By Joe Donnohue
The ambition shown by those at Board level at Newcastle United has been astonishingly low. Take Newcastle’s transfer history for example; they have spent roughly £29m less on strikers between 2007-2017 than they did between 1997-2007. That is a remarkable statistic because after all, strikers score goals, goals win football matches and winning football matches breeds success.
Mentioned in Part One of this piece, Mike Ashley’s judgement in appointing appropriate candidates for the top jobs at Newcastle United had been called into question. That can also be true of the decision to relieve Chris Hughton of his duties in December 2010 with the newly promoted Newcastle United sitting comfortably in mid-table.
Alan Pardew, a man most recently sacked from then Championship bottom-feeders Southampton, was handed the job. It seemed a peculiar choice given Hughton’s and the club’s relative stability at the time.
The early years of Alan Pardew’s four-year stint as Newcastle boss went relatively well, winning LMA Manager of the Year in his first full season in charge. From then on however, the dynamic shifted and Pardew’s true colours began to show. First on the list of misdemeanours a Premier League manager should never commit was a push on assistant referee Peter Kirkup in the middle of a match against Spurs.
As the results turned for the worse, Pardew began to play the blame game, accusing things such as the Notting Hill Carnival, the Olympics and the local media for reasons why the team weren’t performing to a good standard.
Pardew was not finished there however, in the first three months of 2014, two incidents sparked controversy and yet again reignited the soap opera that was Newcastle United. Then Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini launched a complaint that the Newcastle boss had hurled verbal abuse at him on the touchline. It was later proven that Pardew had called Pellegrini a “F****** old c***”. Classy.
Then, in one of the more remarkable moments in Premier League history Alan Pardew head-butted opposition player David Meyler on the touchline. Not only was this gross misconduct and a fireable offence, this was the man tasked with representing Newcastle United and its supporters in the best light. This was yet another man that Mike Ashley had deemed appropriate for the top job.
Some would say that Pardew was appointed merely as a ‘yes man’, which wouldn’t be entirely inaccurate. Hughton’s sacking was alleged to have come about due to his inability to get the senior players to sign a derisory bonus sheet agreement, a story which was later reiterated by Joey Barton.
This incident in particular highlighted once again the lengths Mike Ashley and his boardroom cronies would go to in order to scrimp and save. It is also little surprise that following the disagreement between the boardroom and playing staff, the dressing room leaders of the stand against the bonus structure were subsequently sold. Joey Barton, Kevin Nolan, Andy Carroll and Steve Harper were shown the door in a similar fashion to that of Shay Given.
The Irishman divulged in his recent autobiography that Ashley had shown no desire to retain his services and baulked at a sum of £600,000 which would have kept Given – one of the side’s key players – at the club for many more years to come.
Following the £35m windfall received by the club for the sale of Andy Carroll, Mike Ashley’s crack transfer committee devised to replace one of England’s brightest striking prospects at the time with none other than 33-year-old Shefki Kuqi on a free transfer. The complacency and ignorance of what was required to replace Carroll’s contribution was astonishing and would become a common theme.
Alan Pardew’s reign did not end in farce and did not end in his sacking, it ended in December 2014 when Crystal Palace paid to release him from his eight-year-contract which he had been handed by Mike Ashley. Not only was such a contract ridiculous, but it proved to be a major stumbling block to Ashley who avoided sacking Pardew on numerous occasions despite poor results and his misconduct due to the fact that he would have to pay a considerable severance fee. Yet again, Ashley’s own pocket was prioritised over the best interest of the club.
Following Pardew’s departure, Newcastle supporters hoped for the appointment of a manager that would get pulses racing and would get them back on track. Instead, Pardew’s assistant John Carver was appointed; a man who had offered to fight traveling fans at Southampton’s St Mary’s Stadium following a 4-0 defeat there in 2014.
Another underwhelming, ill-equipped appointment. Carver was installed as first team boss until the end of the 2014-15 season in which Newcastle plummeted from relative safety in the top half, to relegation candidates on the final day of the season.
Carver claimed he believed he was the best coach in the Premier League, despite winning just nine points from a possible 48.
This was a move by Mike Ashley that reeked of incompetence and complacency. Newcastle were sitting comfortably in the Premier League and the man he deemed adequate to oversee the remainder of the season was grossly underqualified and it showed. As long as the Premier League revenues kept rolling through the door though, Ashley was not concerned, despite the final day scare.
On that day it was a man who had battled adversity of the cruellest kind who ultimately secured Newcastle’s Premier League survival. Ostracised by the club’s hierarchy following his diagnosis of testicular cancer, Jonas Gutierrez fought back to play a major role on the final day of the 2014-15 season, scoring the second goal against West Ham to ensure Premier League football in 2015-16.
In a show of clear – but justified – insubordination, Jonas Gutiérrez celebrated by holding his shirt up in the direction of the Board of Directors. It was a very bold and very brave statement considering it was anticipated that the winger’s contract would not be renewe at the end of the season. What followed was nothing short of disgusting, tactless and not befitting of the contribution that Jonas had made in his seven years at the club.
