Newcastle United lost plenty of matches last season and never left you wondering how they did so. However, their recent loss at a Premier League Managers’ Arbitration Tribunal to former manager Kevin Keegan is another matter entirely. The media focus has, naturally been on a club which built a complex player recruitment structure, yet signed Uruguayan international Ignacio Gonzalez on the basis of YouTube clips and a “you scratch my back” deal with two South American agents. Some might argue that this in itself says plenty about how Newcastle have operated under Mike Ashley, their owner since July 2007, but the fact that they lost this case says plenty more. The Magpies’ new ‘continental structure’, to give it a grander title than it deserved, was already garnering headlines when the PR-heavy reappointment of Keegan as manager was made in January 2008. Ashley, for neither the first nor the last time, was in desperate need of good publicity and was anxious to rid the club of previous chairman Freddie Shepherd’s most visible legacy, manager Sam Allardyce and his team of unwatchable mid-table mediocrities.
Keegan’s availability was a godsend. Here was a man who needed the sort of money only Ashley’s Newcastle looked likely to throw at him, as his Glasgow Soccer circus ran up debts that required regular dips into his personal finances. And here was Ashley’s Newcastle, in need of not just a man like Keegan, but Keegan himself – a much-loved figure thanks to his spells as player and manager at St James Park covering two generations, with a reputation for producing exciting teams with could scarcely have been a greater contrast with Allardyce, the personification of ‘dour’, with a team to match. All Newcastle had to do was fit Keegan into their new continental structure, the hierarchy of which was (as the Tribunal’s report outlined) was readily available at the time. Under the adopted system, an ‘executive director (football)’ would be responsible for player recruitment along with a vice-president (player recruitment). The executive director (football) would be a board member and the manager would “report to him”. There’s no doubting the seniority in that scenario and nor is there any doubting that any decisions on player recruitment would be at board level, informed by the board member concerned. In other words, these decisions would not be taken by the manager.
How, then, did Newcastle lose this one? The answer turns out to be much like their team least season: a combination of poor organisation, sloppy attitude and tactical ineptitude. Underpinning much of Newcastle’s defeat was the tribunal’s immediate willingness to believe Keegan would never have taken the Newcastle job if he hadn’t had “the final say” on transfers, a phrase which occurs no fewer than twenty-seven times in the published judgment, plus a “final word” or two from that great footballing mismoner Dennis Wise, Executive Director (“football”). Newcastle could easily have disputed this, and they didn’t have to prove otherwise. They could have suggested, with the backing of contemporaneous newspaper reports, that Keegan needed the money to deal with his Glasgow soccer circus debts and that his spell out of the game meant that his prospects of getting football work, in the short-term required to deal with these debts, was nil.
In October 2007, on the BBC’s Inside Sport, Keegan said he was unlikely to manage again and that, “I do get offers but my life has gone in a different direction… I haven’t watched a game of football live since my last game at Manchester City and I can’t even remember what that game was” – hardly a “come and get me” plea, or much of a job application. Yet circumstances dictated otherwise, and when Newcastle came, three months later, Keegan was in talks like a shot. Indeed, some cynical observers said then that Keegan would only “stick the job for nine months, until he’s paid his debts off”, a view not greatly challenged by Keegan leaving after eight months. Newcastle didn’t, however, offer this as a context for the Tribunal to consider, relying instead on Ashley’s form of legalese, that it was “blindingly obvious” from initial discussions between club and Keegan that he would not have the final say.
The tribunal didn’t agree, believing that this was not implicit in the management structure reported above. This may, stripped of context, still seem odd. Until you read the context Newcastle did offer. The Tribunal noted that various Newcastle people were “saying to the public in various interviews and press statements” that Keegan would have “the final say”. These people included, damagingly, the Executive Director (Football) himself, Wise, and, more damagingly still, the one Newcastle director during Ashley’s time who has ever been afforded any credibility by outsiders, former chairman Chris Mort. The club’s explanation for these statements was one notch above “only joking.” They were, apparently, “nothing more than an exercise in PR, carried out so as not to undermine Keegan’s position” and, get this, “made necessary in the first place by statements made by (Keegan) himself,” although no club witness could bring to mind any of these statements when called upon to do so.
Hamstrung by the language limitations of such documents, the Tribunal reported: “We found this explanation to be profoundly unsatisfactory”. Well, quite and, characteristically for this report, the wait for Newcastle to contradict themselves wasn’t a lengthy one, as “Keegan’s successor, Joe Kinnear asked for and was given the final say, yet the structure…remained the same and Wise continued his position…without any change to the terms of his contract”. The Tribunal report said: “Finally, the club’s own witnesses themselves seemed to be unclear as to what was the position (so) we had, and continue to have real difficulty in understanding the Club’s position”. Welcome to our world, gentlemen. This tribunal could be Mike Ashley’s “final say” as owner of Newcastle United Football Club. When people are asked if Sulaiman Al-Fahim was the worst owner ever, only Ashley causes hesitancy – and if Newcastle’s performance at this tribunal, ill-conceived and badly executed, is to be his legacy, it is an appropriate one.