Mike Ashley’s SOS call to Terry Venables might have gone unheeded, but it is a sign that Newcastle’s owner still retains an interest in the club that wants him gone. Mark Douglas reports
SO Mike Ashley, the man who plunged millions into his club’s failing Academy in pursuit of sustainable, long-term success, is reduced to conjuring up a quick fix to patch up the mess that has become Newcastle United.
The irony will not be lost on those who were pacified this summer by their owner’s talk of gradual evolution over flashy short-termism.
Then again, those high-minded ideals about turning United into the Arsenal of the north within a decade are the last thing on supporters’ minds as they confront the shuddering reality of a long and bitter fight against the drop this season. Second from bottom in the Premier League, dumped out of the only competition that could realistically offer them a route into Europe and without a point since a Michael Owen-inspired victory against Bolton, United are in unmitigated free-fall.
Ashley incorrectly figured that the squad he expected Kevin Keegan to lead into the top six of the Premier League would be enough to keep United floating in mid-table while he and his trusted lieutenants Dennis Wise and Tony Jimenez sounded out potential buyers.
But he was wrong.
Sure, United had started the season in a positive manner with points and plaudits from games against Manchester United, Bolton and Coventry, but Ashley underestimated the role that his mercurial manager played in getting those results.
United may have some exceptional players but they have not played as a team since that ignominious defeat at the Emirates, when they could not plug the tide of Arsene Wenger’s exceptional Arsenal side.
Chris Hughton, while a fine coach and a well-respected member of United’s backroom staff, does not believe he is the man to offer the direction to plot the club’s path out of trouble. He doesn’t want the job and his revelation earlier this week that the board have not spoken to him since he took over is a further indication of the impossible circumstances that he finds himself operating in.
Against that backdrop, Ashley’s ultimately fruitless attempt to lure Terry Venables to St James’s Park is the first positive move that the beleaguered owner has made in months and an encouraging sign that he does retain United’s best interests at heart, however disillusioned he is. Mistakes have rarely been acknowledged at St James’s Park since Ashley took over.
Consider the blind faith shown in Wise since his appointment, or the blundering manner in which Keegan’s departure was handled. But, and to Ashley’s overwhelming credit, he has seen the need for a steady hand at the helm.
The owner has been safely sheltered away from the front-line as the battle for United’s soul is waged but he has at least recognised that his rudderless playing staff need a fresh pair of eyes to sort out the mess.
Enter Venables. For once, there could be no doubts over the judgement of Wise and Jimenez as they attempted to broker a deal to bring the former England head coach to St James’s Park.
The 65-year-old, whose last meaningful service came as Steve McClaren’s right-hand man during England’s disastrous Euro 2008 campaign, might not have topped any popularity contests on Tyneside yesterday, but he is well-equipped to begin unpicking the chaos that has become of United’s squad over recent weeks.
Forget England and his last posting at Leeds, he has previous as a hired gun at Middlesbrough and possesses the required gravitas to snap United out of their post-Keegan slump.
Having missed out on him, United must find someone with the same force of personality to fill the vacuum. With Wise and Ashley sold on Venables they may yet turn to him again, although they had identified a second choice apparently ready to take on the post before his snub last night.
The precarious nature of the post means that none of the list of possibles have an entirely unblemished CV.
Newcastle have also reportedly sounded out Avram Grant to take the temporary role, but the former Chelsea manager is an entirely different prospect from the charismatic Venables.
Grant’s record at Stamford Bridge stands up to scrutiny but he managed by consensus, relying on a cadre of influential lieutenants and dressing room leaders to help him negotiate a path to the Champions League final and a hard-fought runners-up spot in the Premier League.
David O’Leary is keen on rehabilitating his reputation at St James’s Park, but such was the nature of his exit from Aston Villa, he would face a battle to win over United’s sceptical support. Glenn Hoddle, too, is out of work after he failed to adapt to the unique demands of English football’s second tier with Wolverhampton Wanderers. And George Graham, another divisive figure in football, has been out of football for seven years.
Whoever it is, United must hope their quick fix is well-versed in the art of getting up to speed.