Aaron Gales examines the impact of Mike Ashley as Newcastle United soar at the top of the table.
It would be fair to say that Mike Ashley has divided opinion during his troubled and turbulent four year in charge of Newcastle United Football Club. As a fan of the side myself I have been among the thousands that have protested against the regime.
However, as Newcastle sit third in the table following a brilliant start to the season under the astute leadership of Alan Pardew, it is becoming clear that the tide is once again beginning to turn back in favour of the Sports Direct owner.
When Ashley first took over the club back in 2007 it was to a wave of fanfare that he stole the reins from the fat, greedy hands of Freddie Shephard, who had used the club as his own personal plaything and vanity project for far too long. He was worth a hell of a lot of money and we all believed that the long awaited funds that we needed to get back to the top table of English and European football would soon be forthcoming. Ashley had inherited Sam Allardyce as manager from the previous regime, and while he toyed with the idea of getting rid of the former Bolton manager before a ball had even been kicked he chose to back his current manager and a whole host of new players were brought in. These included Joey Barton, Alan Smith, Geremi, Jose Enrique and David Rozhenal. We approached the new season with great optimism and Ashley was extremely popular, often sitting in with the Geordie faithful, rather than choosing to sit in the boardroom. Results and performances in the first six months left a lot to be desired and the decision was taken by Ashley to dispose of Allardyce. Kevin Keegan was appointed as his replacement. While this seemed a popular decision at the time, there were many Newcastle fans who were sceptical about the appointment. Myself, and many others, believed the appointment of Keegan to be a decision purely based on what would be the most popular decision, rather than what would be the most sensible decision. However Keegan steadied the ship towards the end of that season.
This though was the beginning of the end for Mike Ashley's popularity on Tyneside. The first cracks in his relationship with Keegan were starting to show with the manager openly saying that the club would never again reach the heights of English football unless the owner was willing to loosen the purse strings a little. These comments at the time were known to have gone down badly in the boardroom but the message seemed to have been heeded with Ashley allowing Keegan to bring in Fabricio Coloccini, Jonas Gutierrez and Danny Guthrie to strengthen the squad and all seemed well, particularly after an encouraging 1-1 draw away at Manchester United on the opening day of the season. However what happened next was the problem. Little known spanish striker Xisco was signed by Director of Football Dennis Wise based on some footage he had seen on Youtube. James Milner was then sold behind Keegan's back to Aston Villa. Keegan at the time was known to be happy to sell Milner as long as Bastian Schweinsteiger was brought in to replace him. It is a little known fact that Newcastle actually had a bid for the German midfielder accepted.
However nobody had thought to ask the talented German whether he fancied the move or not and he swiftly turned down the prospect of a switch to Newcastle. Milner was then sold anyway and Keegan was furious. This then led to him leaving the club. Whether he was sacked, resigned, or a victim of constructive dismissal as Keegan claimed will never be truly known. However it was an extremely unpopular decision with the vast majority of the Toon Army which led to mass protests at the next game against Hull. These protests were so vociferous and personal that Ashley released a statement saying that he was looking to sell the club as soon as possible. This then triggered a disastrous chain of events that led to inevitable relegation. Chris Hughton was placed in temporary charge, who was then replaced by Joe Kinnear. Kinnear then had a heart attack, placing Hughton in charge once again, before Alan Shearer was placed in charge for the remaining eight games of the season. We were relegated on the last day of the season after a dispiriting performance losing 1-0 away at Aston Villa.
Newcastle United, and Mike Ashley, had hit rock bottom.
However once you hit rock bottom the only way is up, and this is where Mike Ashley started making the right decisions in the running of the football club that he had destroyed. He recognised that Shearer was not up to the job and put his faith back in the trusty hands of Chris Hughton to get us back to the Premier League where we belonged. Hughton shipped out all the players who no longer wanted to play for the club, including Michael Owen, Obafemi Martins, Mark Viduka, Habib Beye and Sebastien Bassong and was left with a hungry squad with a point to prove. Boosted by the emergence of battering ram centre forward Andy Carroll we won the Championship comfortably and remained unbeaten at St James Park all season.
So we went into the Premier League season with renewed optimism. Hughton had been allowed to raid the Championshiop to bring in player such as Wayne Routledge, Leon Best, Mike Williamson and James Perch, and while the squad was arguably worse than the team that was relegated, there was a renewed team spirit amongst the players, that under the quiet leadership of Hughton we would be able to maintain our place in the Premier League. Resounding home victories over teams like Aston Villa and Sunderland proved that we were more than a match for most teams in the league. However rumours had begun circulating that once again all was not well behind the scenes and that the board were unhappy with the progress being made on the playing field. These rumours were dismissed as nothing more than scaremongering. Surely Ashley wouldn't dream of sacking the man who had led us back to the Premier League? How wrong we were. Hughton was out, Geordies were angry, Ashley was hated once more, and the hunt for yet another manager began. Speculation was rife that Martin O'Neill was among the early front runners and many Newcastle fans would have been happy to sacrifice Hughton for a man with a track record like O'Neill. However what we eventually got was Alan Pardew.
The appointment of Pardew was met with disbelief by us the fans. After all this was a man who had been sacked from his last three jobs at West Ham, Charlton and Southampton. And now suddenly he was deemed good enough to manage in the Premier League. It was undoubtedly an extremely unpopular decision. What was evident was Pardew needed a good result in his first game in charge and he duly got one with a 3-1 victory at home against Liverpool. Despite selling Andy Carroll to Liverpool, we managed to grind out enough points to stay in the Premier League and eventually finished in a respectable 12th place.
However there was to be more unrest over the summer months with much of the blame once again being laid at Ashley's door. After the selling of Carrol more key players were to follow. Jose Enrique got his move to Liverpool, Kevin Nolan dropped a division to sign for West Ham, and after causing trouble all summer Joey Barton was allowed to join QPR on a free transfer. They were replaced with Demba Ba, and little known French imports such as Yohan Cabaye, Sylvain Marveux and Gabriel Obertan. I wasn't the only Newcastle fan who was thinking that we were likely to be fighting a relegation battle this season. Then the football started. We began the season with an encouraging performance at home to Arsenal. We then went to the Stadium of Sh**e and took three points, before backing that up with a hard fought 2-1 home victory over Fulham. And the good results have just kept on coming. As I write this, we have just beaten Stoke 3-1 at the Brittanica Stadium, sit third in the table, and are one of only two teams still unbeaten in the league this season (Man City are the other). Alan Pardew and his players are rightly taking the plaudits. But perhaps it's about time Mike Ashley started getting his share of the credit. It has been a rollercoaster ride, but the ship has been steadied. Perhaps this was the plan all along. Onwards and upwards. Howay the lads.