SDH 1v1: Ian Phillips Discusses “Toon Up!”

Here’s what it was like for Newcastle United to return to the top flight from a year in the Championship, thanks to the team their own selves…

As is the case in situations like this, it’s the story of Ian Phillips’ new book, “Toon Up!”

SDH asked Ian about everything Newcastle in putting this project from pen to paper…

  • First, what attracted you to doing the Newcastle story…???

Newcastle are one of the country’s biggest clubs and have been a sleeping giant for far too long. They haven’t won a major trophy for close to have a century but still attract crowds of 50,000 without playing at the top level. Such support after so many barren years is phenomenal and now with one of the world’s top managers in Rafa Benitez Newcastle have their best chance in many years of actually waking that giant.

  • Knowing how “difficult” it can be to cover the team sometimes with personalities like Mr. Ashley and Rafa, what was access like…??? Were there any restrictions to where you could go and what could be covered…???

Generally when any team is doing well there are fewer restrictions than when a club is enduring a difficult time and is therefore more sensitive to criticism.

2b) What is Rafa like in person for those who have never experienced that…???

Having handled the media in some of Europe’s most demanding places, Rafa Benitez has learned how to appear genial without giving much away on a week to week basis. Tactically he has shown himself to be extremely astute and while it would have been easy for him to walk away from the club when they were relegated he chose to stay and to his great credit has proved that he can be a success at a lower level as well as at the level he has been used to working at. To be comfortable outside his comfort zone is an indication of how good Rafa actually is.

  • For those in the States who may have only seen Newcastle on  television, what’s the atmosphere like and the fan base…???

In some parts of the country there are many teams close together geographically but in the north east of England Newcastle are one of two major clubs just a few miles apart  but divorced geographically and socially from the rest of the country. Football rivalry is extremely fierce in the north east of England. For many people their lives revolve totally around the club they support so the atmosphere can be truly incredible but it is not just while the game is on that people are obsessed with the club.

  • What was the most surprising element you discovered in writing the book…???

At any level of any sport one of the hardest things to achieve is a level of consistency. This is particularly the case for a club like Newcastle United if they are outside the top flight because virtually every other club raise their game against them. To realise just how consistent the team had been in the face of such a challenge was indeed a surprise.

  • Biggest misconception you got to clear up… whether it’s about players, the team, or the town…?

Many people believe that Benitez signed players just to win promotion and now that is achieved he will jettison them to being in higher calibre players for the challenges ahead. To some extent this will be true but not as much as people imagine because a number of players have earned themselves the right to be given an opportunity to play in the Premier League.

  • What does promotion “mean” since, it’s not something experienced in the American soccer pyramid…???

In English football there are 20 clubs in the top level Premier League. Every year the three teams who are the lowest ranked are relegated. This means that the following season they have to play at a lower level against poorer teams in usually poorer stadia, usually watched by smaller crowds and definitely with significantly lower income due to inferior TV deals.

The relegated teams are replaced by three teams from the league below who are promoted and therefore enjoy all the benefits of playing at a higher level, both sporting and financial benefits.

Under Rafa Benitez Newcastle have won immediate promotion which not many teams manage to do.

  • Is there any fear of being one of those yo-yo franchises…? Only good enough to win, but get sent back down…???

With Newcastle’s fan-base and with Benitez in charge this is highly unlikely although it is possible. As someone used to winning Benitez is expected to demand the funds to enable him to build a team who in future will be able to challenge for top honours rather than be involved in any more relegation battles.

  • With the recent news of the HMRC, is there any concern about what was achieved being taken immediately away…???

News of this was of course extremely unwelcome but any punishments – if the club are found guilty of any offence – would most likely be financial rather than sporting penalties.

  • Since this was a real-time project, was this easier or more difficult than a normal book-producing timetable…???

Writing books brings its own challenges but just like anyone going to work on a daily basis you have to be prepared to meet whatever challenges come your way so it wasn’t a problem – and writing about success is always easier than dealing with failure.

  • How do you think they’ll do next season in the Prem…???

This depends on how successful Benitez is in obtaining the financial backing he requires. In the multi-million pound world of the Premier League this requires monstrously large investment even to get into the top half of the standings, let alone into the upper reaches. Benitez is used to being at the top though and he will want to build for success not just survival.

  • What’s the next project on the docket…??? 

Who knows? If it’s a Newcastle project then maybe they might get that next major trophy before 2019 comes around and people are reflecting on it being 50 years since the club won anything of note! If anyone can do this it will be Rafa Benitez.

SDH would like to thank Ian for his time in writing a book in real time… A big ask…

But one that came out pretty well…

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