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International Mag: Mike Ashley, Cockney Messiah?

23rd May 2007 – The season had just ended with Newcastle finishing at 12th, falling by 5 places from the previous season. Sam Allardyce had been named the club’s new manager just a week before and the fans and players alike were deservedly taking a break after what had been yet another roller-coaster of a season.

No wonder, almost the whole of the soccer world was taken by surprise when Mike Ashley bought a 41.6% stake in the club, and many – myself included – wondered whether this was the shake-up Newcastle United, a club with massive fan support and reputation, needed.

What followed in the next 5 years can beat even the most nerve-wrecking movie plots. Allardyce was predictably sacked with the legendary Kevin Keegan being his replacement, and the popular Ashley was often seen sitting among fans, donning the black and white T-shirt.

However, a very public fallout between the club’s hierarchy and Keegan, followed by his resignation, changed all that. Fans were understandably outraged, with Keegan alleging undue interference in team matters which led to the departure of key players like James Milner, and dubbed Ashley and his management team the Cockney Mafia. And thus began perhaps the worst ever season for the club which saw 3 different managers come and go, the club being put up for sale and to the heart-break of thousands of Geordies, being relegated on the last day of the season to a 1-0 defeat to Aston Villa.

The fans wanted Ashley’s head! (Statistics later revealed that in the 2008-09 season, Newcastle made a profit of only £2,250,000 from transfer fees, with players like Coloccini, Gutierrez, Nolan and Guthrie all coming in! It was the dawn of a new era, albeit unknown to most fans).

The saga continued into the next season, with newspapers reporting a takeover by Barry Moat imminent on more than one occasion. However, Ashley remained at the helm, and finally took the club off the market in October. Following relegation, a number of big names left the club, giving Ashley a profit of £24,000,000.

Fortunately, the fans were paying more attention to Newcastle’s outstanding on-field performances than Ashley’s off-field antics. The season ended with Newcastle gaining the pole position in the championship (gaining a club record points total in the process) and an automatic promotion which, some thought, would induce a new owner to make a proper bid and end this 3 year-long nightmare.

However, Mike Ashley did not stop exhibiting his uncanny knack of annoying the fans, first by sacking the hugely popular Chris Hughton, selling local boy Carroll to Liverpool, renaming St. James Park for personal gains, the list goes on. Astoundingly, the transfer of Carroll now seems a business masterstroke and was enough to ensure a profit of £24,750,000, despite players like Gosling, Tiote, Perch and the sensational Ben Arfa coming into the club. It was not until the end of 2011-12 season that some of Ashley’s actions made sense. Newcastle finished an impressive 5th, with a spot in the Europa League also in the bag and in a sound position financially.

So why did a man, especially an astute businessman like Ashley, do things that baffled supporters, players and businessmen alike? Were his steps just business decisions made for profit that went wrong, or were there something else to it? Now I do not know Mr. Ashley personally, nor do I have any background in psychology. However, I did try to find a possible logic behind his actions. Whether my theory makes any sense – I’ll leave it to you to make that judgment.

It is well-known fact that Ashley was not conversant with the management of football clubs when he took charge at Newcastle, especially the huge debt arising out of the star signings of the previous regime. Some may argue, that it was sheer lack of competency coupled with the desire to achieve instant success prompted some of his actions. To his credit, however, he maintained his enthusiasm these despite boardroom troubles, and I think I am right in saying most fans loved an owner who preferred to watch matches from among them in the crowd rather than from executive boxes.

The trouble started with Derek Llambias becoming the Managing Director followed by his disagreements with Keegan. However, Ashley did what most people probably would have done, trusting his partner Llambias to know what he was doing. He appointed Joe Kinnear, a move which definitely proved a mistake later on. However, decisions always look simpler on hindsight.

Joe Kinnear did have good success at both Wimbledon and Luton Town, winning promotion for the later and beating the likes of Liverpool with a side that was probably weaker than most Premier League reserve sides. He also bought players like Enrique, Gutierrez and Coloccini, all of whom later proved to be sound investments. The fact that he could get players like them without having to break the bank is a credit to him and his staff, and that most of his buys could not perform to the best of their abilities in their initial seasons, sheer bad luck. The appointment of Shearer for the last 8 games was, undoubtedly, a desperate ploy to keep his club in the Premiership. A move which unfortunately, like many of his previous moves, did not work.

From a fans point of view, in a way it is not unprecedented for someone to feel hurt, especially someone as open with his emotions as Mike Ashley is, when people turn against you even after you have spent millions on the team and publicly expressed your love for the club.

For all we know, Ashley might not have been calling the shots when it came to appointment of the managers or transfer window activity. And some of the players that had left the club during the turmoil did not want to stay in the first place, the likes of Enrique and Bassong. And let’s face it, Carroll for £35m was an offer that was simply too tempting. As an owner, he did the right thing by letting them go rather than keeping them for absurd wages – after all, Mike Ashley is no Sheikh Mansour. All that talk of selling the club – a lot of it surely had to do with his growing frustration at the lack of success and a dip in his retail business rather than a dip in his liking for the club.

Controversial moves like selling the naming rights for St. James’ Park, however offending for us fans, was perhaps a good business move and I dare say necessary if we are to compete with financial giants like Arsenal and Manchester City, who incidentally, have also done the same. And I think Ashley secretly does not mind the fact that most people still refer to it by its original name, as I do not know of any legal action initiated by the club against any websites or journalists who have openly refused to use the new name in their articles.

We have to remember that the club was not financially very sound when Ashley took charge. The club was in near £200m interest-ridden debt, that of which Ashley has paid off 100% in an interest free loan to himself. Some may argue this is risk-free for Ashley, but ultimately in the long-term has and will save the club a small fortune. And though some would question his moves from footballing perspectives, but they are really good with huge back to back profits in 2009 and 2010 from a business perspective.

The fact that Ashley really is fond of the club is also indicated by the fact that following Newcastle’s good run, not only did he not sell a player, but actually spent over £10m, the highest by an English club this January, to buy Cisse. In fact, last season saw Newcastle spend a net amount of £11,600,000 without having to go into any sort of financial difficulty/ And this summer, we have bought Amalfitano for free, and paid a combined £8,100,000 for Bigirimana, Anita and Good.

Letting Best and Guthrie go – both good but not good enough to be in the first 11 of a top four side like we want to be, is a prudent decision. In fact, going by the rumors, Newcastle had placed bids of £6m for Debuchy and £12m for De Jong, suggesting that Ashley is prepared to spend at least around £20m this summer to build a top 4 squad. So we see how all those profits made two seasons ago are now being reinvested in the club, what we all want as fans. Adding to this, like Pardew promised, none of the top players have been sold. Putting all of this together, we might well have very good days ahead of us, with a competent manager, a great scout, a bunch of very talented players and to top it all, a manager willing to support his team.

Howay the lads!

Author: Samidh Bhattacharyya, an Indian Newcastle United fan currently studying in Orlando, USA. He loves anything and everything Newcastle related. You can follow his twitter here.

About Harry Savill (Editor) (418 Articles)
I am the Editor of 'The Spectator's View'. I set up the website so that I could combine my two passions: Newcastle United and writing, and I hope for it to be a platform where fans can express their views on the club. History Graduate from Durham University. Junior Account Executive at M&C Saatchi.

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