As Newcastle United prepare to welcome Hull City back to St James’ Park in the Premier League for the first time since a poignantly fateful clash in September 2008, Sam Winter discusses how life has changed on Tyneside since Marlon King sank the Toon Army that day.
Cockney Mafia Out. Derek Llambias sat alone in the Director’s seats as the rage of a Geordie Nation rained down from the stands at St James’ Park. Mike Ashley and Dennis Wise were unsurprisingly absent. King Kevin had gone, although as I walked up to Gallowgate with thousands of fellow supporters that afternoon there was a faint hope that all might not be lost, that the “Geordie Messiah” may well have been persuaded to reverse his resignation. What was certain as I took my seat that day was that relations between the fans and Mike Ashley’s regime were well and truly broken. The man who had delighted Tyneside with a takeover, stood with fans on away days, picked up bar tabs in town, and quite amazingly appointed Keegan as manager once more, was now well and truly public enemy number one. His sidekick Dennis Wise was brought in over Keegan’s head to oversee a disastrous transfer window and it was the beginning of the end for Newcastle United in the Premier League. As the teams walked out onto the pitch on the 13th September 2008 it was immediately clear that the football played would be a mere sideshow as St James’ Park showed an unwavering support for Keegan, and a united stand against Mike Ashley. As the banner made its way round the ground and resolutely faced the empty directors area the whole ground stood and applauded. The match didn't matter, this is our club. Newcastle players were completely dumbfounded by the off-field events, Hull won a woeful encounter 2-1 and Newcastle United were relegated at the end of the season; ironically a point behind the Tigers.
Fast-forward to 2013 and Tyneside is once again at odds with Mike Ashley, something I never thought would be apparent as I exited St James’ Park five years previous. However this time the frustration comes on the back of Newcastle being unable to follow up on an outstanding 5th place finish in the 2011/12 Premier League season. In three seasons Newcastle had gone from Championship relegation favourites to the cusp of the Champions League and the biggest surprise of all was that Mike Ashley oversaw the entire renaissance. A complex and silent figure to say the least, Ashley still manages to make almost ridiculous headlines. You only need to mention the letters JFK to understand exactly what I refer to. The Sports Direct Arena, Wonga, Chris Hughton, and Joey Barton - the owner has continued to make the headlines seemingly all about him; and continued to painfully irate the loyal support of Newcastle United. People may hate him (and I give any praise through gritted teeth) but few can deny what Ashley has done for the club, the Londoner has effectively saved Newcastle United financially and made it one of the surest, most stable football clubs in Europe. Fans will never have to worry about the threat of liquidation or debt; Newcastle United’s foundations are forever steadfast under this owner. Exciting players have been brought in under the radar, taking the club forward on the pitch and back into Europe. There’s no doubt the club is now in great shape, but the owner is still as unpopular as that September afternoon in 2008.
Rising From the Ashes
I remember standing on the platform at Newcastle Central Station as a 0-0 draw at home to Portsmouth had slid Newcastle dangerously closer to the relegation trap door in 2009. I phoned my father and uttered the once unthinkable words, “we need to be relegated…we need to start again”. By all means I didn't really want us to go down, the day we did was as painful as any bad day I've ever experienced, but I knew deep down that the only way Newcastle United could become great again was by starting over. I never would have thought that Mike Ashley would be at the helm when we rose again though. An unsuccessful sale pitch to local businessman Barry Moat ensued before the subsequent Championship campaign; Ashley having put the club up for sale at supporters’ “requests”. Newcastle fans were in disarray, awaiting an appointment of Alan Shearer that never came, and the players were embarrassed 6-1 at Leyton Orient in pre-season. My vision of us starting over was crumbling before a competitive ball was kicked. Ashley stayed aboard though, and poured another £20 million into the club to fund a swift return to the Premier League. The likes of Kevin Nolan, Steve Harper, Alan Smith, and Joey Barton grabbed the playing staff by the scruff of the neck and stormed to the Championship title. Suddenly it was fantastic again, 100+ points and a St James’ Park fortress; high earning footballers sweating blood for the shirt – for the fans. Tyneside will never forget the impact of players like Nolan and Barton (you only had to be at Steve Harper’s charity game last week to appreciate that) or the dignified Chris Hughton. They avoided the off-field circus and did the business where it mattered, and they take huge credit for where the club finds itself now in 2013.
