James Lawton: Ashley will have to live with being just a sideshow
Thursday 02 April 2009
At the peak of his ruthless rise as a sports shirt salesman sweeping past his first billion-pound milestone, Mike Ashley was said to be in the habit of parking his tanks on the lawns of anyone who might be considering standing in his way. For the sake of his shot-through credibility as a serious presence in football, however, he should perhaps now be checking what is left of his armoury.
A howitzer or two, at the very least, will certainly be required if he dreams for a second that he will be able to treat Alan Shearer with even a hint of the contempt he showed for another Tyneside hero, Kevin Keegan.
Ashley, in the way of all those professional bullies who have seen in football the chance of a sudden blaze of attention and fame after all their anonymous scuffling in the business world, to which TV cameras were so rarely tempted, no doubt detected a strain of emotional vulnerability in "Wor" Kevin. He had, after all, been known to weep in times of crisis.
"Wor" Alan is not, of course, prone to emotional stress. He may come to the chaos and the dangerously eroding hope of Newcastle without a day of professional experience as a manager but he brings to the challenge something far more valuable than a clutch of coaching badges.
Apart from his iconic status as the boy who made good in distant places and then came home when he could have booked himself a cupboard full of glory with Manchester United, Shearer has an essential toughness that has never required any obvious cultivation. So if Ashley's wealth covered a multitude of sins, including a crass attempt to popularise his image in a souvenir shirt and with a pint in his hand, and persuaded such a notional hard man as Dennis Wise to come running to his banner, we can be sure Shearer will stand entirely alone when it comes to assessing the immediate needs of the club which is threatened with the inevitable price of endemic failure.
Ashley's reserve towards Shearer until this week's issuing of an SOS was not exactly a mystery that required the sleuthing of Inspector Poirot. When the owner paid out his millions, he was investing, apart from some potential profit down the road, in the Mike Ashley Show. That it was so far off Broadway that a self-respecting Miners' Institute would have given it a run no longer than the time required to get in a round of drinks, will of course have been noted by Shearer as he kept his distance, while at the same time quite gently pointing out that no football club had ever before needed such an emergency immersion in some of the basics of success.
We are told that, with the help of the combative pro Iain Dowie, Shearer is committed to nothing more extended than a rescue mission. However, that would surely be negotiable if he brings salvation in the relegation zone and makes Ashley's folly of a purchase into a viable property again.
One point is inescapable. The style of Ashley will inevitably be compared by Shearer to that of his former patron, the late Jack Walker of Blackburn. The old steel man paid his money into a Premier League-winning cause because of the meaning of the club to him when he was a boy. Ashley, like that other self-advertising bully boy from the dusty corridors of commerce, Sir Alan Sugar, came from a slightly different direction.
Sugar, who as guardian of the traditions of Tottenham Hotspur told one of his managers, Gerry Francis, that the way to run the club was buy small and sell big, a bit like the Wimbledon of Sam Hammam, while all the time building up the value of the shares. To be fair to Sugar, he didn't patronise football. Indeed, he declared his hatred of it, possibly because he realised quickly enough that he would never be more than a pygmy figure beside such football characters as Terry Venables and Jürgen Klinsmann.
Ashley, with his supping and his stagy bonhomie on the terraces, came to the same conclusion some time ago. Now he hopes to ride to safety on the back of an authentic hero. He will be wise, though, to go very easy in his stirrups.
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