Thus began a new era in the club’s history and it’s one that has managed to divide fans almost throughout. The partisan divisions – often drawn along the lines of Ashley v Keegan – are, in my opinion, unnecessary. I believe it’s perfectly possible for a person to do some good things and some bad things and I don’t believe Mike Ashley is any different in that respect. With rumours once more circulating about the sale saga nearing a close I wanted to try and take a balanced view of Ashley’s time at Newcastle.
One of the main things I thank Mike Ashley for is prising the club away from Freddy Shepherd. I’ve heard arguments suggesting that we wouldn’t have been relegated if Shepherd had remained in charge and maybe that’s true, but I believe the club would have been in dire straits financially.
Ashley had this to say about the debts he inherited when he bought the club:
“I paid £134 million out of my own pocket for the club. I then poured another £110 million into the club not to pay off the debt but just to reduce it.
“The club is still in debt. Even worse than that, the club still owes millions of pounds in transfer fees. I shall be paying out many more millions over the coming year to pay for players bought by the club before I arrived. But there was a double whammy. Commercial deals such as sponsorships and advertising had been front loaded. The money had been paid upfront and spent. I was left with a club that owed millions and part of whose future had been mortgaged.“
I have every reason to believe that’s true. Since Sir Bobby Robson’s time at the club we had appointed Souness, Roeder and Allardyce as managers, splashed out considerably on the transfer market – signing expensive players like Owen, Viduka, Boumsong, Barton and Luque – and yet seen little success on the pitch. That sort of approach would have led to financial ruin had it gone on. Shepherd may claim it was all under control but I don’t believe him.
What was Ashley going to do about changing the way the club was run? Well he didn’t really tell us until after the Keegangate incident when he said:
“The truth is that Newcastle could not sustain buying the Shevchenkos, Robinhos or the Berbatovs. These are recognised European footballers. They have played in the European leagues and everyone knows about them. They can be brilliant signings. But everybody knows that they are brilliant and so they, and players like them, cost more than £30 million to buy before you even take into account agent commissions and the multi-million pound wage deals.
“My plan and my strategy for Newcastle is different. It has to be. Arsenal is the shining example in England of a sustainable business model. It takes time. It can’t be done overnight. Newcastle has therefore set up an extensive scouting system. We look for young players, for players in foreign leagues who everyone does not know about. We try and stay ahead of the competition. We search high and low looking for value, for potential that we can bring on and for players who will allow Newcastle to compete at the very highest level but who don’t cost the earth.
“I am prepared to back large signings for millions of pounds but for a player who is young and has their career in front of them and not for established players at the other end of their careers. There is no other workable way forward for Newcastle.”
Can anyone really deny the sense of that? Unless a club is owned by someone who is ludicrously rich – like Abramovich or Al-Fahim – it simply cannot afford to try and buy success in that way. Ashley quotes Arsenal as a his preferred model but it could equally be applied to Aston Villa or Everton – sure, they spend money on players but nothing like the outlay of the big-spenders, yet they’ve managed to secure European places and even mount the occasional challenge on the top 4. I simply can’t see any option other than the one Ashley proposes unless we put an advert in the paper for a multi-billionaire owner with money to burn. The trouble with the Shepherd regime is that it was spending as if we had multi-billionaire owners when in fact we didn’t. Essentially we were trying to punch above our weight and busting the club in the process.
So what we have so far in Ashley is a man with some decent plans for the club. The problems, in my opinion, came about when he tried to implement them.
The telling time was during the Keegangate incident. I don’t want to get into the incident itself here – the Tribunal will decide who was at fault for that – but it was after that incident that Ashley really disappointed me. The club was in turmoil, the manager Ashley appointed was gone, the fans were up in arms and we really needed a strong leader; someone who would exert control, take the heat and pull things back on track. But we were left wanting. Ashley said:
“I have really loved taking my kids to the games, being next to them and all the fans. But I am now a dad who can’t take his kids to a football game on a Saturday because I am advised that we would be assaulted. Therefore, I am no longer prepared to subsidise Newcastle United.
