Mike Ashley and Newcastle United – should he stay or should he go?

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Hit Row Z editors Ben Harrison, Adam Widdrington and James Bailey discuss the continuing discontent on Tyneside ahead of the Wear-Tyne derby.

Newcastle’s results have improved in recent weeks, but there is still discontent on Tyneside about owner Mike Ashley. Imagine you bumped into him in the pub, what would you tell him?

BH: This is such a tough question because there are so many reasons why as a Newcastle fan, you would want to give him both barrels. From Kevin Keegan and Shearer, to relegation, Joe Kinnear and the re-naming of the stadium.

But honestly? I think I’d congratulate him on doing a really good job over the last three years certainly. In the main, he has got the big calls right. Pardew has on balance been a success, we have signed some great players – albeit inconsistent of late – and he continues to support the club financially in a way others may not want to, or be able to. I actually like the fact that we are run with financial prudence in mind. The days of Alan Smith, Albert Luque, Mark Viduka, Obafemi Martins and Michael Owen are still sharp in my mind.

We are a far, far, far, better side now.

JB: I tend to agree with you, Ben. Yes, he has done more than just a few things that leave you scratching your head (I’ve already pulled most of mine out) but I do think that as a club we are now run much more professionally than we used to be. That said, there are things I would change – including appointing a more progressive Director of Football and shaping the profile of the coaching staff in a way that reflects the ambitions to compete in Europe. And to this end, I suppose if I did bump into him in the pub, I’d ask him just what is the business plan for the club, how are we measuring success, and what are we prepared to invest / give up in order to achieve that.

AW: Lads, you’re being too soft here. I agree James, I’d start by asking him where he sees Newcastle realistically over the next five years, and if, indeed, he intends to stay that long. I’d also have to ask him about Joe Kinnear and what credentials and logic led him to be given such an authority at a club whose fans, and probably players, clearly had no respect for him. More importantly, I’d probe him about lack of signings this summer, despite being bitten the previous summer when we failed to capitalise on an extremely rare 5th place finish. What are his ambitions for this club? Are they simply to survive in the Premier League spending as little money as possible in order to reclaim some of the interest-free loan he gave the club on purchase?

Also, to fans, the lines are blurred as to where Sports Direct stops and the club starts. Free advertising, uncertainty about merchandise sales and if that money goes back into the club. Sports Direct News is another curious one. There are a lot of muddied waters and unanswered questions I know for a fact fans want clarification on.

I’d also like to know what he considers are mistakes he’s during his tenure, without prompt. That would certainly make for interesting listening.

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Do Newcastle not have more to be grateful for than angry about? Should fans be careful what they wish for?

AW: Well, you could argue that his sensible business model is steering the club towards sustainability which I admit is admirable in a modern footballing world of silly money. On the other hand, I fear his obsession with money (which, granted, all successful entrepreneurs have) will mean our spending as a football club is far too conservative and standing still is as bad as spending money recklessly.  Treating a football club like a retail company, or any other business for that matter, shows a huge lack of understanding of football culture – a culture where, right or wrong, if you don’t invest in the squad, you can very easily lose top flight status, as we did in 2009, and as we very nearly did last year. Football clubs should not be bought to make a profit, owners should be passionate about the sport, as passionate as the fans.

But let’s turn this situation on it’s head. What if the fans were to treat the club as a retail store? Ticket prices have certainly gone up since Ashley took over, yet we are now paying for an inferior product – given the fact that other teams (or ‘products’) around us have improved due to investment. So we’re paying more money for a more inferior product – you wouldn’t stand for it in any other business, but then football isn’t any other business.

BH: I disagree here. I think overall there is more to be grateful for. Are things perfect? No. It has been a turbulent decade at the club – and there is no doubt Ashley made some disastrous calls early on. But we have a good model for developing the first team at the moment, and stability in terms of the manager and finances. Under his ownership the past few years have seen us bounce straight back to the top flight, become re-established in the Premier League, sign some genuinely exciting and sought after players, and go on a good Europa League run. I don’t know what more fans can realistically hope for or expect.

