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Playing devil’s advocate with Mr Michael James Wallace Ashley

3 years ago

Now Newcastle United’s players and coaching staff have secured Premier League status for another season, perhaps this is the time to play devil’s advocate with Mike Ashley.

The phrase stems from the Catholic church. When a worthy candidate was being considered for sainthood, a Vatican official known as the promoter of the faith would argue against such elevation. The official did not believe in the points he was arguing, the exercise was simply to challenge the received wisdom.

Playing devil’s advocate with Mike Ashley is not entirely appropriate, for two fairly obvious reasons. As far as I know, he has never been considered a saintly figure. Equally, he is still alive and kicking (at time of publication) whereas saints tend to shuffle off this mortal coil (to quote Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Monty Python’s Dead Parrot sketch) before they are canonised. Ashley is not a parrot; more of a prat, many supporters would suggest.

To speak in favour of our owner is tantamount to heresy but there should be a place for contrarians in any civilised society so let’s try to understand things from where Mike stands; and I don’t mean when he’s leaning forward, chundering into a fireplace.

He agrees with the fans in one respect: the Premier League is the place to be. The limit of his ambition is, apparently, to secure our top-flight status for the lowest-possible outlay. He seems hell-bent on that. As a businessman who likes to pile ’em high and sell ’em cheap, this is only to be expected.

Nobody knows whether he listens to advice but with the passing of every transfer window there is increasing evidence that he will back the manager/coach/patsy only when relegation becomes a real and present danger. And even then, he delays recruitment until the window is hours from closing. Imagine how many more points we might have secured if Miguel Almiron had arrived on January 1 rather than at the end of that month. Not to mention giving us a better shot at FA Cup glory.

Whoops! I’ve accused Ashley of sabotaging the team’s hopes of success there. Please show some understanding, dear reader, playing devil’s advocate is a tricky business when he is the subject. Time to get back on-message.

Our owner really does have the club’s best interests at heart. Honestly, he does. Just look at the facts. He has cleverly realised that hiring a tactical and motivational genius at roughly £6m a year is a much cheaper way of remaining a Premier League club than taking a punt on a proven top-flight goalscorer. Good old Mike has saved a packet there. After all, he could have splurged £32m on Christian Benteke, a centre-forward who has scored a grand total of one goal in 20 games spread over nearly 12 months. And as Ashley’s pals (I’m guessing he has at least one or two) would rightly point out, that solitary strike for Crystal Palace was against an Arsenal team including Shkodran Mustafi, whose skills in defence on Sunday were the very antithesis of Clarence Darrow’s.

Businessmen like to use a tool (titter ye not) called cost-benefit analysis to help them determine whether a planned action or expenditure is worth the price. So we can assume Ashley has decided United can avoid relegation without resorting to Benteke-style recruitment.

Who can argue against that policy?

There are suggestions we would never be able to sign top, top players anyway, because the club’s wage structure militates against such moves. Again, is Ashley wrong to keep salaries well below the Premier League norm when the alternative is, for example, giving Alexis Sanchez a reported £400,000 every week simply to be registered as a Manchester United player? If you want Senor Sanchez to kick a ball in anger, that costs his club another £75k for each appearance. Nice work if you can get it but certainly no guarantee of success.

I hope you’re still reading because, finally, we have reached the crux of the case in favour of Mike Ashley’s stewardship of our great club. One of the biggest criticisms levelled against him is that he is happy to settle for mid-table mediocrity (in a good season). But be fair, what is the alternative? His work has all but guaranteed Premier League football at St James’ Park. Think of the free, worldwide advertising that accrues for Sports Direct from that achievement. It must be worth something, to somebody.

Fans (and I include Rafa Benitez in their number) who would like the club to compete for a trophy are kidding themselves, aren’t they? Recall what happened after a scarcely believable fifth-place finish in 2012, when we then had to play in what is now called the Europa League. The extra burden on the players nearly ended in relegation. You wouldn’t want that, would you? So hats off to Mike for having our best interests at heart.

Perhaps you foolishly believe a little easing of the purse strings is all we need to zoom up the table and become one of the so-called Big Six. Come on, be reasonable. The gap between sixth place (which guarantees European games next season) and seventh is a full 15 points at the end of the Easter matches. And guess what? The team who are likely to finish sixth, thus lining themselves up for all those extra pesky matches on Thursday nights, would probably rather finish a little lower. I almost feel sorry for Man Utd fans . . .

Then look at the points gap between sixth and our current total; just the 23 to find from somewhere. The investment needed to reach those dizzy heights would be enormous, wouldn’t it? And if we are talking Champions League football (younger readers might not realise we enjoyed a memorable campaign in that tournament as recently as the pre-Ashley days of 2002-03) which in all honesty is the only European competition worth a light, even Moneybags Mike couldn’t be expected to fund such a challenge.