I am putting the club up for sale. I hope that the fans get what they want and that the next owner is someone who can lavish the amount of money on the club that the fans want.“
I was quite appalled by this. I understand the pressure he was under from the fans and if it turns out that Keegan walked it wasn’t even Ashley’s fault, but I still expected him to be stronger. It is disappointing too that he only chose to start communicating with the fans following Keegangate. Llambias has previously admitted that they got the communication side of things wrong, stating that they initially wanted to keep a ‘low profile’, yet they’ve hardly gone out of their way to correct that since.
We can also question Ashley’s idea of having a Director of Football and his choice of who that would be. It seems particularly naive of Ashley to appoint a DoF and then go out and employ Keegan as manager. Virtually anyone who’s heard of Kevin Keegan would see the folly of that idea and I’m surprised that Chris Mort – who was Chairman at the time – didn’t. Dennis Wise recently said of the DoF role:
“The system didn’t work and it’s as simple as that. It could work. It works abroad, it could here.”
I think that pretty much sums it up. Yes it works abroad and yes it could (and does) work here, but it needs to be carefully considered, the responsibilities need to be well-defined and the right personnel need to be appointed to the appropriate positions.
So anyway we were up for sale. Ashley, Llambias and Wise jetted off to the Middle-East to try and sell the club. The press reported that Ashley was asking ludicrous money for the club and breaching negotiating protocol with the Arabs – maybe that’s true and maybe it isn’t, but either way the club wasn’t sold and we continued to drift. Hughton, Kinnear, Hughton again and then Shearer all had relatively disappointing spells as manager and thus we were relegated. Despite the disappointment of that it looked like relegation might give us an opportunity to rebuild, but then Ashley put the club up for sale again, saying of his tenure:
“Of course I regret it.
“I never said I was an expert in football clubs. I was just a fan – although a very wealthy fan. But I’m not so wealthy now. I put my money into it and I tried my best. But I accept my best was woefully short. I am genuinely sorry for everybody about what has happened.”
“It has been catastrophic for everybody. I’ve lost my money and I’ve made terrible decisions. Now I want to sell it as soon as I can.”
And here we are, after a somewhat fractious summer, possibly on the verge of being sold again. So is the club in better shape than it was before Ashley took over? Well clearly our relegation is one fact that flies in the face of that, yet we do have a lower wage bill and less in the way of debt. I also believe we couldn’t have carried on in the Shepherd way, so in some respects I think the club is in better shape now. Put it this way: relegation aside I think Barry Moat would rather have the club in the shape it’s in now than in the shape it was in when Ashley took over (or worse, in the shape it would have been in if Shepherd was still owner now).
So my overall assessment of Ashley is that he was a man with the right ideas who suffered from incompetent implementation of those ideas. If he had employed a football-savvy, good-communicating Chairman to carry out his plans I think it could all have been so different.
Now though I believe he has to go, not specifically for his past errors but because he simply doesn’t want to be there. The club needs stability and we’ll never get that while we have an owner who wants to sell the club, so I’m hoping the latest rumours of an imminent sale are true. I must admit though I’m slightly nervous about the sale, mainly because of the suggestion that Moat might be struggling to finance his bid, which wouldn’t bode too well for the future. I would rather Ashley stayed than sold to someone who can’t afford to run the club, but then again those worries could be unfounded and I have no reason beyond press speculation to think Moat doesn’t have a sound, workable business plan for the club.
This is of course just my assessment. Some people, for whatever reason, want to see everything Ashley did as evil and others want to see everything he did as good as if it’s some religious ‘God v Satan’ battle. But I don’t buy into that point of view. Yes, as owner, I believe Ashley is ultimately responsible for whatever happens at Newcastle during his tenure – and I believe he would accept that even if his apologists don’t – but that in itself doesn’t tell the whole story. Everybody gets some things wrong and some things right and I don’t think Ashley’s any different in that respect.