ONLY a couple of months ago you would have got ludicrously long odds on Newcastle United fans being pleased to hear confirmation of Mike Ashley and Chris Hughton as the club’s management duo.
Granted, they weren’t exactly dancing down Barracks Road when the news broke yesterday (for starters the Magpies followed Middlesbrough’s lead in sacking Gareth Southgate seven days earlier and announced it as late as possible to bury it), but there will have been sighs of relief that part two of this interminable saga can at last be put to bed.
As always with Ashley, however, no news can ever be entirely good news. In appointing his first permanent manager in 13 months and pledging to throw another £20m of his diminishing fortune into the club’s pot, the owner has belatedly responded to the urgent needs of Newcastle’s present. But in trying to sell the name of their iconic stadium, he has shown no understanding of its proud heritage.
Ashley-Hughton is no dream ticket. The man who has tried and failed twice to flog Newcastle like a cut-price tracksuit is about as popular on Tyneside as swine flu is in Blackburn. And while many admire the job Hughton has done and have sympathy for the circumstances in which he has been asked to do it, he will never overtake Alan Shearer in their affection.
It has hardly helped Hughton’s cause that he has blotted his copybook with some poor results (two defeats and a scrambled last-minute winner) since his new contract was put on the table. A case of Ashley’s savage cost-cutting catching up on a skeletal squad it may be, but it has done little to inspire confidence.
Nevertheless, the fuzzy lines which allowed only paralysis when decisive action was needed more than ever have finally been redrawn. United know who their manager will be next week, and who their owner will be the week after. By the standards of an extraordinary five months, that is a massive achievement.
The players have united, now the fans must. Like it or lump it, this is what they are faced with for the foreseeable future. The uncertainty has been ended, albeit not in the way they would have liked, now they must make the best of a bad job. Hughton’s authority should grow and Ashley can finally plan ahead.
Amid all the palaver around personalities, what really matters is ensuring that Newcastle are playing in next season’s Premier League. Seen in that context it might seem trivial to complain that Ashley is now hawking the St James’s Park nameplate to the highest bidder. But it is another sign that his grasp of public relations is even looser than his grasp of football business.
The black-and-white shirt seemed to go down well at first with some, as did reports of his Bigg Market largesse. But illegally downing a pint in front of the cameras at the Emirates Stadium started to make Ashley look desperate and transparent and the hangover was massive when he fell out with Kevin Keegan. No one takes on Special K and wins in the eyes of the Newcastle support.
It has long been fashionable in some quarters to poke fun at NUFC, with its naïve romanticism, fanatical support, its tearful reaction to broken dreams and a devotion to “Messiahs” like Shearer and Keegan which borders on a sequel to Monty Python’s Life of Brian.
Ashley has handed over more ammunition. Since the world’s most outgoing recluse waltzed into Toon courting popularity in a replica shirt, Newcastle United have become a textbook example of how not to run a football club. Ashley, though, does not seem to care what others think, which is just as well.
If he did, he would surely not have wrapped up news of Hughton’s appointment and his staying put with an announcement that the naming rights for St James’s are for sale.
The names of football grounds ceased to be sacrosanct in 1988 when Scarborough’s Athletic Ground became the McCain Stadium.
It was a process which has taken in the likes of the KitKat Crescent and Fitness First Stadium (Bootham Crescent and Dean Court to you and I) and reached its nadir when Witton Albion’s Wincham Park was renamed the Bargain Booze Stadium for a couple of years. These, though, were all small grounds belonging to hard-up clubs, or new-builds like the Emirates and the Reebok. If just about anyone else was in charge at Newcastle, you might trust them to be sensitive in their choice of sponsor. It is after all more than a football stadium. Its lofty central position makes it a beacon for the city in every sense.
No matter who buys the name, it will still be St James’s in the eyes of those who hold football dear, but the supporters have been humiliated enough recently without having their spiritual home tackily re-branded.
The thought of spending Saturdays at the Sports Direct Stadium (Dick's Sporting Goods Park is already taken by Major League Soccer team Colorado Rapids) or St James’s Pork will only add insult to already seriously injured Geordie egos.
Still, it could be worse, they could support American side Indiana Blast . . .