Joe Kinnear’s appointment was ludicrous. I can’t fathom the rationale for that, and wouldn’t defend Ashley for that decision. But when you look at what is going on with Vincent Tan and Cardiff at the moment, or what has gone on at Leeds, Portsmouth and others, it could be alot worse. At least we don’t have a work experience chap with no experience running our recruitment.

JB: I agree in part Ben. Notwithstanding the fact that generally I think fans do have more to be grateful for than angry about, I do have a sense of regret and frustration, much like Adam, that we weren’t bold enough to build on the success we had a couple of seasons ago, recruit the quality to add to the squad at the most opportune moment. That said, we are where we are now and I’d give the Board the benefit of the doubt that perhaps we can learn from that experience moving forward.

What should a club like Newcastle be building towards in today’s Premier League? How much money would Ashley need to spend to break top four?

JB: The Premier League has a lot of strength in depth these days, with competition for Champions’ League places especially fierce. Indeed, Champions League is the holy grail as far as Boards are concerned, because that is where the money is. Given the level of competition for these places though, and given our starting point, I think it would be unsustainable to shoot for the moon and try and break into the top four at this stage. More reasonable, sadly, is to target consistent finishes in the top eight for the next few seasons in the hope that, occasionally we might break top six and sneak a Europa League place, but accept that competition runs right through the league and we may finish 10th in other seasons.

There are no guarantees in football, and one of the great myths to bust is that simply spending a fortune will bring success. It might help, but when there are many others doing likewise, it’s going to take something else to differentiate you.

AW: Ashley would sadly need to spend ridiculous amounts of money to seriously challenge the top four. Something he will never do, however, if you asked most Newcastle fans, nobody would ever expect him to. There’s a myth that Geordies expect Newcastle to be challenging for the title and that we’re all ‘deluded’. Far from it, most fans are intelligent and understand that isn’t realistic.

I agree with James that challenging for the top eight is realistic. I look at Everton as a club we should be on a par with, at least. But unless a oil-rich sheikh takes us over, we shouldn’t have designs on the top four. It’s a shame, but realistic – and that’s fine. We held our own in the Europa League last year and our squad was a bit deeper (recurring theme) our league form may not have suffered as much. Being beaten against finalists Benfica in the quarter-final showed we weren’t simply making up the numbers.

As for how much money to spend – I don’t think I could set such a budget. Each transfer should be addressed in its own individual context. Work out what is a fair price for a player based on talent, potential and experience and take it from there. Having a competent Director of Football would be pretty handy for such negotiations, however. We are probably only two or three senior players away from a very decent squad, with some young recruitment of the standard of Bigiramana and Dummett to push for bench places. That’s not a lot to ask for!

BH: Ambition is the crux of the issue, and it isn’t an easy one for fans, managers or players to come to terms with as Adam and James have outlined. The sums clubs would need to invest to break the top four are astronomical, with no guarantees. For me, Newcastle should be a top ten Premier League club, with the scope to kick on into the top six pending injuries and other factors.

I agree with Adam that Everton are a club that springs to mind that we should look to emulate. But I don’t buy in to the idea that if Ashley just spent more money we would leap up the table. There are so many examples of that not working. Look at Spurs – over time, the amount they have spent, and yet the top four continues to elude them on a consistent basis. Yet as fans, of course you want the club to be ambitious and match your passion for the club. But part of the role of an owner must be to safeguard the future of the club, and be realistic. I think by and large, we have the balance about right at the moment.

Should he stay or should he go?

BH: Stay
JB: Stay
AW: Go

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Trackbacks

  1. […] the Wear-Tyne derby. With last season’s knee-sliding reverse fixture still fresh in the memory, the Geordies will be hoping for a repeat of the stout defensive display they showed against Liverpool. They […]

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