As promised we have the unique pleasure of our first guest post from one of my heroes. A New York football legend if you will and a saint of the only church I attend on 3rd Ave between 11th and 12th Streets. At his request we have hidden his identity to protect the innocent. He took some time out from his busy schedule to break down the situation at Newcastle in terms you can understand. Hopefully this won’t be his last contribution to your football knowledge.
Mike Ashley has the scorn of the Geordies and is the root problem of all that is wrong with the club! Well, so say members of the Toon Army as they parade their angst with their “Cockney MAFIA out!” banner during a recent home loss to Hull City. Even Magpie, the Toon mascot, was photographed holding a poster stating, “No more Geordie cash for Ashley!” Things certainly are off the charts north of Hadrian’s Wall.
But is Mike Ashley really to blame for this mess or is he just misguided lad with too much money?
Billionaire Mike Ashley isn’t really a Cockney but he was born in Buckinghamshire and ranks 54th in the Sunday Times Rich List. Ashley has loved his football since attending the World Cup in Mexico in 1986 and was attracted to Newcastle by the myth that Toon fans were the best fans in football. In fact, Ashley believes that the fans are Newcastle United’s best asset. Ashley paid ₤134 million for the club and paid another ₤110 million just to reduce the debt. That’s right, reduce the debt.
Things were wrong at Newcastle United BEFORE Mike Ashley won the scorn of all illiterate Toon fans. Toon? Well, that’s the Geordie pronunciation of the word “town!” To really look into this situation, we really need to go back in time to see where things went wrong.
Newcastle United was formed in 1892 with the merger of Newcastle East End and Newcastle West End, rivals in the Northern League, as Newcastle West End had fallen into financial difficulties. Success was rapid for Newcastle United and they won their first league title in 1904/05 followed by more league titles in 1906-07 and 1908/09. The FA Cup followed in 1909/10. Success along with the lack of transportation and lack of nearby competition gave Newcastle United a strong base for fans. Sadly, Newcastle United would win the league title just once more, in 1926/27, but the FA Cup brought success on the club with victories in 1923/24, 1931/32, 1950/51, 1951/52 and 1954/55. The brilliant and storied history of success at St. James’ Park was over after 1955 and no domestic silverware would be won unless you count the Texaco Cup.
Still, even without silverware there was little competition for fans. The closest rivals are Sunderland, a mere ten miles away, and the Tyne-Wear derbies are heated events that pit city against city for the bragging rights of the county. Most southerners will look at Middlesbrough as a local for Newcastle thanks to the lack of teams “up norf” but Middlesbrough plays a hefty 34 miles away and is not considered local!
With a huge fan base, surely Newcastle would have been primed for success both fiscally and on the pitch. There is no doubt that the fans let their feelings known. The highest attendance in Newcastle history is 68,386 for the match against Chelsea in 1930. Why did so many Geordies show up for this one match? The fans showed up in huge numbers to welcome their former hero Hughie Gallacher who was the club’s most prolific scorer (143 goals in 174 games) but had been sold to Chelsea! Queue the mass hysteria and attendance. In fact, many thousands of fans were unable to get inside the stadium and were locked outside.
Could this event have shaped the club’s managerial policy into pleasing the fans at all costs? Since 1930, only two managers have had tenures of ten years or more; Stan Seymour and Joe Harvey, who departed in 1975. Since Joe’s departure, Newcastle have had 16 managers including such high profile figures as Osvaldo Ardiles, Kevin Keegan (twice), Kenny Dalglish, Ruud Gullit and Sir Bobby Robson. In fact, Newcastle is already on their sixth manager this century. This must-win to appease the fans who still believe the club is massive is finally killing the club in this period of high financial risk.
Run the club by appeasing the fans? Mike Ashley has certainly tried! In September last year, Ashley tried to wear his Alan Smith number 17 Newcastle shirt in the corporate box at Sunderland without permission to show the fans his true colours. After being denied, he sat in the away end and tried to buy all of the fellow “fans” a pint of lager at half-time. These gimmicks haven’t worked for him as they were not complimented by success on the pitch and the fans now want the “outsider” gone.
For his part, Ashley has been able to make himself an easy target for the fans by becoming a PR nightmare and embarrassing the club. From partying in New York and buying 175 bottles of Crystal champagne, to snubbing Dubai investors, who had low-balled his anticipated selling price, by missing a scheduled meeting with them to drink with Dennis Wise, his Director of Football, in the nearby Bahri Bar, he’s played his part.
The club is still in debt and still owes millions on transfer fees while current commercial deals were paid up front and spent before Ashley bought the club. Ashley bought a dog with fleas and did everything to keep the club’s number one asset happy; the fans.
Mike Ashley has now hired London-based Seymour Pierce to sell the club and wants an unreasonable figure of ₤480 million. This is far more than the Dubai investors are willing to pay although there is a Nigerian outfit out there willing to buy the club. Let’s hope Ashley pays attention to their needs of his initial wiring of money to a bank account in Abuja.
Until the fans step away from this “massive club” demand, Newcastle will continue with quick fixes that will never work. Kevin Keegan was never going to be the answer and neither will Alan Shearer. A new owner is obviously needed but the owner must place the fans second to the club before embarking on the business of finding the right manager who knows which players he needs to make the club tick. The club must break tradition and think long-term.