Several elements are needed in the quest for success in football, and the overall efficiency of a club in conducting their business (on and off the pitch) is a critical component. Ownership must have a clear plan and vision for what is ahead, but unfortunately, this has not taken place for Newcastle United during recent years.
The Magpies are once again in the midst of a Premier League relegation fight, earning only two points from the first nine fixtures of the 2018-19 term. The summer transfer window began with positivity, but ultimately did not produce the type of reinforcements that would help them to improve. This has been a frustrating habit during the past few years, and that frustration can be traced back to owner Mike Ashley.
Much like Newcastle’s transfer business, United’s future looked promising when the 54-year-old businessman took over full control of the club in the summer of 2007. Ashley made his money in the retail business, building Sports Direct into a sports-good empire throughout the United Kingdom. When he arrived on Tyneside, he adopted the persona of someone eager to be a part of the action, witnessed on matchdays drinking beer and wearing a Newcastle shirt.
However, the facade began to fade, and it all had the club heading towards the wrong direction. Manager Sam Allardyce departed during the 2007-08 campaign, with club legend Kevin Keegan taking up his old position at St. James’ Park. In his first stint as coach, Keegan led the Toon to Premier League title races and Champions League qualification in the 1990s. “The Entertainers” played an exciting brand of football, reflecting the magnetic personality of their manager.
As a player, Keegan was a part of a dynamic Newcastle squad that earned promotion to the top flight. However, under Ashley’s regime, his second spell as manager was undermined and sabotaged. With Dennis Wise in a director role, Keegan had player signings forced upon him, with scouting done on YouTube for the addition of Nacho González in September of 2008. Keegan would step away soon after. He won a lawsuit the following year, and was awarded £2 million due to his wrongful dismissal.
With the release of his new book this year, Keegan has once again brought these issues to light, showcasing how Ashley’s style of management is detrimental to the future success of Newcastle United. Two relegations would follow under his watch, and there is genuine concern this season for the Toon Army that another run in the Championship could be on the horizon. The angst felt by supporters has been reaching extreme levels as of late, and the shame of it is that it doesn’t have to be this way.
Newcastle are more than just a football club, and represent so much of what their city is about. It is that emotional aspect that makes the connection so strong. More than 50,000 fans make their way to St. James’ Park for each and every matchday, providing an atmosphere unlike any other in English football. Those same types of attendance numbers were seen during the 2016-17 season in the second tier as well, highlighting the impressive loyalty of the Geordie faithful.
The Premier League’s television revenue provides clubs with an immense amount of money each season, as the lucrative broadcast deals make for significant profits. Newcastle earned more than £123 million from 2017-18, certainly a significant sum. On top of this, the sales of Mikel Merino (Real Sociedad – £10m), Aleksandar Mitrovic (Fulham – £22m) and Chancel Mbemba (Porto – £7m) gave Benitez what should have been the adequate funds to add quality in the line-up. Ashley stated at the end of last season that his manager would receive “every penny generated”. Instead, less than £25 million was spent this past summer.
The likes of Yoshinori Muto and Federico Fernández were added, along with the permanent transfer of talented goalkeeper Martin Dúbravka. All were solid moves and shrewd signings in one way or another, but none will have the kind of impact needed to significantly push things forward for Newcastle. Looking at their current struggles, this past campaign’s tenth-place finish seems nothing short of remarkable now.
Ashley has said on multiple occasions over the years that he would be open to selling the club, a dream that most Newcastle fans would desperately like to make a reality. Last season, a sale involving Amanda Staveley and an investment group appeared very close, but ultimately saw negotiations fall apart due to the final asking price.
The Premier League has changed during the past ten years or so, as the division has become an absolute financial beast. The likes of Manchester City, Liverpool, Manchester United and Chelsea spend enormous amounts of money on transfer fees and wages as they compete for the title. The battle just to remain in the top flight is quite competitive as well, with newly-promoted clubs such as Fulham and Wolverhampton unafraid to splash the cash in order to survive (and keep that television revenue coming in). For the Toon, the hierarchy’s approach is not letting them reach new levels.
Newcastle United have been a powerhouse in previous decades, but have not captured silverware since the 1969 Inter-Cities Fairs Cup final (a predecessor to the UEFA Cup). With passionate support behind them and Rafa Benitez leading the way, the potential for something special is clearly present. But with Mike Ashley as owner, the Magpies are only running forward on a treadmill of broken promises, false dawns and the haunting of what could have been.
By: Roy Emanuel