With Newcastle United’s proposed £300m takeover edging closer, current owner Mike Ashley’s controversial 13-year tenure is subsequently drawing to an end.
Ashley’s exit will, unquestionably, be warmly welcomed by the entirety of the Toon army, who have long been desiring an owner who matches their passion for the club. We look back on Ashley’s contentious duration at the helm of the Magpies.
Ashley’s reign began seemingly well. The sportswear tycoon purchased the club for £134m in 2007, which was initially well received among supporters, as well as associates of Newcastle, with former owner Freddy Shepherd stating Ashley “will provide the best opportunity for the club to flourish in the future”.
Ashley was also a popular figure with the fans in his inaugural year. He appointed fan-favourite Kevin Keegan as manager upon his arrival, while he was also regularly spotted in the terraces, mingling and drinking with the Toon army at away matches, while donning the famous black and white jersey; this personalised trait had led fans to believe that a sincere owner was at the helm – what an erroneous judgement this turned out to be.
Not so Wise
Ashley’s tenure simply consisted of a series of bad decisions and disregard for the club and their supporters. The downward spiral began with the appointment of Dennis Wise as Director of football, in 2008. Wise constantly interfered in first team matters, which was insulting considering Keegan’s calibre.
This led Keegan to resign, while he publicly criticised dealings at the hierarchy of the club; Ashley had upset a club legend, which did not bode well with the fans. Ashley was later charged with ‘constructive dismissal’ of Keegan and had to pay a £2m compensation fee to the former manager.
Renaming the ground
One of the most abhorrent actions of Ashley’s duration was to rename Newcastle United’s famous stadium from St James’ Park to the ‘Sports Direct Arena’ in 2011. The Magpies’ home stadium is an iconic landmark, while this was viewed as a crude and unworldly move that completely neglected the values of the club.
Although this move was temporary (2013 shirt sponsors Wonga rightly named the stadium back to St James’ Park) it further enhanced Ashley’s loathsome reputation. Not only was the stadium renamed, Ashley used it as an advertisement market for his sportswear brand, with ‘sports direct’ plastered almost everywhere inside the ground, contrasting the pride and history of the club with indecency in a licentious manner.
In addition to stadium matters, Ashley also removed the singing section within St James’ Park, in response to the chants against him. The Leazes corner was responsible for initiating the renowned atmosphere, however this was selfishly dismantled.
Lack of ambition exposed
The longer Ashley remained at Newcastle, the more evident his plan was: have low ambition and invest as little as possible while remaining in the Premier League every season and reaping in the revenue straight into his own pocket.
Ashley has been widely criticised by pundits and fans alike by failing to invest into the squad, despite the tens of millions regularly generated by the club, along with the hundreds of millions from television income. Such lack of spending has resulted in the club struggling on the pitch, with the Magpies having gone from regular Champions League football (prior to the Ashley era) to regular relegation battlers. Ambition has been swapped with mediocrity, with two relegations within the space of seven seasons; unheard of from a club the size of Newcastle United.
Ashley was also guilty of regularly selling the club’s star players without replacing them, and even if they were, budget replacements were added. Andy Carroll, Yohan Cabaye, and Ayoze Perez were some of the names sold at hefty fees without suitable amendments being transferred in.
The final straw for the supporters was the departure of talismanic manager Rafa Benitez in 2019, which caused even the most die-hard Newcastle United supporters to lose patience with their soon-to-be-parting owner.
Benitez’s arrival at the club in 2016 transformed the place, while creating a buzz as well as re-connecting the club back to the fans and the city. The Spaniard had a vision for the club and was the sole beacon of hope in the Mike Ashley era. However, as everything under Ashley, Benitez’s duration did not run as smoothly.
There was a constant political battle between the two, which Benitez publicised on multiple occasions – he felt Ashley did not back him enough in the transfer market, despite Ashley’s promise of providing “every last penny generated” to Benitez. After three years of building up hope for the city and club, Rafa lost endurance and his vision amounted to nothing. Mike Ashley failed to keep hold of the club’s most valuable charm, instead clinging to his business-like model on how to run the football club.
While the Toon army had continued to back their team throughout Ashley’s tenure, flocking to home games 52,000-strong, the departure of Benitez caused a mass exodus at St James’ Park. Thousands of season ticket holders opted against renewing, in response to Ashley’s derogatory actions over the years.
Despite selling out home games even in the second tier, this was the first instance of supporters taking action by not attending; an inconceivable act by the most passionate set of supporters, with this refusal indicating the severity of events under Ashley.
Effects of Ashley’s ownership and the waking of a sleeping giant
In essence, Ashley has stripped the club of its assets, taken funds out of the club for his own personal gain, swapped ambition for mediocrity, and has all but sucked the living soul of out a once-great club. A club that once broke the world transfer record and was dubbed as ‘the entertainers’.
Newcastle United fans unveiled a banner in 2015, stating “We don’t demand a team that wins, we demand a club that tries”, with a lack of ambition being the reasoning. After years of protests, demonstrations and attempted boycotts, supporters of Newcastle United almost have their wish granted.
They face an anxious wait, while the Premier League conduct checks before they can confirm the takeover, which looks likely to go ahead. The Toon army will finally have owners who match their ambition, with a sleeping giant of a football club being close to arising.