TONIGHT ought to be a very significant night in deciding Mike Ashley’s legacy to Newcastle United.
In reality, it will be anything but. It is very hard to imagine Ashley being remembered as anything other than the bungling businessman who ended the Magpies’ 16-year membership of the Premier League.
But believe it or not, when Ashley first took the reins, it was with a plan in mind and tonight’s League Cup clash against Huddersfield Town will be an acid test of a key element of it.
Ashley bought out Freddie Shepherd believing one sensible way to cut corners was scaling down on the expensive Hollywood signings his predecessor was so fond of in favour of identifying young talent first, and snapping it up before it reached the shop window. In essence, while Shepherd wanted his club to be a down-market Real Madrid, Ashley aimed to be the poor man’s Arsenal.
Two years on, the fruits of those labours – overseen for much of that time by the unfailingly unpopular Dennis Wise – are beginning to be seen.
Five youngsters are expected to be given their chance tonight against a team led by the man many see as a future United manager, Lee Clark. Of them, Tim Krul had played first-team football (once) before Ashley’s arrival, and Ryan Donaldson and Kazenga LuaLua came through an academy long since established.
But former Southampton striker Nile Ranger and Zalaegerszegi product Tamas Kadar are the kind of signings Ashley had in mind. Signing or developing young players is a notoriously hit-and-miss affair but interim manager Chris Hughton has high hopes for the quartet. “We have four lads who have played a part in pre-season and I very much expect them to play a part this season,” he says. “They’ve really developed. They had experience with us last season.”
They will get far more this, particularly if the trend of players leaving St James’s Park without being replaced is not reversed soon. It is not just Ranger’s prolific form for the club’s junior sides last season which has shoved him up the pecking order.
Since Newcastle’s last Premier League game at Villa Park, Michael Owen, Obafemi Martins, Mark Viduka, Damien Duff and Peter Lovenkrands – all of whom have played international football at centre-forward – have left. Another youngster, Gateshead-born Andy Carroll, has been promoted to the starting line-up as a conequence. But with Carroll injured, Ranger was second in line on Saturday, brought off the bench to partner Shola Ameobi at Crystal Palace in preference to Xisco, a strategic signing more emblematic of the sportswear magnate’s rein.
The 18-year-old Ranger was fast-tracked by Alan Shearer last season after a prolific maiden campaign on Tyneside saw him rush through the youth ranks and into the reserve team as he whizzed past 20 goals. It earned him England recognition in the final of this summer’s European Under-19 Championships.
“For those who’ve not seen Nile, he’s a powerful lad, good in the air,” Hughton says of the Londoner. “He’s very much part of the first-team group.”
Ranger is not without his baggage. Having got caught up in London’s gang culture, in his youth he was involved in a street robbery and sentenced to 11 weeks in a young offenders’ institute. He describes Newcastle as “a new life”, “a breath of fresh air”, but soon he will be expected to breathe new life into this flagging football club.
So too will Krul, the Dutch Under-21 international goalkeeper seen as Edwin van der Sar’s long-term successor. In Krul’s case, the genie is already out of the bottle. A man-of-the-match display as a half-time substitute against West Bromwich Albion brought reported interest from Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur among others. Another good showing when he starts tonight could see that interest hardened up.
“If you thought that way, you’d never play anybody,” Hughton argues. “He’s a young goalkeeper of quality playing in a position where the best in the world are generally the most experienced. He’s a lad who needs to look for the moments he can to get that experience.
“He’s fortunate enough to play under a very good and experienced goalkeeper in Steve Harper, who’s helped him immensely. I’m quite sure Tim will also have gained some experience from seeing how Stevie Harper’s playing at the moment.”
The words of warning come from Kevin Nolan, who came through the ranks at Bolton Wanderers learning from some of the once-great footballers Sam Allardyce improbably lured to Lancashire.
“We do have a group of very good kids around us,” says the midfielder. “Having said that, we can’t just throw them in. Some would be able to handle it but we don’t want to be ruining young careers.
“We want to bring them through at the right time or it can do lasting damage. We want them to be surrounded by senior players so we can help them when they are in the team.”
Unfortunately, it is the weekly erosion of that senior support group which will be better remembered as Ashley’s legacy, not matter how well the youngsters perform tonight.