All those wise men on the BBC and ITV, Sky and BT, all those journalists who write for the local and national newspapers, they must be correct in asserting that the Big Six are miles ahead of the rest. When old purple-nosed Ferguson called us a “wee club in the North East” he was simply stating the truth. The supporters are clearly deluded to take issue with Ashley for accepting the reality of the situation. To quote an almost trendy phrase: we are where we are and it is what it is.

Except that any proper football supporter knows nearly everything before this sentence is missing the point.

Two relegations and several more close-shaves while Ashley has been in charge are proof of that. He has not all-but guaranteed Premier League football. He has, with a couple of rare exceptions, guaranteed nothing except a grim struggle to survive. The prospect of a long run undefeated, which would build momentum, is as illusory as a rainbow’s end. The manager, his coaches and the players have worked their socks off in almost every match since we were relegated in 2016. If they had been given sensible financial backing, who knows what would have been achieved?

Our owner has no idea what our club means to the city, to the region, to the Geordie diaspora. His policies are clueless, ignorant, ill-informed, mistaken and sometimes wantonly malicious. He is blind to the potential of Newcastle United.

One of the stupid phrases trotted out by the media is: “It’s the hope that kills you.” No, it isn’t. What kills you is the deliberate campaign to shatter even the slightest chance of generating hope in the club you love.

The hope that we will ever again reach a semi-final or a final of a proper competition.

The hope that our squad will be strong enough even to allow us to field a high-quality team in the FA Cup.

The hope that we can rock up with a reasonable expectation of defeating any other team in the Premier League on our patch.

The hope that Match of the Day will be worth watching.

The hope that our wonderfully dedicated manager will be given the tools to finish the job.

And the hope, however outlandish, that one day we will “do a Leicester” and outfox those clubs who want to turn our game into a self-serving cartel.

Ashley could point out that Leicester City won the title (while we were busy being relegated) on a shoestring and say we should be able to do the same. But even he must realise the 2015-16 season was a freak that is likely to prove unique. In football, there is nearly always a causal link between investment and achievement. To win the prizes, or at least compete for them, you must think big and spend big. The appointment of Benitez is the only bit of big thinking we have seen from the owner. And even that move was initiated by the manager.

As for spending big, forget it. Almiron cost £20m and broke a transfer record that had stood since 2005. Meanwhile, we banked £35m from the sale of Andy Carroll in 2011 and another £30m from Moussa Sissoko’s switch to Spurs three years ago. The highest fee we have paid is little more than half our highest receipt. Meanwhile, Arsenal spend £56m on Aubameyang, Liverpool £75m on Van Dijk, Man City £60m on Mahrez, Spurs £42m on Sanchez, Man Utd £89m on Pogba and Chelsea £71m on a keeper called Kepa. WTF? All right, those are the “Big Six” and we are no longer members of that dubious sextet, but what of the clubs who should fear us? Until SuperMig arrived, our most expensive signing cost less than the records set by Aston Villa, Crystal Palace, Everton, Fulham, Leeds, Stoke, Swansea, Wolves and West Ham.

The training facilities, despite repeated promises, are nowhere near the level to be expected at a Premier League club.

Under Ashley’s watch, talented local boys have chosen to walk away from their hometown club. Yes, that is simply the continuation of a long and sorry trend, but an enlightened owner, one with the club’s best interests at heart, would have tried to halt that exodus. The stadium, while still a magnificent cauldron, is no longer the second-biggest. Arsenal, Manchester City, West Ham, Liverpool and Tottenham have all overtaken us in the past 13 years. If only we had a realistic chance of finishing seventh in the seventh-biggest stadium.

Since Ashley bought the club in May 2007 we have gone backwards faster than a getaway driver in reverse. But not everything has declined. The revenue from domestic and worldwide broadcasting deals has touched through the stratosphere. The first five seasons of live Premier League coverage cost Sky £304m. What a bargain, with United finishing second in 1996 and 1997. By the start of the 2007-08 campaign, the broadcasters were paying £1.706bn for their rights to three more seasons. And by then, we had changed from a club that had finished fourth, third and fifth under Sir Bobby Robson in the early Noughties to a much-ridiculed serial relegation flirter. Down in 2009, we were back in 2010, just in time to benefit from the next three-year deal, for which the broadcasters paid £1.782bn. By 2013, that price had risen to £3.018bn. And still the hoped-for investment on Barrack Road was conspicuous by its absence. Next month marks the end of the most recent three-year deal. The cost: a crazy £5.136bn.

Were Ashley to fulfil the dreams of nearly every supporter and sell the club this summer, he would be denied a piece of the new deal, for which Sky, BT and Amazon are paying about £4.6bn (ED; Although it is widely accepted that overseas TV rights will more than compensate, meaning the overall broadcast revenue goes up yet again) . The widespread expectation is that he will remain in charge, overseeing a regime that seems determined to deliver decline and fall, regardless of how many millions the broadcasters pop in the post.

My attempts to justify Ashley’s actions and lack of action have been a miserable failure, though not quite as appalling as his Gallowgate tenure. As a devout atheist, I’m probably not best-placed to play devil’s advocate. If, however, you want somebody to explain why he is the devil incarnate, look no further.


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