The way Mike Ashley has run Newcastle United over the past ten years would sooner see him compared to Ebenezer Scrooge than it would to Santa Claus. But if the controversial sportswear mogul can wrap up, as planned, a deal to sell the club before December, there are few members of the Toon Army who would hesitate to call this a Christmas miracle.
News of Ashley’s intentions to find a buyer broke on Monday by way of a rare public statement made from his limited company St James Holdings, fostering fresh hope and optimism throughout the Geordie fanbase.
Former Arsenal and Celtic striker John Hartson was quick to try to temper their elation. He tweeted: “Mike Ashley to sell Newcastle. It’s financially a stable club; my thoughts are I don’t think he has ever felt appreciated… hence out!” Glossing over all the pitfalls of the Ashley era – two relegations, renaming the stadium and cronyism in boardroom recruitment to name but a few – the Welshman is currently the frontrunner for having the worst take on the situation. Paul Merson is yet to comment.
When Ashley bought Newcastle for around £140m in July 2007 after acquiring shares from the Hall family and the late Freddy Shepherd, there was an initial buzz about it. That summer, 15 first-team players were signed for then manager Sam Allardyce, who remained in the dugout from the previous regime.
Ashley himself mingled with Newcastle fans on the terraces and a 17-point haul from Allardyce’s first ten Premier League games captured the imagination. By January, though, that form had deserted the Magpies and Ashley, determined to appoint his own manager, brought in club icon Kevin Keegan to replace him – a decision which would see the honeymoon period nose dive into a loveless marriage within eight months.
Keegan steered Newcastle away from the drop zone and into the comforting arms of mid-table. But after a series of broken promises from Ashley in the summer transfer window and constant interference from both Newcastle’s then director of football Dennis Wise and vice-president Tony Jiminez – whose misdemeanors included blocking the signing of Luka Modric because he was “too small” – he deemed his position unworkable, resigning just three games into the new season.
Chris Hughton, Joe Kinnear and Alan Shearer all spent time in the Newcastle hot seat over the course of the 2008-09 campaign, but none of them could prevent the slip into the Championship, with Kinnear’s expletive-laden argument with Daily Mirror journalist Simon Bird a sign of the deep unprofessionalism and unpreparedness that the Ashley administration had brought to the club. Similarly, Shearer, the club’s record goal-scorer, while a legend in Newcastle fans’ eyes, should never have been given the manager’s job.
Alan Shearer during his time as interim manager. Photo: Getty
Following Newcastle’s first relegation under Ashley, the club was put up for sale in May 2009, but was taken off the market five months later when no buyer would meet the tycoon’s asking price.
Hughton, meanwhile, credibly won Newcastle promotion back to the top flight at the first attempt in the 2009-10 season and became hugely popular with supporters. He was sacked by Ashley not even halfway into the next campaign, with Newcastle sitting in 11th place in the Premier League. Alan Pardew replaced him and led Newcastle to 12th at the end of the season, admittedly having to factor in Ashley’s decision to sell star striker Andy Carroll to Liverpool for £35m in January without securing an alternative.
It is around about this point that Ashley’s approach towards Newcastle started to get more aggressive. The club, if he could stomach the ditties about his weight from the terraces, was a cash cow that could be used to nurture his true love: Sports Direct.
Ashley became less about running Newcastle – a yes-man chairman in Lee Charnley was installed to oversee a yes-man manager in Pardew – and more about owning it. The club was, he instructed, to be treated as a business – self-sustainable and attractive to advertisers, all the while being used as a free platform for his own brand. Newcastle’s ground, St James’ Park, was temporarily renamed The Sports Direct Arena in 2011 in order to “showcase” the pull of naming rights.
Chasing success on the pitch was not a priority and transfers were to be conducted with profit margins in mind. Younger players and players with re-sale value were preferred to the marquee signings fans craved, or even the proven Premier League experience Newcastle needed to avoid further dalliances with the drop. Ashley’s commitment to self-sustainability, most Newcastle fans suspected, was less down to Financial Fair Play and more down to his own resolve not to spend any more of his money on something that he got wrong.
