Joey Barton’s tweet tornado last week told us one thing about nufc: there are a lot of fans around who will blame Mike Ashley for anything. Don’t get me wrong, I have huge reservations about Ashley’s tenure myself. He really has to start spending soon if it’s not to become clear that his plan is simply to turn the maximum profit no matter what, and always has been. His repeated humblings of manager after manager serve no purpose other than to emphasise their expendability, Alan Pardew now appearing to have accepted the Coach role in the so-called continental club structure which Ashley attempted to impose on Kevin Keegan. His major decisions frequently seem impulsive and ill thought-out. He is no closer to appointing an experienced professional football club governing staff than the day he bought the club in 2007. His inability to accept dissent or even disagreement from his employees has resulted in yes-men in charge and the dismantling of the core of a robustly spirited squad over the summer.
I hope it’s clear that I am no Ashley apologist. I’m not sure whether I’m comfortable with him continuing to be in charge, history showing us that his actions rarely follow a course that could be predicted by any logical train of thought. That said, there are aspects of his rule that are unquestionably a good thing. He’s the only owner to have ever put his own money into the club. Despite the transfer profits which he’s generated in each of the last umpteen windows, it’s also been necessary for him to put £15m – £20m of his own cash into the club each year to balance the books. That’s a personal interest-free loan, without which the club would at best be in serious financial trouble. Yes, his rash actions went some way towards causing relegation, and thus also the reduced income which he was forced to cover. His impulsive purchase without fully performing the process of due diligence caused debts to become due at that time. But the club was heavily in debt and losing money at an alarming rate whether he had become involved or not, and would have struggled in any ownership scenario. He has spent the last few years transforming the finances, reducing the crippling wage bill to a manageable level. He’s refused to countenance the kind of signing who requires compensation in the form of increased wages for deigning to play for such an unfashionable club. By all accounts he baulks at paying players’ agents several million pounds for not very much in return, just to smooth the passage of a transfer. It’s a long time since Newcastle have had a hard-headed businessman at the helm refusing to allow the club to be taken for a ride. Not many would complain at that when it’s presented to them that way.
The reaction of a large portion of fans judging by the #nufc hashtag on twitter to the actions of Barton last week were therefore a little puzzling. Barton was justified in his actions, Ashley not so. Reporters covering Newcastle indicated that Barton had flown off the handle before and after the Leeds friendly, apparently upset by decisions made by the coaching staff regarding set-piece takers and the captaincy. The tirade continued via Twitter on the coach home, comments critical of the club hierarchy and their running of the club being made. A club statement after a day or two announced that Barton had been made available on a free transfer.
People may have felt that Barton had a point about the sale of influential players and the lack of incoming replacements, but a moment’s thought would have reminded them that Barton had been in contract dispute for months having turned down two previous contract extensions. His agent had earlier in the year attempted to enlist popular support on behalf of his client by claiming he would accept a pay cut in return for an extension, a claim he later contradicted by admitting refusing that pay cut. This spat arose when it became increasingly clear that no further offer was forthcoming from the club. Could it be that Barton and his advisors attempted to flush out interest from other clubs by provoking a club response, making the difficulty of Newcastle hanging onto him for another season obvious to all?
Fans supporting Barton even criticised journalists for spouting the club’s party line. It seems to me that if one alone had reported the events described, this might be possible. Claiming that all are afraid of upsetting the club so as to maintain their contacts seems nothing more than conspiracy theory madness.
There’s a tendency among some fans at the moment to assume whenever anything goes wrong that Mike Ashley is to blame. No thought, no analysis of facts or motive necessary. It’s Ashley’s fault. It’s a convenient position to take advantage of for those wishing to further their own interests without burning their bridges with the supporters. It’s even becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy for some. Nothing the club do can have any value, therefore no potential signing can possibly be good enough. Criticise Ashley by all means, more likely than not he’ll deserve it. Just think about it before allowing the knee to jerk.