With promotion as champions secured, Newcastle fans finally got the news they craved on Wednesday: Rafa Benitez is staying on Tyneside after successful talks with Mike Ashley. As good news is often rare with the Sports Direct owner at the helm, has he finally learned from his mistakes?
Ashley’s calamitous history at NUFC
After arriving to much optimism and bringing an end to the Freddy Shepherd era, Ashley’s arrival gave us a lot of hope initially. However, the days of sinking pints in the away end with fans quickly evaporated as Ashley began a series of truly bizarre mistakes, seemingly navigating from one disaster to another.
Hiring fan favourite Kevin Keegan to only undermine and drive him out was soon followed by appointing Joe Kinnear as Director of football. Even St James’ was re-branded as the Sports Direct Arena, a buy them cheap and sell they high transfer policy introduced and another local hero, Alan Shearer, mistreated following our first relegation in a near 25 years. Popular manager Chris Houghton was given the boot and another relegation sealed last season. A tenure of pantomime and ridicule has been endured by Newcastle fans, who rightly, doubt Ashley is capable of instilling success at a football club. 10 years has seen a 5th placed finish but two relegations.
A new found determination?
Ashley gave a rare interview at the end of the 2014/5 season after NUFC stayed up by the skin of their teeth. He famously declared he would not leave the club until the won a trophy or finished in the top 4. It was this ambition that fans have craved, with the previous mistakes appearing to point to Ashley wanting to use the club to promote his other business interests.
To be fair to Ashley, he followed up his side of the bargain in the 15/16 season. He stepped away from making football decisions directly after clearly being under qualified to do as outlined above. He invested £55m on new players, one of the biggest highest spends in Europe that season. The season was of course a disaster as we were relegated but it was Ashley’s choice as Lee Charnley as MD that was to blame this time. Putting faith in others was the right thing to do but placing it in Charnley was his latest mistake. Charnley hired Steve McClaren, who plundered the transfer money given to him and somehow managed to send us down into the Championship.
Although relegated last year, it was the first time Ashley was not solely to blame. He then backed the club financially to return to the top flight. As owner it is ultimately his fault we have been relegated twice but he does appear to be becoming more determined to succeed. Hiring and keeping Rafa has reinforced this.
Be careful what you wish for?
There is no doubt Newcastle fans have endured more misery than most during the Ashley era. Even recently, news of the tax probe days after celebrating promotion is typical Newcastle. It is hard not to look at Manchester City and Chelsea and wonder why we got this billionaire owner instead.
However, for every Chelsea, there are clubs like Leeds United, Aston Villa, Birmingham and arguably Sunderland who have been put in far worse positions by their owners. NUFC are on a far better financial base than when Ashley bought the club, which we do have to be grateful for when you look at the mess at cubs like Glasgow Rangers. There are certainly owners who have done more damage to English football than Ashley. Our season in the Championship was a tour of some really poorly run clubs; Blackburn Rovers and Nottingham Forest being prime examples.
The future – can Mike finally get it right?
Ashley has clearly made mistakes and massive ones at that. He has however, showed signs of learning from them. He has learned on the job, which although frustrating that someone so incompetent bought us in the first place, he is showing signs of a brighter future ahead.
He has stabilised the club financially and stepped back from football decisions. He is also finally beginning to invest money in the club, which will only be strengthened by the new TV deal. Ashley has also finally appointed a truly world class manager in Rafa Benitez. We are back in the Premiership but for the first time since he bought the club arguably, with genuine hope. Let’s hope it continues.