|Swift return: Newcastle players and staff galvanised the club and stormed to the Championship title|
Back in the Premier League in 2010 and suddenly there was no reason to complain, no reason to revolt or backlash against the owner. The team smashed Aston Villa 6-0 and sensationally destroyed 5under1and before stunningly winning at the Emirates. Supporters were in dreamland, team spirit was unshakeable and, most importantly, Mike Ashley was silent and nowhere to be seen. As a Newcastle United fan for 20 years I’ve learnt that trouble seems to always be round the corner when things are going swimmingly, particularly under Mike Ashley. Sure enough just weeks after a wonderful set of results Chris Hughton was sacked. It was disgusting treatment of one of the nicest men to grace the game; not only that but a man who had contributed to reviving the club, a man who simply did not warrant losing his job. Ashley had the footballing world in uproar, Tyneside astonished. I wasn't surprised. The swift appointment of Alan Pardew had alarm bells severely ringing and the “Ashley Out” campaign was back in full swing. Looking back now I feel ashamed to have jumped on the anti-Pardew campaign so quickly but it was impossible not to following Ashley’s reason for sacking Hughton being that he wanted a “big-name” manager. The deadline day sale of Andy Carroll a month later certainly didn’t help the cause yet Pardew led Newcastle to a comfortable mid-table finish that finish and Newcastle sanctioned the arrival of Yohan Cabaye early in the summer under the noses of a host of European clubs. Demba Ba also arrived but as the 2011/12 curtain-raiser drew near, the wheels were threatening to come off again as Jose Enrique and Joey Barton publicly criticised the board in the aftermath of the sale of popular skipper Nolan. Fans were also in disbelief and it was hard to see how the board had any ambition with their actions. Ashley’s staunch determination to stay out of the public eye and explain his decisions only fuelled the frustration. Enrique got his wish and left for Anfield, and Barton didn't get his and was shipped to QPR on a free transfer. In the aftermath of the Barton furore, it was clearer than ever that Mike Ashley wanted full control of all things Newcastle United. You only needed to tune in to Barton’s interview on a QPR radio show to astonishingly hear some unfortunately believable home truths. Ashley didn't appreciate the “players committee” that pushed Newcastle to promotion in 2010, and slowly but surely dismantled them over time. Danny Simpson and Steve Harper have also since departed; two more key figures from that season.
|Newcastle impressed back in the big-time, but trouble was always round the corner|
Surging Forward, Standing Still
Despite the great worries Newcastle delivered on the pitch in unprecedented fashion; a 5th place finish that could have been as high as 3rd going into the final weekend of 2011/12. Some performances were spectacular; swashbuckling football that Geordies had been craving since Sir Bobby Robson. Sir Alex Ferguson held his hands up as the Champions were crushed 3-0, Didier Drogba left applauding as Papiss Cisse conquered Stamford Bridge. Suddenly Newcastle had a side that could push for the top and a Manager of the Year. The summer transfer window couldn't come quickly enough; Graham Carr the mastermind scout would surely uncover more diamonds. Yet excitement became disappointment as only Vurnon Anita was brought in as a senior player and, with early season injuries in the Europa League, the squad was suddenly far too thin in 2012/13. Ashley had stood still, the worst thing to do on the back of promise, and fans could only watch as the side limped through to the January window. It perhaps highlights a naivety and an unwillingness to part with a transfer kitty on Ashley’s behalf that the owner had transfers lined up for the following summer because they would be free transfers, rather than bringing them in before the disastrous campaign. So in rushed the belated French Revolution in January and their contribution meant Newcastle just about stumbled over the survival line at Loftus Road in May with one game to spare.
