There comes a point at which inept management crosses an invisible rubicon and passes into something even more depressing and worrying. There can be little arguing with the case for the prosecution. Ashley’s time in charge of Newcastle United has been an unmitigated disaster. He oversaw relegation from the Premier League when the club had the fifth highest wage budget, has managed to alienate almost the entire support of the club and managed to fail to sell the club when it had a buyer which seemed keen to tie up a deal to secure the purchase of it from him.
The week started with quite a sensible decision – the apparent jettisoning of the mad scheme to bring Alan Shearer in as the club’s full-time manager on the basis that he had been a very good player and was from the area and the appointment of Chris Hughton on a full-time basis. Hughton, whose steadying of a sinking ship during the summer and ascent to the top of the Championship table at the start of this season has demonstrated beyond any doubt that he is the man for the job, deserves his chance in charge at the club. He has earned it during a spell during which the club has been under unprecedented pressure and in a state of flux that frequently resembled chaos.
His next announcement was one that may have made sense, as long as you didn’t even think about it superficially for a few seconds. Ashley announced that he is withdrawing the club from the market and putting £20m of funding in himself. On the surface, the notion of having £20m to spend may seem appealing, but this story clearly has more down-sides to it than up-sides. Most significantly, it ends Barry Moat’s interest in the club, even though he was heading in the direction of Ashley’s (frankly absurdly overpriced) £100m valuation of the club. In a rational and sane world, most businessmen would have bitten Moat’s hand off for the £80m that he offered (£60m down and the remainder in instalments), but Ashley showed worrying signs of pig-headedness in his refusal to shift any further in his valuation of the club.
Secondly, the withdrawal of the sale has come at a strange time. Newcastle United, of course, owe Kevin Keegan £2m after having lost their unfair dismissal case against him last month. On the pitch, meaniwhile, although they remain top of the table in the Championship, the team is stuttering. They have won just one of their last five matches and that win, against Doncaster Rovers last Saturday, came thanks to a goal in stoppage time from Kevin Nolan after Doncaster had missed a penalty deep into the second half with the scores still level. With Gordon Strachan having now taken over at Middlesbrough, their time as leaders of the division may prove to be numbered.
All of this, however, pales in comparison with his most recent announcement – that he intends to sell the naming rights to St James Park to the highest bidder. In this single announcement, he has shown his true colours. The talk of being a “genuine supporter”, “one of the lads” and all the rest of that utter garbage that he himself was keen to perpetuate when he took ownership of the club is now shown up for what it was. No genuine Newcastle supporter would even countenance changing the name of St James Park to, say “The Northern Rock Stadium” (no matter how apt that may be in some respects).
There can ony be two rational explanations for such a decision. On the one hand, Ashley might simply be openly displaying his contempt for the club and its supporters, in which case he deserves all the contempt that is thrown back at him. The other possibility may be that the club’s financial decision is so desperate that this needs to be done. This, however, seems unlikely. For one thing, considering that the club is now off the market, it would be common sense to appease the supporters by coming clean and saying, “look, we’re in a bad way financially and we need this money in order to secure our future”. For another, if the club really was in that bad a financial state, he would surely have cut his losses and sold up to Barry Moat.
The announcement certainly seems to give scant regard to the almost unique place that St James Park plays at the heart of its community. Newcastle is a one club city, and St James Park is both literally and metaphorically at the heart of it. Alongside the Tyne Bridge and the Angel Of The North, it is one of the defining monuments of the entire city in a way that perhaps no other football stadium in Britain is. To throw away the name that it has held since 1892 for a couple of milllion pounds is not just an insult to the supporters of the club, but also to the wider population of the city and the area. Maybe Ashley is doing it with a heavy heart. Maybe he doesn’t give a tu’penny damn. No matter which of those two applies, though, the end result will be the same.
Stadium naming rights remain a thorny issue. They are usually associated with small-time clubs that simply don’t have that many options when it comes to securing sponsorship to underwrite their futures or clubs that have built brand new stadia and need to offset some of the hideous costs involved in such a project. When it works well, it can be a seamless transition (Stoke City’s Britannia Stadium, for example, is a good case in point), but nothing in the announcement made by the club gives any indication that any thought has been put into sensitivity towards the feelings of supporters:
Newcastle United now aims to move forward on and off the pitch. The Club aims to maximise its commercial revenues; this includes renegotiating its Club sponsor and kit deal, which expire at the end of this season, as well as welcoming offers for the stadium naming rights for next season.
In this statement, this cold, unapologetic statement of a commercial decision which ignores the feelings of supporters for a shilling lies the heart of the matter. It doesn’t really matter that Mike Ashley is a southerner. What does matter, however, is that his motives seem to be being betrayed by his actions, and selling a big chunk of the history and tradition of Newcastle United down the river for a couple of million pounds (which, if the club’s financial situation really is that bad, will be a mere drop in ocean compared to what they will need to raise should they fail to get promotion at the end of this season) seems nonsensical, in both business and moral terms.
Of course, in modern football we all know that morality these days counts for little. The bare fact of the matter is that this decision doesn’t really make much business sense either. The anger towards him now seems likely to reach even more incandescent levels, and protest, discord and disharmony doesn’t seem to be likely to engender an atmosphere in which a settled team can achieve what Ashley wants (and, one suspects, needs more than anyone else), which is a quick return to the Premier League. If they don’t manage that and if Newcastle are, as many suspect, still haemorrhaghing money through their bloated wage budget to a dangerous, a couple of million pounds won’t make that much of a difference anyway.