“I want to have fun and win trophies,” said Mike Ashley shortly after taking control in 2007. The wait for a major trophy now spans more than half a century, but it t is the fact that his 14 years at the helm were the opposite of fun. that Newcastle fans will not forgive.
There have been many failures. He chaired two of Newcastle’s six relegations in its 129-year history. Farce, who has been a more frequent visitor to St James’ Park than Ashley himself. But the pleasure has never been the friend of his Newcastle.
During his tenure, the former artists of English football were reduced to a dark curiosity. The rest of the country was speechless. The supporters only endured.
Icons were alienated, intruders overvalued. Money has been spent sporadically and reluctantly, the investment intermittent and haphazard. The strategy was absent. When he appeared, it was just ticking. No one could mistake it for ambition.
Under Ashley, it became a zombie club, an illusion of life.
In truth, Newcastle weren’t really prosperous when he arrived. Sam Allardyce was in the dugout and was greeted with those now familiar chants of ‘we’re **** and we’re fed up’ which summed up the permanent vibe that prevails in Gallowgate End.
Although briefly, there had once been hope, talk of fun apparently fueled by the appointment of Kevin Keegan. It was a cheeky, crowd-pleasing initiative designed to buy praise and breathe new life into the club and the city. It only made the betrayals more difficult to bear.
Keegan was undermined by the incongruous presence of Dennis Wise, then replaced by Joe Kinnear. It was a strange turn of events that would culminate with Alan Shearer overseeing the relegation, being promised the chance to rebuild, before being ignored by Ashley.
In the process, Keegan successfully sued for constructive dismissal. The club bar was renamed Nine Bar with Shearer’s name stricken from history. It was petty and it was typical, turning what should have been an easy victory into a touchstone for discontent.
They could write books on Newcastle’s PR skills or lack thereof. Some of them do not require any elaboration, like the renaming of St James’ Park to Sports Direct Arena.
Other aspects are more troubling, such as Jonas Gutierrez’s disability discrimination complaint, so badly he was treated by the club after suffering from testicular cancer.
While the goal was to strip fans of any pride, their record against rivals Sunderland has only underscored the point. It’s been a decade since Newcastle won this match, with the draw last in 2016 ending an unlikely six-game losing streak in the Tyne-Wear derby.
A fan even hit a horse.
It was the time of the joke, but the joke was done elsewhere. Even the small victories were bittersweet. It took a payday loan sponsorship to restore the name of St James’ Park. When Alan Pardew brought the team to fifth place, they came with an eight-year contract.
Pardew was still an odd fit, saddled by the “cockney mafia” allegations that were holding Wise and Kinnear. At least John Carver, the self-proclaimed best manager in the league, understood the region, but his presence as manager was indicative of the mess Newcastle had become.
A second relegation followed in 2016.
At this point, Ashley, who had first indicated her willingness to sell back in 2008, was simply there to protect her asset, with Rafael Benitez buying time and winning. The Spaniard’s relationship with fans became something to hold on to, but when he had had enough and was replaced by Steve Bruce, even that treatment was denied to fans.
Bruce, a lovable Geordie, was not well received, his ties to Sunderland adding to the feeling that his connection to the club was overblown, his existence in the role demonstrating the lack of ambition that had long gripped the club. Football was boring, the future bleak. There was no big vision for Bruce to sell.
“I hope I can keep moving the club forward,” he said in September, unwittingly giving fans a revealing glimpse into the mentality that summed up Ashley’s reign. Of course, it was no hope, but it was the best he could offer.
He knew the warrant. Everyone knew the warrant.
Timeline of Mike Ashley’s reign in Newcastle
May 23, 2007 – Ashley buys Sir John Hall’s 41.6% stake in the club at a cost of £ 55.3million, setting in motion a £ 134.4million takeover that will close a month later late.
January 9, 2008 – Sam Allardyce, the manager appointed by former chairman Freddy Shepherd shortly before Ashley launched his takeover bid, is sacked just eight months after his reign began.
January 16, 2008 – Ashley delighted Newcastle supporters by persuading Kevin Keegan to return to St James’ Park for a second term as club manager.