Now it truly was time to move forward and to not stand still. Surely the owner would learn from his mistakes. Pardew was ready to kick on, Llambias right behind him. All the right noises were being made; two new attackers and a centre half would AT LEAST be heading to Tyneside. But then it happened, right out of the blue in true Mike Ashley style, the excruciatingly embarrassing return of Joe Kinnear as Director of Football. Now this is an example of how I just cannot fathom Mike Ashley’s methods. There is no denying that Ashley is a shrewd businessman (he isn't the 15th richest man in the UK for nothing) and as a business he runs Newcastle United well. But as a football CLUB it just seems to be wave after wave of embarrassment and unwanted headlines for the fans. Ashley knew that Kinnear’s appointment would be catastrophic for supporters but he wanted a “football head” in that role, which makes huge sense. However there are hundreds of other football heads that aren't called Joe Kinnear out there yet he still chose to pick the last man Geordies would have wanted. The fact that Kinnear only managed to bring in Loic Remy this summer compounded the misery, but if Remy stays fit he could be the man to fire the side back into the higher echelons of the Premier League.
Method to the Madness?
This madness wasn't unique of course; The Sports Direct Arena was another trying time for supporters. The whole “naming rights” spiel is also logical due to the business-like nature of the modern Premier League, however Ashley did not NEED to change St James’ Park to the name of his own business to attract potential sponsors; Newcastle United can do that by itself. Wonga weren't wooed by the “Sports Direct Arena” when they took on sponsorship, as proved by a swift renaming. Despite popular strategies, Wonga has not been a favourable arrangement with the Newcastle faithful from a rightly ethical perspective. The pay-day lenders may well be the clubs biggest ever partnership but once again a Mike Ashley dealing had brought unwanted headlines and upset to the club.
It is difficult to argue against the idea that Mike Ashley does financially viable dealings, yet makes sure he annoys the Newcastle fans at the same time. Don’t get me wrong, the unpopular but astronomical sale of Andy Carroll has helped the club massively in the long run; and the despairing sale of Kevin Nolan has probably been justified by the acquisition of Yohan Cabaye. But with the Hughton/Pardew drama, the renaming of St James’ Park, Wongagate, and the Joe Kinnear debacle, have all been mind-boggling situations that Ashley has conjured. What makes everything all the more testing is the fact that Mike Ashley does not speak publicly about the club or anything going on at the club, ever. The fact that he never comes out and explains some of these huge decisions when he really should only serves to drive Newcastle supporters even further up the wall. I would say that he does himself no favours by remaining in the shadows, but I am also aware that any public declarations would only appease a section of support. The general consensus is that Mike Ashley will never win over Newcastle United fans and will always get the abuse he has got for five years, so why should he talk? It is perhaps far-fetched to conclude that Mike Ashley uses some sort of hatred of Newcastle supporters to drive his running of the club but IF he did, it perhaps boils down to that afternoon in September 2008 when Hull City visited St James’ Park for the very first time in the Premier League. That day was the beginning of the end for Newcastle United in the top flight, and the end of any friendship between Mike Ashley and the Toon Army.
|Much has changed since the last St James' meeting between Newcastle and Hull in the Premier League|
What we can conclude however, as Tyneside welcomes back the newly promoted Tigers, is that Newcastle United is a completely different animal in fine shape five years on. There’s no squad disharmony or disillusion, there’s backroom stability, financial security, and a wave of positivity in the aftermath of summer difficulties with promising performance on the pitch. Newcastle go into the game with an opportunity to record three wins on the spin, a fine feat early in the campaign. Fans will swarm to St James’ with optimism and expectancy, not despair and anger. Events on the pitch will be the spectacle, not the sideshow. In 2008 Hull took advantage of a wounded animal, this time they should fear one. And perhaps somewhere, wherever he may be, Mike Ashley will look on proceedings with a wry smile. What a difference five years makes.