I think you need to look at what Mike Ashley is doing at Newcastle United on two levels, to really understand why the club has almost zero chance of even relative success under this owner.
At the headline level, Ashley appears to want to make bigger operating profits than any other club,. In other words, as well as all of his other benefits such as free advertising for the rest of his empire, the United owner also wants to spend as little, if any, of the TV riches as possible on the squad. This simple strategy, if that is indeed what he intends to continue going forward, will alone ensure that Premier League survival is an achievement in coming seasons – as pretty much all rival clubs will be willing to spend a bigger proportion of the TV windfall than Mike Ashley.
However, beneath those major decisions made by Ashley that ensure United are an ambition-free club, there is also a rigid system in place as to what happens day by day, week by week, month by month and indeed season by season at the club.
At various levels I believe Ashley does allow his NUFC staff to operate of their own free will but within very narrow parameters, which when you put them all together, is unlike any other Premier League club.
- Newcastle have a Head Coach now, not a manager.
- The club say the Head Coach has an input into transfers in and out, but most fans believe that any say the Head Coach (Carver or whoever) has will be minimal, and the arrangement counter-productive to the head coach (just as it was with Alan Pardew) assembling the squad he needs.
- The manager/head coach not being the key person in transfer targets,then leads to situations such as we found with Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa and others. Alan Pardew handed players that he didn’t want and then the club having assets standing idly by as they are not chosen for the team. Pardew repeatedly said he wanted a dominant centre-back who could also add goals, instead he was given a player in Mapou who was more of a footballing central defender, somebody who Pardew felt he couldn’t play alongside Fabricio Coloccini.
- Past reporting has suggested that Mike Ashley has set rules on spending in transfer windows. With money to spend dependent on what is generated from outgoing transfers. This allows no flexibility unless there is a fear of relegation as was the case in January 2013, the club admitting they spent money in that window that they hadn’t intended to.
- This lack of flexibility or wriggle room then means that rather than seizing the moment as could/should have happened after the fifth place finish of 2011/12, or when fifth on Boxing Day 2013, instead the moment and the momentum is lost, paving the way for the best players to want to leave.
- Rigid rules are also applied to wages, with Ashley said to have a set amount that can’t be surpassed, something which could trigger a wave of other players wanting parity. Going into transfer negotiations, this is a massive disadvantage when rival clubs are prepared to go that bit further for the right player.
We also of course have a Managing Director/Chief Executive in Lee Charnley, whose role is totally at odds with those at other Premier League clubs.
Elsewhere, the person in day to day charge has a large team working under him driving commercial income and all the other various departments, while at Newcastle it appears that Charnley is more of a stadium/office manager. Keeping an eye on the club and reporting back up the food chain but without the expansive remit that Chief Executives/MDs have elsewhere. It appears to me obvious that we have unseen people, at Sports Direct or wherever, who help Mike Ashley make (or simply carry out) the major decisions or do the key deals, that would at other clubs be overseen by the CEO/MD. Such as the dealings with Wonga, Puma and the more numerous deals that rival clubs chase etc.
Kevin Keegan has once again made headlines by saying Newcastle United are going nowhere, after watching the meek surrender at Manchester City.
However, it is even more interesting to go back to December 2010 when Chris Hughton was sacked and Kevin Keegan had the to say about the running of the club:
“The club can never go anywhere under Mike Ashley and Derek Llambias.
“When a man buys a club like Mike Ashley did, and knows as little about football as he does, he is likely to make these sort of mistakes and these judgments and still think he is doing OK.”
The TV riches have no doubt helped Mike Ashley to feel that he is doing very much better than just ‘OK’. However, everything is short-term and failing to invest will only lead to eventual disaster, especially with all of the strange factors in place outlined above, unlike any other competing club.
It is like a shop selling off all of its best stock and spending the bare minimum on replacing it, the short-term benefits can be huge but it is simply creating massive problems for the future.
In Premier League terms, disaster equals ending up relegated, something which Ashley achieved in 2009 and came close to repeating in 2013. Since that January spending spree which only just helped stave off relegation in 2012/13, there has been nothing to suggest that the owner has learnt his lesson.
Buying not a single player last season meant that far too much had to be done last summer to try and sort the squad into some kind of decent shape. In the event Ashley gambled again by spending some money, but nowhere near enough to put the squad in a stable position where it could again move forward.
Bargains such as Perez, Colback and Janmaat have helped to just about ensure at least one more season of Premier League football, though without Papiss Cisse’s remarkable minutes per goal ratio I do wonder where we would be. More money was spent on Cabella and Riviere but that could well have proved too little too late, with their limited returns so far, when you consider how every other club is throwing everything at top league survival as well.
I really think that Mike Ashley does believe he has reinvented the wheel, designing a Premier League football club model which is a golden goose that will produce results year after year with the minimum of feeding. Unless he sells up or starts to listen to people with expertise in running a top football club, the United owner will continue to walk a tightrope where NUFC are concerned.
The TV money that will be spent by the other clubs will be like ever more powerful winds blowing him as he balances on his tightrope, until eventually Mike Ashley and Newcastle United are sent spiralling into freefall.
What he would then do is a whole different ball game but one we are likely to see very shortly if something major doesn’t change.