The 2011-12 season, however, took both Ashley and Newcastle fans by surprise. The scouting brief ended up working better than expected and the likes of Yohan Cabaye and Hatem Ben Arfa propelled Newcastle to a fifth-placed Premier League finish. On some level, then, Ashley’s approach had been vindicated, but his mistake was in thinking that he could get away with repeating this sort of transfer tactic over and over again.
Yohan Cabaye in action against West Ham. Photo: Getty
Ashley essentially imposed a glass ceiling on the club and routinely patronised fans and the press, even going as far to commission a report in 2013 on why winning trophies was actively harmful to a club’s fortunes. While tactically, Pardew must accept plenty of blame for Newcastle’s fall from fifth to 16th in one season, it would be unfair to say that his job was not at least in some part compromised by the padlocked purse strings which Ashley controlled.
Ashley even compromised his own position as owner by removing the possibility of sacking Pardew over bad form, because he made the bizarre decision to give him an eight-year contract.
When Crystal Palace came calling and offered to take Pardew off Newcastle’s hands in the 2014-15 season, Ashley let him go, and instead of finding a replacement, allowed assistant John Carver to nearly relegate the club again. Newcastle stayed up on the final day of the 2014-15 season courtesy of a 2-0 home win over West Ham, in which fan favourite and cancer survivor Jonas Gutierrez scored. Gutierrez, at Ashley’s say-so, had his contract terminated over the phone weeks later, because he was seen as deadwood on the playing staff.
The 2015-16 season welcomed Newcastle’s eighth manager in eight years of Ashley’s ownership, with the budget appointment of Steve McClaren. McClaren was given an £80m transfer kitty, more in desperation than with any real direction it must be said, yet still Ashley refused to allow premiums to be paid for Premier League experience.
McClaren, as many fans expected him to, struggled, and Newcastle found themselves in a familiar malaise by the January window. Ashley yielded over transfers then, and Andros Townsend and Jonjo Shelvey arrived for £12m each, but still the former Derby County boss could not get the team going.
Ashley’s refusal to sack McClaren sooner, again in fear of paying a severance package which he agreed to, meant that when the finally-competent Rafa Benitez was parachuted in, he was only left with ten games to clear up the mess McClaren had made. While not enough to avoid the drop, Benitez’s ten-game spell was enough to show Ashley what was possible if the fans actually supported the manager in the dugout. Newcastle went six games unbeaten at the end of 2015-16, a run which included a thumping 5-1 victory over Tottenham.
Rafa Benitez. Photo: Getty
That Benitez, a serial trophy winner, agreed to come to Newcastle was something few would have predicted; even fewer would have predicted him to remain on Tyneside following relegation. But Ashley promised him a vision to which he could align his own ambitions and, like Hughton, the Spaniard delivered the Championship title at the first attempt.
Since arriving at Newcastle, Benitez has made it clear that he does not want to spend his time battling relegation and expects Ashley to make good on his word to turn the Toon into a more competitive force. To what extent Ashley has done that, it’s now clear, has been caveated by his long-term aim to sell up.
The reality is that Ashley is tired. The Newcastle gambit, for him, has failed and while the decisions to place blanket bans on sections of the press, throw some of Sir Bobby Robson’s old office contents into a skip, and all of the political baggage he carries from his business outside of football might warrant it, he does not want to be hated anymore.
What was meant to be a crack at breaking into the top four and getting Sports Direct merchandise advertised in the Champions League, has been undone by his inability to understand that the relationship between success on the pitch and success off it is mutually dependent.
Before Ashley came to Newcastle, it’s also worth remembering that the club regularly competed in European competitions, and under both Keegan and Robson challenged for the domestic honours too. With the right owners and the right investment, getting back to that level, is by no means impossible, especially if the new regime can keep hold of the club’s prized asset in Benitez.
Ultimately, there is no risk of Stockholm Syndrome on Tyneside; this is not a case of better the devil you know. Ashley wants to leave and Newcastle fans want him gone. Perhaps, then, John Hartson is right. But, on the evidence of his ownership, why should Ashley be appreciated?