Newcastle United fans drink to the health of owner Mike Ashley
Mike Ashley, the Newcastle United owner, has taken his biggest step yet towards redemption with the club's supporters by returning to the city's watering holes.
Ashley became persona non grata on Tyneside three and a half years ago, when he clashed with then manager Kevin Keegan over transfer policy. Keegan resigned and vociferous demonstrations against the Sports Direct owner followed. He later tried and failed twice to sell the club, and there have been further controversial episodes, such as the selling of Andy Carroll to Liverpool for £35m and two attempts at selling naming rights for St James' Park.
However, the team's recent revival and surprise charge for a Champions League place, led by manager Alan Pardew, has seen a thawing of the fractious relationship between Ashley and the club's support. Indeed there is a growing belief that the owner's desire to run Newcastle as a self-sufficient business is winning over initially sceptical supporters.
After Ashley bought the club from the Hall and Shepherd families in 2007, he was regularly seen in Tyneside public houses, where he was known to buy drinks for all. He also stood among fans at away games, where he received a good reception.
Such behaviour ceased during the most difficult period of his tenure. However, after overseeing Newcastle's re-emergence as a club with little debt and an astute transfer policy, Ashley could now be sensing an end to the fans' hostility.
The billionaire, who started his business from nothing in the 1980s, was spotted by fans in the Tup Tup Palace nightclub in the city centre after Newcastle's victory against Liverpool at the start of the month. Ashley's appearance was warmly received and he was also seen with Newcastle fans in a casino in Swansea before a 2-0 victory there.
He remains as reluctant as he has been since buying the club – and laying out substantial finance to clear debts estimated at around £280m – to court publicity, but it is a huge step for him to venture among supporters. Anti-Ashley chants had lessened significantly at St James' Park by November and the signing of Papiss Cissé, the most expensive individual transfer of the January window, has further diluted any animosity.
If Newcastle are to continue their charge for a Champions League place, Ashley's standing among fans will turn full circle.
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