Sep 3, 2008 – Keegan’s second coming is short-lived as he resigns over disagreements over the club’s transfer policy, later winning a £ 2million payout for constructive dismissal.
Sep 14, 2008 – Ashley announces he is putting the club up for sale after angry fans start protests over Keegan’s departure.
April 2, 2009 – After removing Newcastle from the market and appointing Joe Kinnear as interim manager, Ashley hands over the reins to fellow club legend Alan Shearer.
May 24, 2009 – Shearer is unable to prevent Newcastle’s relegation from the Premier League and leaves the club shortly thereafter.
April 5, 2010 – Newcastle get a return to Premier League promotion under Chris Hughton after promotion rivals Nottingham Forest failed to beat Cardiff.
Dec 9 2010 – Ashley is hiring Alan Pardew to replace Chris Hughton as the club are 11th in the Premier League and just weeks after a 5-1 derby victory over Sunderland.
November 9, 2011 – Ashley arouses fan fury when he announces that St James’ Park will be renamed Sports Direct Arena.
September 27, 2012 – Ashley causes great perplexity when he hands Alan Pardew a new eight-year contract as Newcastle manager after a fifth place in the Premier League.
February 4, 2014 – Joe Kinnear is leaving Newcastle for the second time, this time after a chaotic stint as the club’s director of football, in which he gave an infamous interview to TalkSport in which he called Yohan Cabaye “Yohan Kebab”.
March 11, 2016 – Rafael Benitez is announced as the new boss of Newcastle, replacing Steve McClaren, who had succeeded John Carver, the replacement of Pardew, 10 months earlier.
May 25, 2016 – Benitez delighted Newcastle supporters by agreeing to stay at the club despite their relegation to the league.
April 24, 2017 – Benitez gets promoted back to the Premier League with a 4-1 win over Preston North End.
June 30, 2019 – Fans are dismayed again as Benitez comes to the end of his contract and leaves the club after 10th and 13th places in the Premier League.
July 17, 2019 – Ashley makes the unpopular decision to name Steve Bruce as Benitez’s replacement and #BruceOut immediately starts trending on Twitter.
October 7, 2021 – The Saudi-led takeover appears imminent after significant progress has been made, with all parties appearing to be hopeful that an announcement can be made soon.
Newcastle have been a bit more attacking lately. They still haven’t seen a lot of the ball but there was more body in the box when they got it. And yet the change did not translate into goals or results, only exposing the defensive weaknesses of the team.
Bruce described the West Ham game as “smashing” while the Leeds game was “terrific”. The trip to Aston Villa was “encouraging” and Southampton’s visit full of “positives”, as the Newcastle manager praised the cup clean sheet against Burnley.
Fans might have bought it if they had won any of those matches.
Welcome to the wonderful world of Newcastle United and their relentless double talk. This is a football club that seemed determined to enlighten the people of an entire city. It was not the lack of success that caused the anger, but the owner’s apparent apathy. I had the impression that he was failing in his duty of vigilance.
Still, they showed up, selling out allowances despite some of the longest trips that any traveling fan in the country faces. Chants for their team were usually interspersed with those long, desperate pleas for Ashley to get out of their club.
Now that he’s gone, there is hope again. The identity of the new owners, a Saudi consortium, is an uncomfortable add-on but, for fans, it may be a concern for another day. For now, there will only be relief. Ashley’s reign is drawing to a close.
No trophies and no fun.
Essential Football Podcast: Newcastle New Era Begins | secrets of Brentford’s success | Next steps for Everton, West Ham
Peter Smith is joined by Sky Sports News reporter Keith Downie, as well as associate editor Lyall Thomas and football reporter Ron Walker in anticipating the Premier League weekend…
PART 1 | Keith Downie answers key questions about the Newcastle takeover, transfer spending and how the new owners intend to take the club forward on human rights issues in Saudi Arabia.
PART 2 | Lyall Thomas and Ron Walker unveil the story behind Brentford’s impressive start to their first Premier League season and the secrets of their steady progress in recent years.
PART 3 | As David Moyes prepares to take his current club against his former club, we discuss the next steps for West Ham and Everton – and the impact Rafa Benitez has had at Goodison Park.