Mike Ashley: From villain to hero

by Kevin Christie

Few would have believed back in the tumultuous days of December 2010 that Alan Pardew would still be incumbent in the St James’ Park hot-seat some two years later.

Since Mike Ashley took the reins in the summer of 2007, Sam Allardyce, Kevin Keegan, Joe Kinnear, Alan Shearer and Chris Hughton have all come and gone – none bar Hughton lasting any more than a few months or leaving with their reputation enhanced or their credibility intact. They dined with cannibals and got eaten as Ashley’s ruthless regime chewed them up and spat them out. Sympathy was limited and many onlookers basked in the schadenfreude and were only too happy to witness Newcastle’s sad decline.

To the untrained eye (and there were many of them – myself included), Pardew in 2010 was a washed-up also-ran who had blown his chance of making it big by believing his own hype and letting the relative success of his stint at West Ham go to his head. However, against all the odds, he has done an amazing job at Newcastle and he thoroughly deserves all the plaudits he has received of late. However, despite my admiration for Pardew and all he has achieved, it must be noted that finally, either by accident or design, Ashley and Co have brought stability, reality and a sense of perspective to Tyneside.

Ashley’s mistakes have been both high-profile and numerous – each one a more shameful and damaging PR disaster than the last, with many die-hard fans swearing that they would stay away from St James’ Park for the duration of his tenure. Doubtless, some have done and will continue to do so – yet it has not really been reflected in the attendances as the stadium is more or less full for most league games.

Many fans have surely been in turmoil as the team’s fortunes on the pitch began to improve. Pardew’s vision took shape, he hit upon a winning formula and he got the team playing attractive, free-flowing football once more. Trying to make a stand and be principled in showing your dislike for a contemptible owner is one thing in the bad times, quite another when things are going well. It’s easy to criticise, take the moral high ground and bark out ‘I told you so’ as the club continues its moral decline and the owner eventually heads off into the sunset, leaving shattered dreams and smouldering embers in his wake. However, turning your back on your team when they suddenly start winning is nigh-on impossible; when all the hurt and controversy is justifiable and you realise that it was all just a means to an end… Gandhi himself would be hard pushed to continue his protest under such circumstances.

Yet, at times, it seemed like Ashley was intent on causing as much damage as he could in as little time as possible. His takeover of the club had fans dreaming that Newcastle would rival Chelsea in the transfer market and could take Europe’s hottest talents to Tyneside and finally break the hoodoo that has plagued every manager since Joe Harvey won the Fairs Cup in 1969.

Despite Allardyce not being his man, Ashley gave him backing, funds and enough time to see whether he could change his spots and attempt to play a more exciting and expansive brand of football – he couldn’t and he wouldn’t and he paid the price.

After the drudgery of Allardyce’s short reign, Ashley then pandered to the fun-lovers, the dreamers and the romantics and wooed Kevin Keegan back from the lonely obscurity of his Glasgow Soccer Circus. He sold us a dream where the glorious failures of the recent past would be replaced with actual, tangible success. We would play with style and flair once more and the near-misses of yesteryear would be exchanged for cantering triumphs. Or so it seemed.

Henry, Beckham, Ronaldinho and Modric were mooted as possible arrivals but none materialised. In reality, trouble had been brewing since Day One and Dennis Wise’s arrival would ultimately ensure Keegan’s premature but all-too-predictable departure. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, while it was very sad and regrettable, one feels that Keegan’s departure may well have been for the best.  He was (and always has been) high-maintenance and despite his shabby treatment and the subsequent legal wrangles that absolved him of any wrongdoing, he was probably not the right man for the job anyway. He lacked the energy and enthusiasm that had characterised his first stint as Newcastle manager – the sparkle was gone and he didn’t believe in miracles anymore.

However, Ashley’s bizarre decision to leave the running of team affairs to the charming Joe Kinnear while he sought a buyer further alienated the already disillusioned fans and made the club a laughing stock. Kinnear did his best, which wasn’t much, and his only really meaningful contribution was to repeatedly bring the club into disrepute and his exit in the back of an ambulance was all too fitting and symbolic of the general state of the club at the time.

