Mike Ashley was once viewed as Newcastle United’s saviour but the billionaire has presided over a crisis which threatens to tear the club apart.
WHEN Mike Ashley reappointed Kevin Keegan as Newcastle United manager he pulled off a public relations masterstroke, but in almost losing him after just eight months in charge yesterday he came close to a disaster which could be terminal for his ownership of the club.
It should be pointed out that Keegan’s future is still not certain and while a club statement last night categorically denied Sky Sports News-led stories they had sacked him as manager, there is still no guarantee he has decided to stay.
The Journal understands that the delay in the club releasing a statement yesterday was due to the fact Ashley was frantically trying to act as a peacemaker after Keegan was involved in a furious row with managing director Derek Llambias on transfer deadline day.
Whether things have gone too far for that relationship to be repaired remains to be seen and it is certainly difficult to see how Keegan and Llambias will be able to work together again considering the number of times they have argued in recent weeks. But if Llambias is responsible for pushing Keegan to the edge, it will ultimately be Ashley who carries the can if he goes.
It was once said of the conservative nationalists in post-World War One Germany that they had tried to ride a tiger, and ended up getting eaten, when they looked to use Adolf Hitler’s support on the streets to boost their own popularity.
What had seemed like a clever means to save themselves quickly led to their collapse as Hitler made the most of the government-sharing opportunity they afforded him to seize power for himself and destroy them in the process.
That is perhaps how Ashley feels this morning as he comes to terms with the fact the person he appointed to make his regime a success now looks as though he could destroy it.
Keegan was supposed to be the man who would give his regime a powerful connection with the rank and file supporters who still hanker after the glory days enjoyed under their former manager in the 1990s.
And it worked, for a while at least. Fans, thrilled by the return of the “Messiah”, lauded Ashley on Tyneside and he enjoyed the back-slaps and greetings when he took his place in the away end at grounds up and down the country.
After the events of the last few days, those back-slaps could carry some venom and the greetings will be far from friendly if, that is, Ashley still has the stomach to try to be one of the lads on the terraces. Given the angry mood of those fans who congregated outside St James’s Park yesterday – a mood which was comprehensively reinforced on the Journallive forum and Luke Who’s Talking blog – he is either very foolish or very brave.
He is now facing the sort of rebellion which can send a shiver down the spine of even the most unyielding of characters and the anger directed at the board when news of Keegan’s alleged departure emerged yesterday afternoon cannot be underestimated.
When Ashley took over 14 months ago it sparked widespread celebration from those who expected an exciting new era, free from the hype and hyperbole of former chairman Freddie Shepherd. As one of the richest men in Britain, it was anticipated Ashley would help finance a brave charge for honours and the vast majority were willing to ignore the fact he was a southerner with no emotional attachment to the area, let alone its football club.
Instead, Ashley has been prudent to the point of miserly, with the club’s net spending since he took control estimated to be less than £10m, a figure covered more than four times over by their annual slice of Premier League television deal. The desire to implement a long-term plan for long-term, sustainable success is the right one, but that does not excuse the fact the recruitment team he appointed has failed to sign the minimum number of players Keegan had asked for this summer.
When Keegan complained, arguments raged and, eventually, led to a parting of the ways which threatened to plunge the club into a crisis it would have been hard to see them getting out of. If Ashley dreamt of enjoying the thrill of being a fan as an owner – and that was always the indication he gave – then that dream is in danger of dying if Keegan does not return to work today.
What will follow could rapidly become a nightmare, not just for him, but also Llambias, executive director (football) Dennis Wise and head of recruitment Tony Jimenez.
In many ways, the problems for the new regime began when former chairman Chris Mort decided to return to his job as a lawyer in London three months ago. Mort was the public link between Ashley and the supporters, but when he left, it created a vacuum which has not been filled adequately by the invisible Llambias. United supporters behaved like wounded animals when the painful news of Keegan’s impending departure broke and, although the statement last night revealed the manager had not been sacked, they will lash out again if their hero says his position is untenable because of boardroom interference.
There has already been talk of boycotts and demonstrations when the team return to Premier League action against Hull City a week on Saturday and, with at least 4,000 supporters deciding not to turn up to watch the 1-0 opening day victory over Bolton Wanderers, the Magpies could be hit hard where every owner feels it most – financially.
Plenty of chairmen have had to ride out these sorts of storms in the past and clung on for years, but United fans can be volatile. There is only one way Ashley can put out the flames and that is to hope the peace deal he brokered between Llambias and Keegan lasts. If it does not, one of them will have to go.