We all know the well-recited story – Mike Ashley wants NUFC to survive in the Premier League, in mid-table, with minimal investment so the club can keep safely collecting the TV money and also make profit on player trading. The Europa League and domestic cup competitions are to be avoided at all costs as the extra games may put the club in danger. If the club is ever in peril in January, he will put his hand in his pocket to ensure the ship reaches the shore safely. Otherwise, the money stays where it is. All these decisions are Mike Ashley’s.
I have no doubt whatsoever that this is the current state of play at Newcastle United. However, there is one subplot that has always bothered me about this story, a significant plot-hole in an otherwise watertight tale: Papiss Cisse.
The club had appeared in desperate need of a top class goalscorer during the whole summer of 2011, despite the capture on a free transfer of Demba Ba from West Ham, but by mid-January when Ba had left for the African Cup of Nations the gamble had handsomely paid off – as Ba had still not stopped scoring. The side had just beaten QPR to move 6th, within 4 points of 4th placed Chelsea, courtesy of a goal from the soon-to-be-ousted Leon Best, who had performed a perfectly passable job. Then on 17th January 2012, completely out of the blue, Newcastle United spent nearly £10m on one of European football’s most in-form strikers.
This has never fit the current narrative of Mike Ashley’s stewardship of NUFC.
The accepted version of what happened is that Ashley saw the Champions League money glinting away in the distance and decided to go for it. Not an unreasonable assumption to make but still one that doesn’t sit quite right as a credible explanation given that, at that point, Newcastle’s involvement still appeared unlikely. It was, unbeknownst to Ashley at the time, made increasingly realistic later in the season as Chelsea put all their efforts into winning the Champions League whilst two domestic cup finals also took Liverpool’s eye off the ball.
Why would he make such an investment therefore, with a low chance of success but a high risk factor – i.e. a large (by his standards) outlay and qualification for the “dreaded” Europa League? We certainly saw no similar show of ambition when in a very similar situation in the January of 2014, as the club sold a prize asset, rather than acquiring one, dealing significant damage to the prospect of a European push despite the club’s financial situation being vastly better two years down the line. So where did this unprecedented show of ambition come from and, more importantly where has it gone?
Ask yourself why on Earth Mike Ashley would change his mind completely and suddenly actively wish for the club not to bother competing for European places or cups, unless in that time he had developed a genuine belief that the two pose a serious threat to the club’s Premier League status.
Such a belief is plainly unjustifiable nonsense, and it is based entirely on listening to and trusting in the opinions of the most negative and defeatist man in football.
“Mike Ashley knows nothing about football”
~ Kevin Keegan
The words of one of Newcastle United’s finest are the key here – remember Ashley is the man who was completely charmed into believing the staggeringly tall tales spun to him by JFK in their local. Whilst we all laughed at that TalkSport interview, Mike didn’t laugh at it, he believed in it and hired Kinnear – twice. One constant of Mike Ashley’s reign thus far are the type of people he has chosen to surround himself with – from Dennis Wise, to Tony Jimenez and Jeff Vetere – he likes yes-men but yes-men who he believes “know football”, who he can put his trust in. It’s fair to say that when it comes down purely to football, Ashley is not just clueless but more than a little gullible. He also enjoys hearing what he wants to hear.
This is where Alan Pardew comes in.
If a man knows little enough about football to be convinced that Joe Kinnear is a sensible appointment for a Premier League club in 2013 then it is very easy to see how he could be manipulated by Pardew’s natural arrogance and charm (or smarm, depending on your point of view). The grinding down of expectations and ambition at NUFC now finds itself as the unremarkable bread and butter of Fans Forum minutes, official statements and in the wider media, where we are often told that Pardew’s tenth placed finish of last season was a good achievement. This is quite an extraordinary thing to hear given that Chris Hughton’s side lay in 9th place when he was dismissed – but within the bowels of NUFC are not where such lowly ambitions started life.
As soon as Newcastle had qualified for the Europa League, Pardew started fervently knitting his own safety net. In his interview given after the final game of the 2011/12 season, Pardew mused several times that the next season would be a difficult one, not just because of the Europa League but also, bizarrely, because of the Olympic Games.
