“I want to have fun and win some trophies,” said Mike Ashley soon after assuming control in 2007. The wait for a major trophy now extends over half a century but it is the fact that his 14 years in charge were the opposite of fun that Newcastle fans will not forgive.
Failure, there has been plenty of that. He has presided over two of Newcastle’s six relegations in their 129-year history. Farce, that has been a more frequent visitor to St James’ Park than Ashley himself. But fun has never been a friend to his Newcastle.
During his time in charge, the one-time entertainers of English football were reduced to a grim curiosity. The rest of the country gawped in disbelief. Supporters merely endured.
Icons were alienated, interlopers overpromoted. Money was spent sporadically and begrudgingly, the investment intermittent and haphazard. Strategy was absent. When it did emerge it was about no more than ticking over. Nobody could mistake it for ambition.
Under Ashley, this became a zombie club, an illusion of life.
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In truth, Newcastle were not exactly thriving when he arrived. Sam Allardyce was in the dugout and being greeted by those now-familiar chants of ‘we’re **** and we’re sick of it’ that have come to sum up the prevailing perma-mood in the Gallowgate End.
Albeit briefly, there had once been hope, talk of fun seemingly backed up by Kevin Keegan’s appointment. It was a brazenly crowd-pleasing move designed to buy acclaim and breathe new life into the club and the city. It only made the betrayals more difficult to bear.
Keegan was undermined by the incongruous presence of Dennis Wise, then replaced by Joe Kinnear. It was a bizarre turn of events that would culminate in Alan Shearer overseeing relegation, being promised the chance to rebuild, before being ignored by Ashley.
Alan Shearer could not prevent Newcastle from being relegated in 2009
In the aftermath, Keegan successfully sued for constructive dismissal. The club bar was renamed Nine Bar with Shearer’s name expunged from history. It was petty and it was typical, turning what should have been an easy win into a touchstone for discontent.
They could write books about Newcastle’s public relations skills or lack thereof. Some of it requires no elaboration, such as the renaming of St James’ Park as the Sports Direct Arena.
Other aspects are more troubling, such as Jonas Gutierrez’s disability discrimination claim, so poorly was he treated by the club after suffering from testicular cancer.
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If the aim was to strip supporters of any pride, their record against rivals Sunderland only underlined the point. It is a decade since Newcastle won that fixture, the draw last time out in 2016 ending an improbable run of six consecutive defeats in the Tyne-Wear derby.
A fan even punched a horse.
Mike Ashley's unpopularity with Newcastle supporters has been evident
This was the banter era but the banter was to be had elsewhere. Even the little victories were bittersweet. It took a payday loan sponsorship to restore St James’ Park name. When Alan Pardew took the team to fifth, it came with an eight-year contract.
Pardew was always an odd fit, saddled by the ‘cockney mafia’ claims that dogged Wise and Kinnear. At least John Carver, the league’s self-proclaimed best coach, understood the area but his presence as manager was indicative of the mess that Newcastle had become.
A second relegation followed in 2016.
By that point, Ashley, who had first indicated his willingness to sell as long ago as 2008, was merely out to protect his asset, Rafael Benitez buying time and wins. The Spaniard’s relationship with the fans became something to cling to but when he’d had enough and was replaced by Steve Bruce even that treat was denied for supporters.
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Bruce, an amiable Geordie, has not been well received, his Sunderland links adding to the sense that his connection to the club was overblown, his existence in the role evidence of the paucity of ambition that had long since gripped the club. The football was boring, the future bleak. There was no grand vision for Bruce to sell.
“I hope I can keep the club just ticking along,” he said in September, unwittingly providing supporters with a revealing insight into the mentality that has summed up Ashley’s reign. Of course, that was no hope at all but it was the best that he could offer.
He knew the remit. Everyone knew the remit.
Timeline of Mike Ashley's Newcastle reign
May 23, 2007 – Ashley buys Sir John Hall’s 41.6 per cent stake in the club at a cost of £55.3m, setting the wheels in motion for a £134.4m takeover which is completed a month later.
