Mike Ashley’s ownership of Newcastle: reflections on a decade of decay, deceit and drudgery

St James’ Park, which sits atop a hill in the centre of Newcastle is often referred to as a ‘cathedral of football’. It stands as the epicenter of one of England’s most famous, and passionate support-bases and has witnessed some incredible games and moments down the years. Many within the game describe the North East’s fervent passion for football as bordering on a religious following – an apt analogy considering St James Park’s nickname. It is the sort of passion, dedication and commitment that should have spurred Newcastle onto far greater hights than they have been able to reach in the modern era. Unfortunately for the Toon Army, the current High Priest of St James Park, Mike Ashley, has made such a bad job of ownership that many Newcastle fans have questioned their faith. Thankfully, it appears as though their prayers might have just been answered, and a new regime may be about to take over.

For the vast majority of the past 12 years, Mike Ashley’s ownership has put a slow chokehold on the ambitions and atmosphere at Newcastle. It is a story of an authoritarian regime, of penny-pinching and most of all; apathy. Apathy on the part of Mike Ashley once he realised he wasn’t going to be accepted by the Toon Army, and apathy from the Newcastle fans after being slowly ground down with empty promises and unfulfilled potential. As a result, the club have stagnated and many fans have fallen out of love with the club (at least, temporarily – whilst this regime is in charge).

A decent start

Ashley’s ownership actually got off to a solid start. His carefully stage-managed PR stunt: ‘man of the people’, in which he mingled amongst Toon Army fans at games, and drank in local bars, did briefly endear him to supporters. A billionaire owner who appeared to be no different to the average man, seemed like the perfect fit for a club comprised of honest, hard-working, working-class supporters. Above all, the fans appreciated the effort that Ashley was going to, to get them on-side – even if they had their suspicions from the outset.

It’s gone downhill ever since

Unfortunately for Mike Ashley, he couldn’t pull the wool over everybody’s eyes for long. Things changed when club legend Kevin Keegan, initially hired by Ashley in 2008, then left the club under a dark cloud. The parting of ways, and the way it was handled, was so acrimonious that Keegan subsequently sued the club for constructive dismissal; and won. He later said that the whole experience had put him off ever managing again in football, and that his only regret was that the payout came from the club itself.

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There appeared to be a lack of transparency about who was running the club, and how they came to be in the positions they were in. Dennis Wise was hired as an Executive Director – a role that was never clearly defined, and which lead to suspicions that Wise had undue influence around the club. After it became clear that Newcastle fans were not best pleased with this arrangement, Wise was relieved of his duties pretty quickly, in a damage-limitation exercise. The Ashley regime then scored a huge own goal by appointing Joe Kinnear as manager – a man who had been out of management for 10 years and who couldn’t even pronounce the names of his players. His appointment, and subsequent incompetence, did little to convince supporters that Ashley had the club’s best interests at heart. Bewildered by the apparent cronyism being shown by Ashley, Newcastle fans coined the infamous ‘cockney mafia’ phrase.

Perhaps the biggest mistake of all though; the point of no return in many fans eyes, came when St James Park was temporarily renamed as ‘the Sports Direct arena’ in 2011. For all of the other errors of judgement made by the Ashley regime during his 12-year spell, this was the one that stuck in the throat the most. In the eyes of many, this was almost an act of sacrilege – a vanity project emphasising how the club was being used as a marketing vehicle to benefit it’s owner. Furthermore, it was seen as a vindictive move by Ashley to rip the heart out of the club.

There have been so many clangers during Ashley’s tenure that a short novel could be written. Being sponsored by Wonga, appointing pretty awful managers such as Kinnear and Carver, the treatment of Jonas Gutierrez, – the list goes on. For a more detailed account of these please visit the Mag’s ‘Mike Ashley crimes against Newcastle United – Top 50‘ piece. After reading this list it isn’t hard to see why Talksport ranked Mike Ashley the worst owner of a football club in the Premier League last year.

A sleeping giant, kept heavily sedated

Kevin Keegan, the manager who has come closest to delivering a long-awaited major trophy when they came within inches of winning the Premier League in 1996, recently said of the man that hired him in 2008: “I don’t know of a club that has been run as badly or with such disregard for people”. A damning indictment from someone who worked under Ashley, and has a genuine affinity with the club. In terms of statistics, it is hard to disagree with Keegan, reflecting on how Newcastle have performed during Ashley’s reign on Tyneside.

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In the past 50 years, Newcastle’s average league finish has been 9th in the top-flight (and that includes Ashley’s disastrous reign). During Ashley’s tenure, the Magpies have been relegated twice and have an average league finish of 15th place, comfortably below their normal levels over the previous 50 years. During that time, they have only had one top-8 finish when Alan Pardew’s team: consisting of Demba Ba and Pappis Cisse, almost managed to secure Champions League qualification, eventually finishing 5th. In more recent times, the tactical nouse of Rafa Benitez has arguably been the only reason for the club making improvements on some of the earlier sorry seasons experienced under Ashley.

One of the principal reasons for the regression in Newcastle’s league finishes under Ashley’s ownership, has been a chronic lack of investment in the playing squad. As of the start of the 2018/19 season, the net transfer spend in 11 years has been a meagre £32million. As club legend Alan Shearer pointed out, until recently Newcastle had been the outlier; in that their record signing was Michael Owen in 2005 – at a time when most other Premier League clubs had been consistently breaking their transfer record. Miguel Almiron’s January trasfer, worth £21 million is the only serious signing that Newcastle have made in 12 years. In fact, it’s hard to think of too many players that have played at Newcastle during the Ashley era who appeared to be in high demand from other clubs – perhaps the best indication that their squads have not been blessed with much quality, due to the lack of serious investment.

In the same period, the debt owed by Newcastle has almost doubled to £144 million. This is despite a significant increase in media income during the same time, and increased ticket prices at St James Park. Ashley has used the club as a vehicle to promote his company, Sports Direct through advertising around the ground – leaving another avenue of potential income untapped.

It is a testament to the Newcastle fans that throughout this miserable chapter in their club’s history, they have still continued to flock to St James Park in their droves. Even after 12 years of Ashley’s ownership, they pull in an average crowd of over 51,000 fans a week. Sadly for these fans, cynics would say that Ashley has taken advantage of this loyalty in making some of the terrible calls that he has – but you can’t blame fans for wanting to go and support their team each week.

A new start?

In years to come, Mike Ashley’s ownership will be held up as barometer of how not to run a football club. To an extent, he will care little about this – as if he is able to sell Newcastle United, he will have made a handsome profit from the price he paid for the club back in 2007. During his ownership, he has been able to utilise the club for marketing his company, and has invested very little of his own money to help the Magpies achieve anything like their potential.

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There are encouraging signs that this nightmare may be about to end, with serious discussions reportedly underway with the Bin Zayed group for an impending sale. You can forgive Newcastle fans for feeling like they want anyone but Ashley. After all – the club has very little to show for his presence on Tyneside other than a feeling that 12 years of opportunity and vibrancy have been lost.

Even neutrals will be hoping that a takeover deal can be done, so that Newcastle can free themselves from the decay, deceit and drudgery that have plagued the 12 years of Ashley’s reign ownership. One thing is for sure: whoever takes over can’t do much worse.

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