So, it would appear that Newcastle United’s supporters have got approximately fifty per cent of what they wanted, with Mike Ashley’s official announcement that the club is up for sale, although it had been widely rumoured that he had been looking for an exit strategy for quite some time. The other fifty per cent – the reinstallation of Kevin Keegan as the club’s manager – might just prove to be wishful thinking, though whether that is a bad thing or not depends on what one’s opinion is of Keegan as a manager. From a neutral standpoint, the frustrating thing is that such a major protest has taken place over such a comparatively minor issue. There is so much wrong with the Premier League that one might have hoped that the first major protests of the new season would have been aimed at the plutocrats that are wrenching control of the game away from us, or against the continually spiralling ticket prices which mean that football long since stopped being anything like the working man’s game, but this unfocussed protest has become largely sidelined by becoming an “anti-Cockney”, pro “Geordie Nation” protest, which is, in the grand scheme of things, irrelevant.
It’s rather stating the obvious to say that Ashley’s time in charge at St James Park has been an unmitigated disaster. From the start, Ashley has let his heart rule his head at crucial moments, and these have led directly to the problems that he faces today. The appointment of Keegan was his first public example of allowing sentimentailty to rule his decision making process. There was much chuckling and tittering when Kevin Keegan was appointed again, and Keegan’s record as manager has largely justified it. Six wins in twenty-one matches in charge can hardly claim to be successful by any stretch of the imagination. Keegan hasn’t, it must be said, behaved with an enormous amount of dignity throughout this saga. Dennis Wise (and when assessing this, it’s important to not let you personal opinion of Wise get in the way) was appointed at the same time as Keegan, and one must presume that Keegan was told straight away that the club’s structure would be for Wise to be in charge of transfers, while Keegan would be in a primarily coaching role. If he didn’t like that, he should have left then. Instead, he dragged it out over eight months and trying to build himself into a position from which he may have believed that he was immune from the sack. If Keegan had had this set up explained to him, however, his demands were completely unreasonable, and Ashley was left with little choice.
In one other critical respect, however, Ashley made a fundamental error in letting his heart rule his head. A considerable amount of the difficulties that Newcastle United are currently having are because of the fact that the club’s financial difficulties had been significantly underestimated. Commercial land surrounding the stadium which is owned by the club had been significantly overvalued and the club’s debt had significantly underplayed. The failure, on Ashley’s part, to carry out due diligence when purchasing the club is a significant failure on his part to the extent that one would have to question how he came to become so wealthy in the first place if he makes lapses of judgement this grave. His plan for Newcastle was pretty clear – based upon his investment alone, they would not be able to compete with the top five or six clubs in the country, so they would set up an extensive scouting network to sign up young players worldwide. Nothing wrong with that. However, his decision to decision to pain himself as a “man of the people” appears to have backfired. The image of him in the cheap seats wearing a replica shirt has been as ridiculed as it has been respected, and it seems to have given the club’s supporters the impression that he would simply do whatever they demanded, which led to the impasse that existed until his announcement last Sunday.
Newcastle United’s supporters are not “The Greatest In The World”, no matter what the mass media may say. Indeed, in the past, they stand accused of having been not nearly angry enough, having reacted to the team’s capitulation in 1996 and their mistreatment at the hands of Freddy Shepherd and John Hall with sullen introspection rather than the bile and venom with which they should have done. Ultimately, however, though he has been guilty of serious lapses of judgement in his time in charge of the club, Mike Ashley is by no means one of the “worst” owners in the Premier League at the moment. It would seem highly unlikely that Kevin Keegan will return to St James Park again, and the club has been left rudderless, up for sale and facing an uphill battle to stay in the Premier League. One might have hoped that this whole sorry incident would have led to people re-evaluating whether putting one’s club into the hands of an individual that has absolute power over its destiny for the sake of a few pounds was wise, but this hasn’t happened. What has happened in the case of Newcastle United is that the billionaire owner doesn’t have enough money to throw into the insatiable fire that is the modern Premier League, so they need someone even richer. The over-riding irony of the modern Premier League is that everyone now seems to think that progressive football club ownership should be a return to this sort of master/serf relationship.