His previous foray into Europe had been disastrous as his West Ham side failed to get through their qualifier, before the side sank to their worst run of form in over 70 years – this is a now familiar theme of Pardew’s career, a moderate high followed by crippling, record-breaking lows. In being dumped out by September, he had previously been unable to use the Europa excuse to get away with taking West Ham into the relegation zone but he wasn’t about to allow the opportunity to slip through his fingers again. What followed was a season of unflinching and frankly outrageous propaganda from a man desperate for others not to cotton on to his incompetence, culminating in the club narrowly avoiding relegation and Pardew exclaiming “Thank God we’re not in the Europa League again”.
The club’s poisonous attitude towards competitions other than the Premier League can be traced entirely back to Pardew. It was he alone who created this self-serving myth that the Europa League is impossible for a Premier League club to cope with despite all the evidence to the contrary, and just as he fell for JFK telling him that he managed England in ’66, the football know-nowt in Ashley has bought into Pardew’s negativity and defeatism. Indeed it suits him to do so. Pardew has convinced the footballing media, a substantial amount of Newcastle supporters and Mike Ashley himself that without throwing vast money around, it is a substantial achievement for Newcastle United to be stuck in mid-table, going nowhere. The club has taken that philosophy and ran with it, but it has done so only since Alan Pardew’s catastrophic foray into Europe convinced them that outside interests are a danger to their gravy train. The policy of NUFC was never ambitious but only under Pardew has it become actively and deliberately detrimental.
When Alan Pardew does us all a favour and departs Newcastle United, there is a promising career waiting for him as a spin doctor on Whitehall. He has become a master in the art of “if you say something often enough, people will believe it”. One of his favourite phrases is to tell us what he thinks “our fans know…”
“I think our fans are realistic.
“The top five or six clubs have gone away from us.
“It is very, very difficult to bridge that gap.”
Alan Pardew, September 2014
It’s a subtle line that he throws in regularly but one which encapsulates the way he manipulates expectations.
“We haven’t Qatar money, we haven’t got that sort of finance, so it is a slow-build, keep getting better, keep getting stronger, and hopefully our fans realise that.”
Alan Pardew, February 2014, a month in which Newcastle were beaten 3-0 by Sunderland, 3-0 by Chelsea and 4-0 by Spurs.
There’s an implied criticism there – “…and if they don’t realise that, they must be a bit simple”. Other than in August each year, when season ticket sales are underwhelming and like clockwork, he does one interview saying the squad are good enough for the Champions League, the Pardy line is consistent and unerring: the club cannot compete in the top half of the division, or in cup competitions, without vast investment. Nobody ever questions him on this, asks him publically about Everton perhaps, or even Atletico Madrid, or confronts him on how it is that Southampton can wipe the floor with his team in identical fashion, months apart, despite not having “Qatar money” and having sold off most of their first team in the meantime. What he really means when he says “we can’t compete” is “I can’t compete”. Managers matter, but our manager is desperate for you, and his boss, to believe that they don’t.
A Newcastle United which has been manipulated into striving for mediocrity suits Pardew and it suits Ashley, it allows the manager to remain a media darling when he succeeds in that mediocrity and exonerates him from doing his job properly when the club inexorably falls short of any meaningful success. If fans and the media believe it is impossible to get near the likes of Everton and Spurs without being Manchester City, then the owner also benefits from diminished financial expectations. Pardew doesn’t just act as a willing puppet for the people ruining the club, he is extremely active in that ruination.
If you, like many, have never felt further away from the Newcastle United you grew up loving, think about how you felt when Chris Hughton raised the Championship trophy, when Ben Arfa tormented Everton, when Kevin Nolan completed his hat trick on Hallowe’en, or the rush of excitement when you learned Ba was being teamed up with another Senegalese goal machine.
Naturally Mike Ashley has played his part in the club’s regression, he appointed this charlatan manager after all, but he was also very well entrenched at a time when the club still felt meaningful. His presence behind the scenes took nothing at all away from those moments. To find the man responsible for the difference between how the club felt then, and how it feels now, who has dragged the team, the fans and the club down to his own dreary, pitiful level, we need to look elsewhere.