The era of Mike Ashley at Newcastle can hardly be deemed a success
A year ago all seemed rosy at on Tyneside, but this season has descended into another relegation fight that has cast light on the failures that have littered the owner's reign
It is just over a year since Mike Ashley stood with friends in the VIP area of Tup Tup Palace, a nightclub in the heart of Newcastle's main drinking area, just off Mosley Street. He was warmly received. Newcastle had just beaten Liverpool at St James' Park, with the January signing Papiss Cissé scoring both goals. The gap between the two teams had stretched to 11 points and the city's side were sitting joint-fifth with Chelsea (whom they would finish above) and five points off a Champions League position. Redemption had taken three and a half years. Newcastle had gone from relegation to promotion to challenging the top four thanks to a clever eye in the transfer market.
The talk from Derek Llambias, Newcastle's managing director, ahead of that Liverpool game had been about the sound business policy that was underpinning a new version of the football club. Three and a half years after demonstrations had taken place outside the main reception at St James' Park calling for the owner of the club to leave, when Kevin Keegan had resigned as manager, Ashley had taken a major step towards reintegration on Tyneside.
There had been a time when hanging out in a central Newcastle nightclub would have been discouraged, given the level of hostility the Sports Direct owner faced, but his actions stemmed from a growth in confidence that was also obvious in the words of Llambias.
"We spend a long, long time identifying our [transfer] targets and Papiss was our No 1 choice. But at first we couldn't afford the price or the salary so we moved on," Llambias said. "January came and nobody knew Cissé was happening, which is how we like it, without the interference, in terms of upping the price or someone coming in at the last minute."
Graham Carr, Newcastle's influential chief scout, had proposed the signing of Cissé, as he had Yohan Cabaye and Cheick Tioté in seasons past. Carr, a diehard, Newcastle-supporting Geordie, would fly around Europe identifying talent, Llambias would play hardball in the deal and Alan Pardew, the manager who had also turned around an unwelcoming reaction to his appointment, would incorporate the new players into a side that was in the process of finishing fifth in the league.
Newcastle made sense.
Yet things change quickly at this eternally perplexing club. A year ago they were pushing for the Champions League qualifying places and receiving widespread praise for their prudent business model. Now they are fighting for their Premier League lives and no longer make much sense.
It is almost six years since Ashley's name first registered in the psyche of the Tyneside public. On 23 May 2007, it was announced that Ashley, via his company St James Holdings Ltd, had bought Sir John Hall's 41.6 per cent stake in Newcastle United at a cost of £55m. By 7 June, it was confirmed that Freddy Shepherd had agreed to sell his 28 per cent stake to Ashley. By the time the holding had reached 100 per cent, the purchase had cost Ashley £134m.
Hall would later go on to say in a fanzine interview that the initial approach about a sale had centred on marketing possibilities for Sports Direct (Ashley's company) in the Far East, but that has not been confirmed. Six years on, Ashley has still said very little on the record as the owner of the club. When he took his first step towards control, buying the shareholding from Hall, Sam Allardyce had been the new manager of Newcastle for eight days.
Ashley famously had not undertaken due diligence. He discovered debt, linked to previous transfers and a loan from Barclays that had financed the redevelopment of St James' Park, that would have to be repaid. It is reckoned he spent £105m to clear these loans.
That figure (which is interest-free) was then owed by the club to Ashley's company. As owner of both club and company he has never made clear his intentions with regards to this debt. The figure rose to £140m during Newcastle's season in the Championship but the latest accounts, released in March, this year show the debt to the owner is now at £129m.
There has been a long-standing effort to run Newcastle differently since Ashley's first summer, in which £20m was spent, and the appointment of Carr (given an eight-year contract) has looked as right as the decision to employ Dennis Wise as an executive director was wrong.
At some point, there is a need to address the achievements of the team.
In pure footballing terms, in Ashley's near six years in charge, Newcastle have finished in the top 10 of the Premier League only once, last year's fifth-place finish. Their average Premier League finish (including their current position of 17th) is 13th, they have been relegated once and are in the middle of another fight to stay out of the Championship. They have not gone beyond the fourth round of either domestic cup competition in that period and in those six years there has been one European campaign, in this season's Europa League, in which they reached the quarter-finals. There have been six different managers during these six years, including Allardyce.
For the previous six years prior to Ashley's arrival, Newcastle finished in the top 10 of the Premier League on four occasions, their average finish was eighth and they were never relegated. They reached two FA Cup quarter-finals, one FA Cup semi-final, two League Cup quarter-finals, one Uefa Cup semi-final and one Uefa Cup quarter-final. They qualified for the Champions League twice and reached the second group stage in the competition's old format. They used four managers during that period.
It is some contrast.
There are three games left this season to stop a club with a wage bill shown to be £64.1m in the last published accounts (before the signing of five new players in January) from falling into the Championship for the second time in Ashley's reign.
The first step will be at Upton Park on Saturday, where Allardyce, now managing West Ham United and buoyed by a successful return to the Premier League, awaits, as do former Newcastle players Andy Carroll and Kevin Nolan, who may feel they have a point to prove.
Newcastle travel to east London on the back of a truly humbling 6-0 defeat at St James' Park in their last game. That it was against Liverpool gives this demise context.
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