That left Hughton and Calderwood to take the reins for a few games until Ashley consulted the ‘Big Book Of Geordie Legends’ once again and made a beeline for Tyneside’s favourite son in the vain hope that he could save them. Unfortunately, even Alan Shearer couldn’t revive the club’s flagging fortunes during his brief tenure and it was a cruel irony that arguably the club’s greatest servant was at the helm to oversee Newcastle’s fall from grace as the fecklessness and poor decision-making of two different regimes culminated in a scarcely-believable demotion to the Championship.

Despite the relegation, Ashley publicly backed Shearer, saying that appointing him was the best move he had made as owner of the club. The fans too were on-side, the general consensus being that it would ultimately be better for the club to crash and burn, clear the dead wood and rebuild from a solid foundation under Big Al’s stewardship than for them to limp to 17th place, avoid relegation and bring in another of the Cockney Mafia’s henchmen to take charge of our pathetic excuse for a ‘team’ until Ashley finally sold up and headed back down south – whenever that might be. Despite the turmoil, the feeling was that fans would continue to get behind the team as they had faith in Shearer’s ability to guide the club through the turbulent transition period and to restore the club to its rightful place.

Unlike another of Tyneside’s favourite sons however, Ashley makes promises lightly and has no qualms about breaking them. He gave Shearer the silent treatment that summer, ended up giving the job to Hughton and, allegedly, the pair haven’t spoken since. Naturally, this prompted further ire amongst the long-suffering supporters.

However, Shearer’s loss ultimately seems to have been the club’s gain. Rather than acceding to Shearer’s demands about backroom staff, the playing squad and the necessary transfer budget needed to gain promotion, Ashley’s gambled on Hughton and it paid off spectacularly. Better still, Hughton was discreet and humble and didn’t want any limelight. His stewardship was steady and understated and exactly what the club needed at the time. While it wouldn’t be wholly fair to label Hughton a ‘yes man’, it is fair to say that Shearer would have been a much more demanding employee.

Shearer, of course, is revered on Tyneside and with good reason. He had the same dream that every young boy in the area has ever had: to play for Newcastle United and wear the number 9 shirt – the difference being that he was lucky enough for that fantasy to become his reality. Where others might have buckled under the pressure, Shearer was inspired by it and when he wore the shirt he carried the hopes and dreams of the city on his shoulders as the fans lived vicariously through him. He was an inspirational talisman that could galvanise fans and team-mates alike and was an excellent servant of the club. However, that was when he was a player.

His eight-game stint as manager in spring 2009 showed him to be a mere mortal and one who had neither the tactical nous nor the man-management skills needed to save Newcastle. On the pitch you wouldn’t want anybody else but in the dugout, it was a different story.

Several interesting managerial vacancies have arisen in the last few months and Shearer’s name is always in the running without ever being considered seriously – even at a club like Blackburn where he is fondly remembered. One is entitled to wonder why.

Unfortunately for Shearer and the high esteem that he holds himself in, he has proved himself to be a less than shrewd football man by spending his Saturday nights sitting on the fence in the ivory tower that houses the increasingly tame and pedestrian institution that is BBC’s Match Of The Day. He comes across as wooden and smug – devoid of personality, lacking insight and generally, not much of a student of the game despite his prowess during his playing days.

Derek Llambias feels that Shearer lacks the necessary attributes required to make the transition from great player to successful manager and says that he regrets turning to Shearer in the club’s time of need. There is a sneaking suspicion that Shearer feels that he has a God-given right to walk into a top job without ever having cut his teeth lower down the leagues (as Lee Clark, for example, has done) and that is holding him back – even though he claims that he loved the challenge of his two months in charge at St James’ Park.

I’m afraid that the time has come for Shearer to shit or get off the pot, as the old saying goes. He had his chance to prove his worth and show what he was capable of and despite the task being difficult, it was far from impossible and he was unable to perform the necessary miracle – now he needs to swallow his pride and take a job at an unfashionable club or stop talking about being a manager. It has been more than three years since he last sat in a dug-out and the sound bites are wearing thin.

The intervening years have proved Ashley to be right in his assessment of both Shearer and Pardew’s respective merits and I, for one, have forgiven Ashley for all of his crimes – even the harsh sacking of Hughton appears to have been a shrewd move in light of Pardew’s subsequent success. The club has made great strides under his stewardship despite all the agonies and controversies that we have had to endure. Mistakes were made but, crucially, lessons were learned. It should never be about one man – it should be about an entire club and while Ashley was merciless in his slaughtering of two of Tyneside’s sacred cows, it is now apparent that the good of the club is paramount and woe betide anyone who forgets it.

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