Of all the things Ashley’s bad at when it comes to running a football club – and there are many – one of his worst is his management of managers. His reluctance to change managers at the drop of a hat is not a bad thing in itself, but only if you have the right manager in the first place and, with the possible exception of Chris Hughton, I’d argue he hasn’t picked the right manager for Newcastle United since he bought the club.
Well, in the seven seasons we’ve been in the Premier League since Ashley bought the club, our average finishing position has been 12.57 (I’ve not counted the season in the Championship) and in the seven seasons prior to Ashley buying the club our average finishing position was 8.14. That might not sound like a huge difference but before Ashley we were, on average, a mid-table team who sometimes flirted with Europe whereas now we are, on average, a mid-table team who sometimes flirts with relegation. And of course in 2008-2009 we did more than merely flirt with relegation – we kissed it, fondled it and knocked it up behind the bike sheds.
The misery inflicted on us can’t be entirely blamed on managers of course. The players we’ve bought, the players we’ve sold and the ethos and sentiment of the club all had a hand in things. But football managers play a key role in the grand scheme of things.
Many have speculated that Ashley’s main criteria for a manager is that he should be easily controlled. Maybe that’s true. Maybe he was so embittered after being found guilty of constructively dismissing Kevin Keegan that a manager’s malleability is now very important to him. So he picks managers that are either out of work or serving in a lowly league so that they’re simply grateful for a job at a club like Newcastle and willing to accept any contract conditions. But I think it’s more than that. I just don’t think Ashley has that much respect for the role a manager – or head coach, if you like – plays.
The thing is, though, the club has spent over £80m on players since last summer and our return on that has been a season where we’ve been in a relegation fight almost from the start. There is something in what McLaren has said in that there have been signs, in some games, that the team is capable of more than their lowly league position reflects, but McLaren is dropping himself in the doo-doo when he says this. If the team is capable of more then whose fault is it that they’re underachieving?
I agree with McLaren. We do have a better team than our league position suggests. I think with the right manager we have at least a solid mid-table team but I’m not so sure McLaren’s that ‘right manager’. There have just been too many games where we simply didn’t turn up and then there’s the dubious sort of tactics we employed against Everton, for example. McLaren said our whole game plan was to catch them on the break. Now I will admit that against a much better team that’s sometimes a tactic you’re forced to employ but this is Everton, not Barcelona. I just can’t see how that can be the main plan at the the outset – to try and score via the half a dozen or so good breaks you might expect in 90 minutes when our misfiring strikers need about 100 shots on goal to score.
All these things suggest to me we could do better than McLaren.
The big question, though, is what does Ashley think? His may not be the name that heads the club’s notepaper these days but I’m pretty sure he’s still the man who pulls all the strings.
McLaren did himself a favour winning against West Brom and dragging us out of the relegation zone but I think Ashley will look long and hard at things after the game against Chelsea on Saturday. If we were to fall back into the relegation zone after that then I suspect McLaren’s days might be numbered and the new manager would have 12 games to save us. How confident am I of that? Well, not very, I admit. Ashley is unpredictable but I just struggle to believe that he would risk relegation after spending £80m.
And why is McLaren always grinning? We’re trying to avoid relegation, not kill Batman.