Back in 2007, Newcastle United were about to embark on a journey of change. Long-standing owners Freddy Shepherd and Sir John Hall agreed to sell their respective stakes in the Magpies to Sports Direct owner Mike Ashley, in a move which many fans saw as a positive one at the time. Ashley brought with him a vast fortune which could rival some of the richest clubs in Europe – maybe there was hope for the Toon Army that they could be seeing their heroes battling for honours near the top of the Premier League after all? That hope was offered yet more fuel when Ashley dispensed of the services of Sam Allardyce – who had been largely unpopular with the faithful on Tyneside – and replaced him with club legend Kevin Keegan, who had helmed their previous closest run for the title in the late 1990s.
Having taken ownership of the club, and sitting with the fans wearing the club shirt during games, Ashley had seemed to be a breath of fresh air in Newcastle – a new owner with a very, very new approach. The fans liked it. The press were not quite so convinced, owing to Ashley failing to do full due diligence before purchasing the club, amid financial troubles with then-shirt sponsors Northern Rock and not being aware of long-overdue transfer payments. Nevertheless, he had appeared to be a man of the people who would listen to the fans and do his best to deliver their wishes. This was, sadly for Newcastle supporters, quite literally a honeymoon period which did not last too long. Just a little over a year later, following the closing of the summer transfer window, reports emerged that Keegan had been unhappy with Ashley’s board and their interference in the first team – specifically, Director of Football (and former Chelsea and Wimbledon midfielder) Dennis Wise.
Shortly thereafter, Keegan told the press he had been sacked. Ashley stepped in to attempt a reconciliation, but this ultimately proved fruitless and the former England manager formally resigned two days later. The fans were on the turn, and began to grow weary of Ashley and his “cockney mafia”, of which Wise was a part. Ashley had attempted to sell the club within weeks, but later withdrew the sale after being unable to find an acceptable buyer (despite there being interest in having the fans buy the club from him). In the decade since things started going downhill quickly, Newcastle have (almost unthinkably) been relegated twice, and at present sit second from bottom in the Premier League, without a win to their name in the opening eight games.
Manager Rafael Benitez – another hugely popular figure at the club – has clearly been unsettled in recent months, and the potential loss of the Spaniard would prove a major blow for Ashley’s strained relationship with the club’s followers. Things had gone downhill in the intervening years with the dismissal of Chris Hughton and subsequent appointment of Alan Pardew, though the latter did manage to instill some stability into the team for a time. Ashley has since gone on the record to state that he regrets ever buying Newcastle United, which seems to have boiled over onto their on-pitch performance. He did come close to selling when businesswoman Amanda Staveley tabled a bid, but the sale did not go through and so he still finds himself owning the club in 2018, 10 full years after first putting it up for sale. Only recently has he started attending matches again, though he is likely unimpressed by what he has seen on the pitch.
Allowing the likes of Dwight Gayle to leave raised some eyebrows, and while bringing in the likes of Salomon Rondon and Christian Atsu may have seemed like good plans at the time things just haven’t really clicked. Jonjo Shelvey is arguably the best player at the club – or certainly one of them – but he has failed to perform at his top level this season as well. Is Benitez to blame for the players underperforming? That would seem the easy conclusion, but all the troubles simmering behind the scenes will almost certainly impact the team massively. Benitez is a great manager, and the players seem to love having him as their manager. Yet the way things are going it is almost TOO easy to see him being blamed as a scapegoat if he and Ashley cannot resolve their differences soon.
The performances have not always been bad necessarily, but the results have not gone their way. For a club with such a vocal and passionate fanbase, things appear about as low as they ever have during Ashley’s tumultuous tenure on Tyneside. Whether or not he chooses again to pursue a new buyer of the club remains to be seen, though he did once clarify he wouldn’t sell until they at least either won a trophy or qualified for the Champions League. As far as football club owners go, Ashley has gone from massively popular to the other end of the scale. While few can doubt his business acumen, things need to change quickly if the Magpies are to avoid a third relegation in less than a decade.
That change being a shuffle of management would also prove unpopular as previously mentioned – one would surmise that the change which would bring most relief to the fans would be a change in ownership. Yet with Ashley’s stance on them having to win a trophy first, it would appear things are at a stalemate. The team look a long, long way off from winning a major trophy, and whether that will change with an unhappy owner seems doubtful. It is clearly a big club, and the fans frankly deserve better than they are getting at the moment. To paraphrase, the fog on the Tyne would most certainly seem to be Ashley’s at this moment in time – he needs to sell, for his own good as well as for all the club’s supporters. It may prove tough, of course – but that should be his first priority.
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