People always misjudged the anti-Glazer protests at Manchester United. It was always a more nuanced argument than being against foreign ownership in football. There is nothing wrong with foreign ownership of English football clubs, as long as they are well run. Randy Lerner’s time in charge at Aston Villa is proof of this, as if it were needed. Adding another string to the bow of this argument has been Mike Ashley’s time in charge at Newcastle United, which reached yet another crisis point with what may or may not be the sacking today of Kevin Keegan. It’s still more or less impossible to know whether Ashley is in the midst of a mid-life crisis, but whatever the reasons are for his increasingly eccentric behaviour, it is pretty clear that he is some way short of providing compelling evidence against the owners of foreign clubs taking control of Premier League football clubs.
It seems unlikely that Keegan is ever going to be able to lead Newcastle United to the glories that the club seems to think that it has some sort of entitlement to. A record of six wins in twenty-one matches rather speaks for itself, but he did at least (after an absolutely disastrous start) manage to steady the ship enough to ensure that relegation wasn’t going to be a serious issue. Their start this season hasn’t been too bad, either. They largely outplayed Manchester United on the opening day of the season at Old Trafford, earning a 1-1 draw, and then beat Bolton Wanderers at St James Park, although that particular result was over-shadowed by the lowest crowd there for ten years. They laboured to beat Coventry City, but won that match after extra-time (and who amongst us didn’t look at that fixture and think, “Well, there’s a fixture that Newcastle United are plenty capable of losing?” and, on Saturday, were brushed aside by Arsenal. No major shock there.
What, then, is going so horribly wrong at St James Park? Firstly, the appointment of Dennis Wise appears to be doing considerable damage behind the scenes there. Wise’s control over transfers was always going to be likely to cause friction with Keegan, who resigned from the England job in no small part to the FA’s refusal to offer the veteran manager Arthur Cox a position as his assistant. Cox’s resignation last month at Newcastle was, if anything, an indication of the lack of unity at the club. It’s easy to see how Keegan must feel about the undermining of his authority at the club. Secondly, Keegan’s public backing of Joey Barton may have been a misjudgement. Keegan may claim that he was speaking pragmatically, considering that it was never likely that the club was going to sack Barton, but it still jarred as a public display of how the club’s left arm does one thing while its left arm does another.
Today may, however, prove to be the day that the media overkill of football finally reaches saturation point. Following on from last night’s absurd live BBC update page on the transfer deadline (which largely seemed to consist of people texting in and telling them complete lies), rumours of Keegan’s demise may have been overstated. The story of his “departure” was leaked to Sky Sports News and has been dutifully repeated as fact by almost all major news outlets, but rumours of his demise are proving, for the time being, to be somewhat exaggerated. Most media outlets have now retracted their more gung-ho stories after Newcastle United posted this statement on their website:
Kevin has raised a number of issues. We’d like to stress Kevin is extremely important both now and in the future and want him to continue to play an instrumental role as manager.
It will certainly be interesting to see how this one plays out. Have Newcastle issued this statement with the intention of pushing Keegan into resigning (which would, if nothing else, save them some money in the short term)? Regardless of this statement and the current air of uncertainty, is Keegan’s position really tenable, considering what we have come to learn today about the discord beind the scenes at the club? In some respects, both Newcastle United and Kevin Keegan are victims of 24 Hour Rolling News culture, in which rumour is quickly whipped up into becoming the truth without proper checks being made because of time constraints. We have reached a point, it would seem, at which it no longer even matters to a news agency whether a story is true or not, as long as the agency concerned is amongst the first to broadcast it.
More pressing than this, however, is the state of Newcastle United Football Club. It’s public knowledge that Mike Ashley didn’t even bother to check how deeply in debt they were when he bought the club, and this slapdash state of affairs seems to continue to this day. This feeling of sloppiness has been accentuated by today’s events. If Newcastle can’t keep this sort of behind the scenes arguing quiet, how can they be trusted to, well, do anything else? Modern football requires levels of organisation and preparation that are completely unparalleled elsewhere in sport. Most clubs now have dozens if not hundreds of full and part time staff, and each one of them is integral in the fine tuning of that club. Newcastle, however, have an owner that can drink a pint in eight seconds, a manager that isn’t really in charge and a “Director Of Football” whose remit seems to be at best ill-defined and at worst whatever the hell he wants it to be. And as Newcastle United have discovered to their enormous cost today, it isn’t good enough to be washing ones dirty linen in public. As for the press… well, it’ll be a cold day in hell before you get an apology from them.