Mercenary. It's the most damning indictment that fans, who live and die with the fortunes of their clubs, can make about a player. Think about it. If I said last year that Alan Smith sucked, I wasn't trying to impugn his character, just expressing my rational belief that a randomly chosen Tyneside 12-year-old could probably run circles around him.
But calling someone a mercenary is not about how good a player someone is. It's about how good a person he is. And with Demba Ba's move to Chelsea now signed, sealed, and consummated with two FA Cup goals on Saturday, that's exactly the tag many Newcastle fans have used to describe him.
Ba's Stamford Bridge move was punctuated by a harsh Luke Edwards Telegraph article which seemed to confirm every supporter's worst fears. Though Edwards took pains to put his treatment of Ba in perspective, he did say that "ultimately his teammates knew he was in it for himself. Trust has been eroded, replaced by suspicion and bitterness." Edwards also revisted the now-irrelevant issue of Ba's restoration to the club's feature striker, which eventually forced international teammate Papiss Cissé to an unfamiliar right wing position. It paints an utterly unsympathetic caricature of the departed striker. No doubt many would say that Chelsea fits him to the core.
Yet through the whole saga, from Ba's original move to the left wing in favor of Cissé, to the release clause drama of the summer, and his recent brilliance while Newcastle has suffered, I've done my best to put myself in the striker's talent-laden boots. And honestly, I can't help but find myself having done much the same.
First, outside of his dry spell at the start of 2012, Ba's record speaks for itself. Without his goals at the start of last season, Newcastle would have found itself much closer to this year's 15th than a Champions League-threatening fifth place. When he got cold, he was pushed to the wing to help feature the in-form Cissé, and often acquitted himself quite well. Sure, he complained - as did Cissé when treated identically by Alan Pardew in the fall. As much as Edwards portrays Ba as a divisive character, does he think that Pardew sticking with a faltering Cissé at the expense of a red-hot Ba would have been any less divisive? It's hard to fault the manager for featuring the striker who was playing well.
And shooting instead of passing to an open teammate? Flip on any match this weekend - or even head down to your local park - and you'll see the exact same thing. Selfish strikers are as much a part of the game as yellow cards. Cissé has been just as guilty as Ba on that front, as well. And if it's frustrating to see your leading scorer tee up a hopeless 25-yarder, it's even worse when a guy does it after missing a penalty.
The criticism of Ba comes down to a natural disconnect between athletes and fans, one that has worsened as sports have become global. When the club consisted of local lads who bled black and white, just like those attending the match do, some extra loyalty is expected. But it wasn't Demba Ba's dream to don the striped shirt and walk out to "Local Hero." For that matter, it wasn't Papiss Cissé's - or probably anyone else out there now except the Ameobi brothers. And given the short careers of professional footballers, which may turn out to be particularly true in the case of Ba, it shouldn't surprise when they end up finding better deals elsewhere and opt to take them.
Obviously, the three of us aren't around in the locker room to watch the proceedings. (Though as an aside, a certain Derek Llambias - who isn't exactly known to hide his feelings while drinking among fans - vouched for Ba's character while chatting up my new pals in New York. So do with that information what you will.) But on the pitch, it was difficult to find fault with much of what the striker did in Newcastle colors. Although he wasn't my favorite player, Ba was instrumental to an absolutely unforgettable season for me as a fan. And for that, I'll remember him fondly.