Newcastle United go into this afternoon’s Tyne-Tees derby match at Middlesbrough in reasonably rude health on the pitch. Six points clear at the top of the Championship and with a game in hand, a swift return to the Premier League now seems more likely than not and, in managing this in what could at best be described as frequently trying circumstances, Chris Hughton has earnt himself something of a reputation as an alchemist and a master in the specialist art of pulling a squad together that seemed last summer to be capable only of pulling itself to pieces. He is a genuine contender, should such an award that stretches across the whole of English football exist, for “Manager Of The Year”.
At Newcastle United, however, nothing is ever quite as simple as it seems and grubling over the ownership of Mike Ashley continues. Ashley’s increasingly dwindling supporters on Tyneside – if, indeed, there are any left there at all – may point to the club’s success on the pitch this season. The common consensus in Newcastle, however, is that most of what has been achieved at the club (and considering the bleak state of the prognosis for it during the summer, those achievements are manifold) has been done in spite of Ashley’s involvement rather than because of it, and it has also be gently pointed out on more than one occasion that yes, whilst getting out of the Championship would be A Good Thing, Mike Ashley seeking to take the credit for it would be a bit rich, because it is his business and football decisions that put them there in the first place.
Derek Llambias, the Newcastle United Managing Director, has been reasonably quiet this season, presumably following the logic that the relationship between those currently running the club and its support has broken down to such an extent that it is scarcely worth making public statements that will are likely to act as the public relations equivalent of pouring oil onto water. Over the last couple of weeks, however, he hasn’t been able to help himself and, as the promotion finishing line starts to come ever so slightly into view on the horizon, he has started to allow hubris to get the better of it and make the occasional pronouncement that if it wasn’t for Mike Ashley, Newcastle United might be in the same predicament as Portsmouth at the moment.
Of course, Llambias’ comparison is a little like comparing chalk and cheese. Even when Newcastle United were at their lowest ebb, Mike Ashley still had the cub up for sale for £100m and there were (although his valuation seemed over-optimistic, to say the least) some grounds for this. Newcastle United as an institution remains solid. They are are the only show in town in one of the biggest cities on the north of England. They could reasonably expect to get crowds of at least 30,000 even if they were to struggle in the Championship, and a winning team at St James Park would likely see crowds pushing over 40,000 and higher. The interest in Newcastle United within the city itself has never really gone away.
If Newcastle supporters have been fortunate, it is that even the succession of basket cases that have turned up at Fratton Park would have baulked at paying Ashley’s asking price for the club. What happened (and is still happening) at Portsmouth is a completely different set of circumstances but who is to say that had, say, Sulaiman Al-Fahim bought Newcastle rather than Portsmouth, the spiral of crisis that engulfed them wouldn’t have happened there instead? As endorsements go, however, it’s hardly a ringing one. Anything less than keeping Newcastle United afloat would have been commercial suicide for Ashley. It has become inceasingly clear that he didn’t carry out anything like due diligence at the time of the club and that the money that he has put into the club has been to protect his own financial interests. It was a calculated gamble, and the club will be likely to become considerably more marketable if (or when) it gets back into the Premier League. In putting in the money that he has done, he has protected his asset, and little more.
Still, however, Llambias can’t help himself. Perhaps those running Newcastle United just can’t help themselves. They have seen the possibility of the Championship trophy being lifted at St James Park at the end of the season and know in the back of their minds that the supporters at least are likely to do what they can to exclude them from any celebrations that may take place. Should this be the way that things play out, there will be a simple reason for it. There are many people on Tyneside of the opinion that what has been achieved on the pitch at Newcastle United has been very much done in spite of the actions of the likes of Ashley and Llambias, and that they would be best advised to keep their mouths shut. If anyone is likely to be chaired from the pitch at St James Park at the end of this season, it is likely to be Chris Hughton, whose work under exceptional circumstances might just be worth the freedom of the city.