Ashley's Turned Newcastle Into Just Another Way To Flog Tracksuits
Take a look around St.J ames' Park and it wont take long to see why owning a Premier League football club might be beneficial to Mike Ashley.
Sports Direct, Ashley's sportswear retail company have their logo emblazoned just about everywhere you, or a TV camera, can look. It covers every spare bit of wall or advertising hoarding, it crowns all four stands, it's on the seat covers in the dugout and there's recently been allocated further space on the glass panelling of the Leazes End, where a new giant LED screen is to be unveiled at this weekend's match against Hull. A game where Newcastle need to chalk up their first win of the season to lift them from the bottom of the league table.
Considering the global coverage of the Premier League, this amount of branding must be worth a fortune. However, as the owner of the club, Ashley has exercised his right to not pay a single penny for the privilege. The club, it seems, has not only been taken over by the sportswear tycoon, it's been hijacked by him.
Fronting this is the much beleaguered Alan Pardew, who despite his shortfalls as a manager, is tasked with a near impossible job. Forced to work with a squad it seems he's had nothing to do with the assembling of, he's clearly struggling with the balancing act of appeasing a disillusioned fan base, and a club owner with a staggering lack of footballing ambition. The regime has made it quite clear that it has no interest in qualifying for European football, that success in either of the domestic cup competitions is “not a priority” and that a 10th placed finish is the realistic target for each season. So mid-table mediocrity is as high as they aim to achieve. Anything more would take a level of investment they're unwilling to make. But when just premier league status is enough to provide a global platform for Mike Ashley's business interests, then why try harder?
So Alan Pardew, it seems has been identified as a “patsy”. A description quite possibly unfair on “patsies”. In the case of David Moyes at Manchester United last season you can see how that could be true. That only he, and a few disillusioned supporters couldn't see that he was about to be destroyed by the gargantuan power vacuum he was walking into. Calling Pardew a “patsy” is implying that he isn't complicit in the goings on behind the scenes. He must have known that he'd be the public face of the regime. And he must have known how that regime operates. If not when he first signed, then at least by the time he signed his remarkable 8 year contract two years ago.
That contract may be the only thing keeping him in a job right now. With Ashley unwilling to invest the time and money involved in replacing him, and Pardew unwilling to walk out on a lengthy and lucrative deal, the two might well be at stalemate. Although at the moment, it's Pardew on the receiving end of the fan's angst, and it's hard to see another manager willing to take on the role of Mike Ashley's human shield.
A plan B is a concept usually absent at St. James' Park. The sale of Yohan Cabaye last season being a case in point. The clever midfielder, and his link-up play with Loic Remy was the driving force that propelled the team into the top half of the table. Yet despite his departure in the January transfer window being on the cards for quite some time, a back-up plan, either on the pitch tactically, or off the pitch recruitment-wise was non-existent. Whether or not a plan B exists in this instance remains to be seen.
A bad result against Hull this weekend should be the final push Ashley needs to sack Pardew, especially considering the toxic atmosphere his continued presence in the dugout is fuelling. He will be aware though that unless a good replacement immediately steps in, then that negativity will be aimed solely in Ashley's direction.
Ultimately it's the fans that suffer the most in all of this. Spare a thought for the supporters who, on the strength of the performances of the first half of last season, bought half season tickets in December. Only to then see the best player sold, not replaced, and the team plummet into a downward spiral that collected just three wins and six goals in their final nine home games.
It's hard to see things getting any brighter for the St. James' Park faithful, who's protestations Mike Ashley seems impervious to. But if they keep buying tickets and going to games then there really is no reason for him to pay them any heed at all. The only way the supporters may have any chance of getting the puzzling billionaire to pay any notice of them, would be to turn their back on him completely and boycott games. A step that may be bridge too far for the vast majority of supporters.
Whatever the fix may be, it won't be quick, and it certainly won't be easy.
The only real hope Newcastle have of any significant change would be for not just the manager, but the club owner to move on too. But a recent club statement made it quite clear of that not being a consideration until at least the end of next season. Possibly when Ashley plans to increase his 10% stake in Glasgow Rangers. Any prospective buyers though will have to match his asking price, presumably much higher than the £135m that he paid in 2007. And with the only outstanding debts on the club's books being the loans owed to him, it's not just the fans Mike Ashley has over a barrel.
Until that time then, it's avoid relegation by any means, and flog as many track-suits as possible.