10 months ago, with their Premier League future hanging in the balance, Newcastle United owner Mike Ashley sought to galvanise the disillusioned Toon Army by conducting a rare pre-game interview ahead of the team’s Survival Sunday showdown with West Ham United.
The Sports Direct supremo, renowned for his public reticence, stood in front of the Sky Sports’ cameras and boldly proclaimed to the nation that the club had learnt from their catalogue of catastrophic errors over the past eight years, and, with the financial backing to boot, they would be doing their utmost to re-establish themselves as one of the top flight’s big hitters from that day onwards.
The unpopular owner’s unexpected and garish statements had the desired affect, as just a few hours later Newcastle staved off the threat of relegation and secured their Premier League status by beating the Hammers 2-0.
Relief was etched over the faces of the club’s embattled board members, as they punched the sky and joyously huddled in the stands following Jonas Gutierrez’s late goal.
There was a sense that a corner had been turned, a new dawn seemed to be on the horizon, and the torment that Newcastle fans had endured as a result of the club’s baffling parsimony looked set to end.
Since that day, purse-strings may have been loosened, investments have certainly been made, but, critically, lessons have not been learnt.
Albert Einstein defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” – by the theoretical physicist’s famous definition, the Magpies are decidedly psychotic.
Bizarrely, the same men responsible for Newcastle’s disastrous 2014/15 campaign were once again entrusted with bringing about the necessary changes to ensure the club could once again compete at the right end of the table.
Managing director Lee Charnley – whose indecisiveness almost relegated the club following Alan Pardew’s exit in December, 2014 – was charged with securing the services of a new, innovative head coach to lead the club into an exciting new era, a task which he failed in miserably by appointing the ineligible Steve McClaren – whose nightmare nine-month tenure came to an undignified end less than two weeks ago.
Despite his very suspect track record of recruiting players that are physically and mentally equipped to handle the rigours of English football, Newcastle’s chief scout Graham Carr was handed an £80million war chest and tasked with replenishing the club’s jerry-built playing staff over the summer and winter transfer windows; a task which he has once again carried out with extremely mixed results – Florian Thauvin for £12million anyone?
Throwing money at the club’s issues without extensive internal surgery was was never going to eradicate the team’s profusion of on-field problems, this much should have been clear.
A more holistic approach was required. The team’s dire performances were the symptom of a defective business model that had been stumbling from one disaster to another for many seasons, and the fact that it has taken the hierarchy till now to act decisively and scrap their shoddy ‘head coach model’ is a damning indictment of their unforgivable ambivalence in the face of impending disaster.
Rafael Benitez’s appointment as ‘manager’ is certainly a step in the right direction, but it looks as if it may be too late.
The board had the perfect opportunity to bring in the esteemed Spaniard in the 18 day break that followed February’s humiliating 6-1 thumping at Chelsea, yet, true to form, the club’s decision-makers chose to sit back idly and pray for the best rather than taking swift, decisive action to enhance the side’s dwindling chances of survival.
Now, just as Rafa has started to build some momentum by reinvigorating the club’s dejected fan base heading into the final two months of the season, Ashley has once again decided to publicly address Newcastle’s plight, however, this time his words are not a cause for optimism – in fact they are quite the opposite.
Speaking exclusively to Sky News, the multi-billionaire claimed that, although he will stand by the Magpies should they suffer relegation to The Championship as they are ‘wedded together’, he regrets ever getting involved in football; warning the United board ‘not to come crying to him’ for more money when they have completely emptied the club’s bank account that now has ‘virtually nothing left’ in it after a season of outlandish investments.
Hardly the rousing call to arms the team need when they’re 19th in the table staring relegation in the face, and hardly the welcome message Benitez – who has yet to speak to Ashley directly – will want, as he seeks to somehow rescue a beleaguered team from the jaws of danger and rebuild from the ground up over the next three years.
Ashley’s statements portray an image of a bleak, desolate future at Newcastle United and give the impression of a man who is completely out of ideas after having a ‘proper good go’ at turning the club’s fortunes around this season without the desired results.
What Benitez will make of the owner’s ramblings remains to be seen, however, it’s believed that the 55-year-old accepted the United job on the premise that he would receive significant financial backing to renovate the side should he succeed in masterminding an escape route between now and May 15th, and Ashley’s ominous words suggest that this may not necessarily be the case.
With a £120million cash bonanza awaiting clubs that can secure survival ahead of next season’s record breaking £5.14billion TV deal, Newcastle would receive a huge influx of money if they did manage to overturn their current league position between now and the end of the season, and one would assume that, should disaster be averted, a significant portion of this fee would be reinvested into the playing staff to ensure Benitez can begin constructing a side in his own image over the summer.
However, the owner’s ill-judged interview has once again muddied the water and threatens to derail the renewed optimism that had started to surface amongst the Toon Army following Benitez’s shock appointment.
Why Ashley seems intent upon undoing the feel good factor, or Rafa-lution as some have called it, is anyones guess, but at such a vital time of the season, with so much at stake, the 51-year-old should have been wary of the negative influence his gloomy words could have on a squad that is devoid of confidence and a fan base that is clutching to the faint glimmer of hope that things may finally get better under their new Spanish tactician.
Timing has never been Ashley’s strong point, and the businessman has once again demonstrated a disdain for the club and its fans by putting his foot in his mouth at the worst possible moment.
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