Remember those days long ago when we yearned for a billionaire to take over Newcastle United? I really can’t be bothered to look up how much Mike Ashley is worth but we certainly didn’t get what we were after when he bought the club from the Halls & Shepherds. Don’t get me wrong, freeing the club from that particular axis of if not evil then something very definitely not positive, is something I’ll never criticise him for. But that was where it all started going wrong, from the very first moment he became involved.
He thought he was getting something on the cheap because Hall was desperate to get out and a hospitalised Shepherd was temporarily unable to fight his corner. That meant Ashley didn’t do what he was best at. The businessman thing. Checking the deal, making sure there were no hidden catches. He gambled on Newcastle United, and not for the last time he lost. The deeds of the stadium required the mortgage to be paid in full if the club switched hands. Ashley came over like a greenhorn in his field of expertise. Perhaps we should have guessed that when he started on the thing he really was an amateur at, running a football club, his fortunes weren’t about to improve.
In the one phase of enthusiasm he ever had for the club, he bankrolled a genuine spending spree. Unfortunately he let Sam Allardyce do the spending. Allardyce has his qualities, positive ones. Those qualities however are not the kind that are useful to a club with ambition, looking to spend money and break through football’s glass ceiling. He was the wrong manager at the wrong club at the wrong time, and the buys he made in his short time in charge saddled the club with players who couldn’t be moved on except at a loss, who cost a fortune in wages, and worst of all were almost to a man a dead loss on the pitch. Time for another rarity, something Ashley did right: sacking Allardyce.
Closely followed by yet another mistake unfortunately. Hiring Kevin Keegan. It was a populist appointment, but not wrong for the reasons normally quoted. I watched those games after he took over and Newcastle improved, slowly at first but they got better. Keegan had been out of the game for years. Maybe his fire had gone out. But he was a success on the pitch in that second spell in charge. No, the mistake in making him manager was that the famously emotional and headstrong Keegan was never going to be walked all over by Ashley. The appointment itself contained the meltdown, inevitable as it was.
Now the mistakes started coming thick and fast. I can’t think of anything you might want to do involving Dennis Wise that wouldn’t automatically be misjudged purely because of his presence. Surely there couldn’t possibly be a worse appointment as Director of Football? Oh, wait….
That whole season following was one long catalogue of errors. Deadline signings of Xisco and Nacho, not appointing a proper manager straight away with the status to grab the squad by the scruff of the neck and turn the season around while there was still time. When finally appointing a full-time manager, choosing Joe Kinnear, a never-was who shouldn’t have been within a million miles of the club, a poor man’s Allardyce. Someone who was medically unable to withstand the stress of the job, sadly for him and his family. After Kinnear’s health waned to the point he couldn’t continue, in a final desperate and of course unsuccessful gamble, Ashley appointed the untried Alan Shearer and 8 games later we were down. If there’s a positive to that at least we’ve lanced that particular boil. Shearer’s no longer a Prince across the water, forever waiting to be called upon.
Error after error continued. An interminable buyout saga meant the club was completely unprepared for the season ahead in the Championship. By a streak of luck, after those we could get rid of had gone, the remaining staff and players turned inwards and forged themselves into a team which got the club out of a deep, deep hole. Just as the club seemed to have re-established itself in the top flight, Ashley sold Andy Carroll, on deadline day without replacement. Again, luck saw to it that the team limped through to the summer but another close season of turmoil ended with a younger and cheaper squad in place. No-one, especially not Ashley, could have expected a 5th place finish that year. By not strengthening the squad in the summer following, when there was a real chance of pushing on, Ashley again condemned the club to the inevitable; an overloaded squad struggled and was almost relegated. Ashley’s answer was to reappoint Kinnear and once again to fail to strengthen.
Notice all the times Ashley made terrible mistakes and by lucky chance the team pulled through; promotion, the European qualification. We need to remember that even if by chance this season pans out ok, mistakes have once again been made. Whatever happens, things could have been so much better. The title is a quote from a Hawkwind song, “We Took The Wrong Step Years Ago”. Seems appropriate somehow and the hope, surely, has to be that the end will indeed fall soon.