Jan 9, 2008 – Sam Allardyce, the manager appointed by previous chairman Freddy Shepherd shortly before Ashley launched his takeover bid, is sacked only eight months into his reign.
Jan 16, 2008 – Ashley delights Newcastle supporters by persuading Kevin Keegan to return to St James’ Park for a second spell as the club’s manager.
Sep 3, 2008 – Keegan’s second coming is short-lived as he resigns due to disagreements over the club’s transfer policy, later winning a £2m pay-out for constructive dismissal.
Sep 14, 2008 – Ashley announces he is putting the club up for sale after angry fans launch protests in wake of Keegan’s departure.
April 2, 2009 – Having taken Newcastle off the market and appointed Joe Kinnear as interim manager, Ashley hands the reins to another club legend in Alan Shearer.
May 24, 2009 – Shearer is unable to prevent Newcastle’s relegation from the Premier League and leaves the club soon afterwards.
April 5, 2010 – Newcastle secure promotion back to the Premier League under Chris Hughton after promotion rivals Nottingham Forest fail to beat Cardiff.
Dec 9, 2010 – Ashley hires Alan Pardew to replace Chris Hughton with the club sitting 11th in the Premier League and only a few weeks after a 5-1 win in the derby against Sunderland.
Nov 9, 2011 – Ashley sparks fury among supporters when he announces St James’ Park will be renamed the Sports Direct Arena.
Sept 27, 2012 – Ashley causes widespread bafflement when he hands Alan Pardew a new eight-year contract as Newcastle manager following a fifth-placed Premier League finish.
Feb 4, 2014 – Joe Kinnear leaves Newcastle for a second time, this time following a chaotic stint as the club’s director of football, during which he gave an infamous interview to TalkSport in which he referred to Yohan Cabaye as ‘Yohan Kebab’.
March 11, 2016 – Rafael Benitez is announced as Newcastle’s new boss, replacing Steve McClaren, who had taken over from John Carver, Pardew’s replacement, 10 months earlier.
May 25, 2016 – Benitez delights Newcastle supporters by agreeing to stay at the club despite their relegation to the Championship.
April 24, 2017 – Benitez secures promotion back to the Premier League with a 4-1 win over Preston North End.
June 30, 2019 – Fans are left dismayed once again as Benitez reaches the end of his contract and leaves the club following 10th and 13th-placed Premier League finishes.
July 17, 2019 – Ashley makes the unpopular decision to appoint Steve Bruce as Benitez’s replacement and #BruceOut immediately starts trending on Twitter.
October 7, 2021 – Saudi-led takeover appears imminent after significant progress is made with all parties said to be hopeful that an announcement can soon be made.
Newcastle have been a little more attacking of late. They still have not seen much of the ball but there have been more bodies in the box when they have had it. And yet, the change has not translated into goals or results, only exposing the team’s defensive frailties.
Bruce described the West Ham game as ‘smashing’ while the Leeds one was ‘terrific’. The trip to Aston Villa was ‘encouraging’ and the visit of Southampton full of ‘positives’, while the Newcastle manager took to praising the clean sheet in the cup against Burnley.
Fans might have bought it had they won any of those matches.
Newcastle takeover completed
Welcome to the wonderful world of Newcastle United and its incessant double speak. This is a football club that has seemed determined to gaslight the people of an entire city. It was not the lack of success causing anger but the owner’s apparent apathy. It felt like he was failing in his duty of care.
Still they turned up, selling out away allocations despite some of the longest trips facing any travelling fans in the land. The chants for their team have been customarily interspersed with those long since forlorn calls for Ashley to get out of their club.
Now he is going, there is hope anew. The identity of the new owners, a Saudi consortium, is an uncomfortable addendum but, for the fans, perhaps that is a concern for another day. Right now, there will be only relief. Ashley’s reign is at its end.
No trophies and no fun.
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