My unchanged thesis today is that Mike Ashley is utterly tired of and is massively fed up with Newcastle United and desperately wants to sell up. This is especially true after spending more than all the clubs in the Bundesliga combined in the January window, with no immediately visible return on that investment.
If I have an insight to offer in this article, it is that Mike Ashley is now abandoning his position in every conceivable way from his masterplan, blueprint, five-year plan, financial template, footballing vision, call it what you will. In every conceivable way, that is, except one – the one that is the most telling about Ashley’s true intentions, which I will shortly come to.
Our glorious owner’s little helpers will no doubt point out that the club claimed last year that there would be heavy investment in players in each of three successive windows, of which we have now had two. The subtext of club propaganda is that this latest burst of spending is not panic-buying. It’s all part of the plan.
Let us leave aside the obvious point that there will be no spending on any of the playing targets that have been on our radar, tirelessly researched, monitored, run the rule over, and generally scouted to death if we are no longer in the Premiership this summer. We shall be fishing in a more exclusive pond. We shall be after players who can get stuck in against Milton Keynes Dons on a foggy night in February. So that element of our masterplan will be out of the window.
No. There is no aspect of the three-window investment blueprint tale that holds water. Like almost everything we are told officially, it was a load of billhooks. We have been investing in the team because there was an evident existential problem. We were rubbish.
All the evidence points to the reasonable conclusion that we are still rubbish. Against Everton we were more rubbish than ever. We have spent money and we are still rubbish.
Has Ashley been wrong to spend this money? No. Our scoring capacities would have been even worse if we had ploughed on with Riviere and Cisse and not enjoyed the huge footballing benefits capable of being provided only by the likes of Mitrovic and Thauvin.
No, hang on … I don’t mean to be cheap and snarky. Shelvey looks good. Colback has always looked good to me. Wijnaldum is an intermittently performing jewel. Townsend looked fantastic for England that time he thundered the ball in from thirty yards and hit the bar.
My complaint is that we have not signed players who would have made a genuine difference to our chances of staying up. A really good forward costing upwards of whatever Berahino would have cost, for example.
I haven’t noticed Newcastle even being linked with defenders recently, but for years and years our defence has been completely obviously creaking. We mend and make do at left back, and have done for years, and our central defence is porous, as it has been for years.
The fundamental point is that Ashley never, ever tries to build a team.
Instead we buy hundreds of defensive, central, attacking, and wide midfielders, which demoralises glittering talents like Rolando Aarons. Our failure to sign Berahino and, for example, Richard Keogh, will look a ghastly error if and when we go down.
Of course we don’t buy such rocks on which teams are built for the single glaring reason that this kind of player is expensive. It would have been quite easy to spend sixty mill on two players only, a central defender and a central attacker. Instead we went for the bargain bucket option, and bought a job lot of interchangeable midfielders.
Of course players that make a real difference to Premiership teams know they are important enough to make a real difference to better teams than ours. It can’t have been easy for Lee Charnley, who has had to sign on loan an obscure forward with a passing facial resemblance to Roger Milla (then or now).
I wonder if it has ever crossed Charnley’s mind to suggest to Mike Ashley that his entire blueprint, masterplan, template, call it what you will, is a complete pile of…? That the club’s foundations are weak and getting weaker? That relegation this time will be the final, incontrovertible proof that it is impossible to run a professional football club like a bottom-of-the-range retail operation?
What has not changed, despite all the spending and all the brave words, is the evident determination to persist with a director of football set-up (Graham Carr; directors of fooball rarely succeed in English football), and to persist with a chief executive in Charnley, the club’s default setting is to do nothing when the team has done moderately well, such as finishing fifth, and to buy players in a panic every so often when he knows Ashley will want some kind of action.
And that’s what tells me Ashley has given up. Any success his formula yields is never met with a display of ambition. All success, and all failure, is met with an unchanging approach to football club stewardship. Increasingly success, for Ashley, is simply staying in the league. Nothing else will do, and nothing else is required.
And now it looks unlikely. And the blueprint is not being changed.
We’re not going to get a top manager who chooses his own players, and we’re not going to get heavy investment from a position of strength.
The one person who can see more clearly than anyone else that he has failed as a football club owner is Mike Ashley himself. The only person who can change our club’s course is Mike Ashley himself.
He would prefer it if the club were to be put up for sale when we were still a Premiership outfit. Of course that is true, and of course that is why we are spending some money. But he’s not going to change the bedrock of his losing formula just because we might be going down. His losing formula is calibrated to keep investment below the level of expected rewards. He’s not going to change that.
Especially when he’s decided he’s going to sell us in a few months anyway, whatever happens.
And that’s because his losing formula is the best guide to why he is a football club owner. Newcastle United is a Premiership billboard, and Mike Ashley is a Premiership retailer.
He doesn’t see himself as a Championship operator, and sees himself as a top-level retailer, and he’s not going to be a Championship scrapper. Never again. Been there, done that.
Being in the Championship is something he will leave to the fans.
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