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Mike Ashley: A Hero in Disguise?

Fans and pundits alike were heaping even more praise on Newcastle United and their manager Alan Pardew this weekend after a 2-0 win away at Swansea which kept the club in the hunt for Champions League football. One man that was the happiest of all however was owner Mike Ashley who, after a turbulent five years in charge, finally looks to have won over the hearts of the Geordie faithful.

The Cockney based businessman completed his purchase of the club in June 2007 after paying an approximate £134 million pounds. The 48 year old businessman immediately gave the club a £100 million pound interest free loan to stave off any potential financial ruin which was on the horizon for the North East club. Ashley’s reign as Newcastle owner started tough and his relationship with the fans over the next three years was to strain the businessman’s relationship with the club as he attempted to sell twice. However with the club now 6th in the Premier League and still with hopes of qualifying for Champions League football next season, Ashley’s decision to stick around might just be the best decision he has made.

After the sacking of Sam Allardyce in 2008, Ashley’s popularity with the St James Park fans was to take a step in the right direction as he appointed Newcastle ‘Messiah’ Kevin Keegan as the new manager. The return of the ‘king’ was to be short lived though as just eight months after his return, Ashley sacked him after showdown talks after Keegan was unhappy with the involvement of Dennis Wise in the transfer policy. Ashley tried to distance himself from the club almost immediately afterwards as he put the club up for sale while placing Joe Kinnear in charge on a temporary basis. In March 2009 with Kinnear suffering heart problems, Ashley appointed former Newcastle striker Alan Shearer in charge although relegation was unavoidable as the club suffered relegation to the Championship.

It was at this point in time when Ashley could have taken the easy route out of the club by selling again, however having used the relegation to clear the club of any deadwood that were on high wages, Ashley took the club by the scruff of the neck and appointed Chris Hughton as manager while working on a tight budget, Ashley ensured the club had a competitive squad to achieve promotion back to the Premier League while reducing the clubs overall debt all the time.  There were testing times to come for Ashley and his sidekick Derek Llambias despite the clubs return to the Premier League.

With Hughton leading the Toon revival to mid-table of the Premier League, including wins over Arsenal and Everton both away from home, Ashley again risked the wrath of the Newcastle supporters as he bizarrely dismissed his manager, replacing him with Alan Pardew who had just been sacked by League One Southampton. Ashley again suffered abuse from fans on transfer deadline day during the January window as he agreed the sale of Newcastle number nine Andy Carroll for a British record £35 million pounds to Liverpool. The decision was met with anger by Toon supporters as with no time to bring in a replacement Pardew was left to see the season through to the end as Newcastle finished a respectable 12th position. 14 months on from that decision, Carroll is struggling at Liverpool having scored just six goals for the Merseyside club.

It was the summer just gone that has seen Ashley become more of a hero rather than villain as he began to rebuild the squad with a new business plan of buying unrecognised talent to the Premier League for small sums of money and less extortionate wages than those players that had gone before them. Chief scout Graham Carr has undoubtedly received his fair share of recognition for unearthing the likes of Chiek Tiote, Demba Ba, and Papisse Cisse, however it is the owner that must receive recognition for sanctioning the signings as well as placing his trust in a great team of scouts that are now assembled at the club.

Ashley again suffered some fan abuse this season despite Newcastle’s excellent season as the St James Park signs were removed from around the stadium in a bid to attract further sponsors to the club, ending a 100 year old tradition of calling the stadium St James Park. Council staff, media and fans all fired criticism at the owner, however having admitted that the stadium is earning 91% of its possible income, selling the stadium naming rights are the only possible way of extending the clubs income.

With the club ready to break even for the first time in recent history and likely to be playing European football next season it must be said that Ashley has changed the fortune of Newcastle considerably since his takeover. From a possible financial meltdown to the brink of European football in five years, some credit must go to Ashley and his team. He has seen the end of the soap opera that was Newcastle just three years ago and now the club sits in its healthiest position in recent history and long may that continue under the guidance of Mike Ashley and Alan Pardew.

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