Interim first team manager John Carver was instructed to inform not only Jonas Gutiérrez, but also Ryan Taylor of their imminent release over the phone while the pair were on a coaching course. Taylor recounted the moment he was told to ‘pass the phone’ to Jonas in order for Carver to tell the Argentine that his contract would not be renewed either.
Not only did the club’s hierarchy – headed by Mike Ashley – not have the stomach or class to tell the pair of their release in a proper manner, but they also left the indignity of the task to John Carver, a man who was far from a senior figure at the club and who knew in all likelihood that he would be leaving the club in the near future too. The disgraceful nature in which the club conducted that incident was typical of the Ashley regime.
Gutiérrez would go on to win compensation in the region of £2m from the club for discrimination following his diagnosis. Mike Ashley’s Newcastle United losing a court case and being obliged to pay damages to a former employee, sound familiar?
By the summer of 2015, it was little surprise to see Steve McClaren linked to the top job at Newcastle. Ashley’s blatant malaise and apathy towards appointing a suitable candidate had been evident from previous appointments.
What did shock many was McClaren’s instalment to the Board. This move, as well as his title of ‘Head Coach’ rather than manager, only served to further diminish his role on the training ground – which was considerably outdated – and with that came a clear lack of respect from a group of highly paid mercenaries that made up the playing squad.
His puppet role on the Board was a mere publicity stunt; McClaren had no real power as Head Coach of Newcastle United, especially when it came to transfers. The transfer committee headed by Graham Carr had failed to learn their lesson in recruitment. Having previously signed off on the loan signings of Luuk de Jong and Facundo Ferreyra in previous seasons, Mike Ashley gave the green light for the loan signing of Seydou Doumbia in January 2016 with the club staring relegation in the face.
Those three loan deals – sanctioned due to the fact that they were supposed to be cheap – ended up costing the club £4.05m in loan fees even before wages. Each of the three loanees were recognised strikers, yet returned zero goals in a combined 15 appearances. That works out at £270,000 per appearance.
Doumbia’s loan deal alone cost £31,000 per minute of Premier League action as the Ivorian only managed 29 minutes of football. Facundo Ferreyra failed to make a single appearance for the first team, but has been somewhat prolific for Ukrainian champions Shakhtar Donetsk in the seasons prior to and following his Tyneside loan deal.
Deemed not good enough by Pardew and Carver, but good enough to score multiple goals in the Champions League and Europa League, Ferreyra did not play because he was not wanted by the manager; the same can be said of Doumbia. These were foolish signings with little consideration for how they would fit in with the squad or even help the team. Eight years on from the Xisco and ‘Nacho’ González fiasco, Mike Ashley still had not learned.
These deals did not represent value for money and cost the club millions. If that money had been reinvested more carefully elsewhere it’s likely it would have paid dividends.
Those were not the only transfer dealings that would prove to be ill-advised Board signings. Remy Cabella and Florian Thauvin; two players with fantastic reputations in France who simply could not cut it in the Premier League. Two players who Newcastle United made a significant loss on.
Cabella talked the talked and at least made an effort in his early Newcastle days. Thauvin on the other hand simply did not want to be at the club. The Frenchman sulked his way back to Marseille, securing a loan move just four months after joining Newcastle for £12m. The pair – amazingly – one season after the other returned to France, having made a mint from Newcastle in wages and contributing very little.
Surely the Board and the notoriously spendthrift Mike Ashley would have learnt by now that their transfer policy was severely flawed?
Enter Henri Saivet in January of 2016. Saivet joined for £5m on a five-year-deal and to date has cost £1m per league appearance for Newcastle. He played four times under Steve McClaren and just once under Rafa Benítez, because yet again, he was a player who did not wish to sign for the club and a player that McClaren did not want.
The transfer business conducted by Mike Ashley’s Board of Directors bordered on farcical.
The saddest part of Ashley’s ownership is not the ill-advised appointments or the complacency of how easy he figured it would be to remain in the Premier League. It is not the shambolic renaming of St James’ Park or the interviews where he has habitually lied through his teeth, but rather the fact that the appointment of Rafa Benítez was simply another stunt in his money-making enterprise.
He sees Benítez – one of the most successful managers of the current generation – as just another pawn in his ownership game.
The takeover saga has been covered extensively and isn’t the purpose of this article, rather it is to highlight the fact that despite his supposed business brain and financial nous, that Ashley in fact has been extremely negligent, jeopardising not only his own investment but the future of Newcastle United as a whole.
His attitude towards running the club has been toxic and narcissistic from the beginning and it is sobering that in the position that the club is in now, he cannot see that his ways of operating over the years has brought nothing but difficulty at Boardroom level and despair for supporters.
Football clubs in the modern era are not meant to penny-pinch at every opportunity. Ashley makes a fortune from his sportswear empire which he gets to advertise freely around St James’ Park, yet Newcastle have been run on a threadbare budget in comparison to sides like Watford, Bournemouth, Southampton and Everton since Ashley’s takeover in 2007.
Negligence, incompetence, farce and shame has befallen Newcastle United’s name under Mike Ashley and it will only continue as the tycoon still holds the club and its fanbase between his index finger and his thumb.