David de Winter – Sports Editor
When I was growing up, I always looked at Newcastle United with fondness. A well-run club that played football the right way and had a sizeable and passionate support – it was the envy of almost every club in the land, a team destined to dine at football’s top table for years to come. With the likes of Peter Beardsley, Rob Lee, David Ginola, Alan Shearer, Les Ferdinand and Faustino Asprilla in their ranks, they came mighty close to lifting the league title in 1996 and were perennial bridesmaids in the FA Cup in 1998 and 1999. What the faithful folk of Tyneside would give for that sort of success today.
The Newcastle United of recent times has had more drama than Eastenders, Coronation Street and Emmerdale put together. Whether it be a headbutt here, a foul-mouthed tirade aimed at Mauricio Pellegrini there, or a ‘joke’ about sacking the manager, the club seems to lurch from one PR disaster to another. What has happened to that great club I used to know from the mid-90’s that used to pride itself on irresistible attacking football?
The supporters are currently in two minds whether to aim their vitriol towards the owner Mike Ashley or the manager Alan Pardew. Let’s take a closer look. Ashley bought the club in July 2007 from local businessman Freddie Sheppard but lost patience with new manager Sam Allardyce after an indifferent start to the 2007/08 season. He then produced a (rare) PR masterstroke by bringing club legend Kevin Keegan back to the club for a second spell in charge. The club finished a respectable 12th in the league but Keegan got fed up with the hierarchy over a perceived lack of financial support and departed after only three games of the 2008/09 season. From the sublime to the ridiculous, Ashley then appointed Joe Kinnear of all people to the hot seat and when the former Wimbledon boss left the club in the lurch after suffering health issues, another club legend, Alan Shearer, was unable to save them from relegation.
Chris Hughton was tasked with getting the club promoted at the first time of asking and a team compromising experienced duo Joey Barton and Kevin Nolan, and youngsters like Andy Carroll waltzed to the Championship title. Despite a promising start to the 2010/11 Premier League campaign, Ashley made a monumental error in firing Hughton because he did not have ‘enough managerial experience.’ I remember hearing about it and being absolutely staggered. Who did this guy think he was? Surely continuity, stability were the order of the day? Not some power-crazy, egotistical megalomaniac determined to boost his own profile at the expense of a whole football club and its supporters?
So who might this new, ‘top-level experienced manager’ be? Step forward Alan Pardew. Ah yes, Pardew. That ‘world-class’ manager who has mountains of experience in the upper-echelons of the game and who definitely hadn’t spent the previous four years languishing in the Championship and League One with Charlton Athletic and Southampton respectively. “No”, I said, “let’s at least give him a chance to see what he can do.”
To give him his credit, Newcastle didn’t do atrociously in the remaining months of the season, finishing 12th, despite selling top scorer Andy Carroll to Liverpool for an eye-watering £35 million. After suddenly finding the urge to buy any French-speaking player he could get his hands on, Pardew and his band of merry hommes surprised everyone by romping to a 5th placed finish in the 2011/12, in the process winning both the Manager of the Year awards. It seemed that Ashley’s gamble had paid off.
Yet, after such a high-placed finish, Ashley invested little money in the team. There was no thought of improving, of taking the team forward. The refusal to invest in the playing squad was baffling. Here was a team clearly on the up, which could have built on a really promising season; yet the owner kept his hands in his pockets, not willing to pay the big bucks to attract the best talent to the club. Instead, and rather inevitably given the added burden of a European campaign, United’s small squad struggled, eventually finishing 16th despite advancing to the quarter-final of the Europa League.
Herein lies the problem. Mike Ashley is a businessman and he runs Newcastle United football club like any other business he is involved in. Take the sale of Yoann Cabayé in the January transfer window for example. Here was a player who was clearly the heartbeat of the team, the star player, and Ashley accepted a good, but by no means overpriced offer of £20 million from the world’s richest club, Paris Saint-Germain. Now Ashley sees this as good business: £20 million for a player he bought for much less. Yet the on-pitch consequences to his boardroom actions are far more wide ranging that a few million quid profit. He did the same thing with Demba Ba the previous January.
Alan Pardew is the fall guy for Ashley’s financial policy. Don’t get me wrong, he hasn’t exactly covered himself in glory throughout his tenure at St James’ Park. However the manager can only work with what he is given, and what Alan Pardew currently has at his disposal is an average mid-table side. Yes, they are currently under-achieving but I look at the squad and I would say that the maximum they can achieve is 8th. What Newcastle United are suffering from are years of neglect from an owner who doesn’t have a long-term vision for the club.
I understand the supporters’ misgivings about both Pardew and Ashley, but what Newcastle really need is stability. They need to build a strong basis on and off the pitch. Sacking Pardew may well result in an upturn of fortunes short-term, but a new incumbent will want to work with his own blueprint, and I doubt Mike Ashley would be willing to invest the sort of resources that new manager would require. A long-term fix is required. On the pitch, it is essential that Newcastle find a spine around which to build a team. Too often players come for a season or two and then move on. They need players with the right attitude who are willing to commit to the Newcastle cause for years to come. However, if there is no commitment to the cause from the owner, then it is almost impossible to get commitment from the manager and the player. Things can’t go on as they are for much longer. Something will have to change.
Read more from David at thealternativesportsblog.wordpress.com