed his man, and in the process spent a great deal of money furnishing Allardyce with players including Alan Smith, Geremi and Claudio Cacapa.

It didn’t take long for Ashley to realise he had made mistakes. Allardyce’s expensive purchases were burned into the conscience of the Newcastle owner, and the under performing Allardyce came under the spotlight. Ashley had bought a club as a plaything, and this man had spent his money and came back to him with dross. Allardyce would not last long, and would be sacked around christmas, having spent 6 months of at the helm of Newcastle. Allardyce would later take Ashley to court, and purchased a house in Spain with his winnings, christening it ‘Casa De St James’’.

Ashley sacked Allardyce, and appointed Keegan for a brief but successful second spell. The worm turned when Ashley began to try and control the costs associated with his club. He went behind Keegan’s back and sold James Milner, then sat on the funds and provided Keegan with obscure players thrust upon him by South American agents on the promise of better deals down the line. Keegan quit, Ashley was sent into a tumble of errors and one Joe Kinnear later Newcastle were relegated.

In many ways the relegation was a blessing for Ashley. He cleared a lot of the deadwood and romped to promotion the next season, his gamble in appointing Chris Hughton paying dividends. His low investment-high reward plan began to cement itself. In little over 3 years since relegation Ashley had, through considered procurement and alliances with football people he thought he could genuinely trust, began to produce results unthinkable in modern football. He managed a fifth placed finish too, in spite of his frugality.

Ashley’s history off the field is one dogged by decisions taken in full knowledge of the antagonism towards them. He chose to buy one of English football’s immutably passionate clubs, the ultimate sphere of irrationality, a place where hope and success could be no further apart. Gambling on the fan’s compulsion and emotional slavery towards the edifice on the site of the hangman’s brutal justice, Ashley has set a template which in future others will almost certainly follow. He has proved that it is possible to take a British football club and control the immediate world through sheer politics and unflinching fiscal oversight. In doing so, he has poisoned the well that the faithful drink from. Before Ashley, it was probable that Newcastle would die a death of administration. He has spared the club of that fate, and in doing so condemned it to a future of apathy, underinvestment, alienation and the queerest, most unsettling atmosphere in any ground in English football.

Newcastle United is bubbling over. The froth and jetsam are pouring out of the ground and trickling down the Westgate Road, washing away enthusiasm and localism. Newcastle was a special club, irrational and unsuccessful though it is. Ashley’s impossible success in financial terms should serve as a stark warning to those who wish for billionaire benevolence and financial security. So long as football becomes rational and scientific, it loses the unspeakable magic that draws in and enraptures otherwise well-minded individuals. Once that spell is broken, it cannot be cast again.