I was one of those taken in by Mike Ashley’s declaration on Sky television about his ambitions for Newcastle United. Don’t I know it.
And Ashley has very quickly revealed that those high-minded ideals for our club were cynical misrepresentations about his true intentions – which are naturally unchanged. All he wants to do is use our stands as a billboard, and milk supporters and television companies for every cent.
Well, that’s one way of looking at the current turmoil enveloping St James’ Park.
The other way of looking at it – and I put this forward with some hesitation – is that Mike Ashley has backed himself into a corner.
Every instinct is telling him to persist with his failed retailing model for football club stewardship – every instinct except the biggest and most persuasive one of all – self-preservation.
The club is in danger of implosion as it comes face to face with reality. He can all too clearly see that.
Our manager cannot manage in the present set-up, the team is full of deadbeats who weren’t selected by the manager, executive decisions are being taken by a ponderous moron, the only interest the board takes in players is how much profit they will make when sold, and fans who will always turn up are routinely ignored when it comes to the team on the pitch. So far, so good. So irrelevant.
What grabs Ashley’s attention – it bears constant repetition – is if Premier League status is in danger of being lost. No matter how bad things get, they are not bad at all if we manage, somehow, to stay up.
As I write, Steve McClaren has still not been sacked. It is possible, as some think, that Lee Charnley thinks he himself will have to resign if he sacks McClaren, on the grounds Charnley declared at the time of appointment that McClaren was ‘the perfect fit’. Hence a delay, born of fear.
And of course it is possible that our inglorious board has been incapable of attracting a single credible applicant. The drumbeats from Gallowgate suggest this is not correct, and plenty of good managers want to be considered. But even so, it’s possible that not every one of these drumbeats might be completely true.
There is another possibility altogether, and this was given credence by rather remarkable press reports suggesting that Ashley himself might be having second thoughts about his approach to football club ownership. If this has any substance, this is the most momentous news. Many will have difficulty believing it.
But if such an epiphany is taking place, it won’t be because Ashley is doing a bit of PR positioning. No. I honestly think it will be because Mike Ashley has seen the error of his ways. Don’t scoff.
And it would mean that Ashley’s television appearance, during which he spoke of his determination to win something, and the need to put the horse (a good team) before the cart (profits) and not the other way around, might not have been so misleading after all. All season he might have been on a journey towards the bosom of the fans. Yes, really.
Please don’t misunderstand me. This would not be some kind of Road to Damascus conversion. Ashley doesn’t do those. His retailing strategy, for him, is the best and only way of doing good business.
He would not have changed his mind about this.
But it would be a conversion of sorts – one forced upon a man who knows that his investment in Newcastle United would be put at risk by years and years of likely fire-fighting. One forced reluctantly upon an arrogant and rich man who might just be calculating that it would still be worth his while to own a top-flight club even if he had to run it properly.
Ashley has been driven to the realisation, quite possibly, that he has to change, even though he thinks it is a highly dangerous thing to move away from a business strategy that has served him well and that he is comfortable with. He would, frankly, prefer to sell, but can’t. The club is a basket case, and he would demand too high a price, and there are no rich fools in the offing.
So just as America can be relied upon to do the right thing, but only after trying everything else first (Churchill), so Ashley is realistic enough to do the sensible thing, but only after doing a whole load of stupid, annoying, and selfish things first.
These press reports I mentioned, which do not mention any on-the- record source (which is not surprising), say that Ashley:
- a) is insisting on a much better and higher status manager – not just coach – than the ones he has been associated with to date;
- b) is prepared to move substantially on the amount of autonomy a manager would enjoy at Newcastle United, and;
- c) is going to have a root and branch review of the whole set up at the club this summer.
If he moves on the first two, it is hard to see how the third could not mean the appointment of a top class chief executive. That would be a real game-changer. That would mean we were guaranteed some footballing sense.
Of course, I might be falling for some spin. I might be a credulous fool, believing in the tactical shuffling of a serpentine and ruthless and contemptuous businessman.
But just as that television interview allowed Ashley no wriggle room – he was either changing or he was lying – the imminent sacking/non-sacking of McClaren, the imminent appointment/non- appointment of a superior manager, not a coach, and the amount of autonomy/non-autonomy such a superior manager is actually in the event actually allowed in practice, and not just in theory – all of that adds up to a pretty clear picture of what kind of change this really means. If any.
So if and when Ashley appoints someone like Rafa Benitez, well, that is a clear first signal. He would have appointed a very good manager who had been told he would be running the football side of things to the exclusion of Messrs Charnley and Carr. Otherwise he would not have agreed to come. It would be ridiculous if Benitez had to pay any attention to the old regime, wouldn’t it?
My conclusion in those circumstances would be that Ashley, for the worst and most venal reasons, fair enough, really had changed, and in a good way. He would have resigned himself to staying at Newcastle, and to being the owner of a football club supported by loyal and discerning fans who positively detest him.
He would finally have realised that he simply could not afford to do things his way any longer. This would be the first time in a thirty-year business career that this would ever have been true. He would have been shown the light, and at first he would have ignored the light, and then he would have been forcibly shown the light, and, finally, he would have seen the light.
Is this really what has happened? Could this possibly be true?
Let’s see if it’s Rafa. Because it might still be McClaren, all the way to the Championship.