The Agenda: Mike Ashley can't obscure uncomfortable truth

Rebellion among fans, journalists banned and a culture of fear within the corridors of St James'. Mark Douglas examines the discontent surrounding NUFC

Mike Ashley and Joe Kinnear watch Newcastle United in action
Mike Ashley and Joe Kinnear watch Newcastle United in action

Newcastle United can take all the steps they want to suppress questioning of Alan Pardew and the unaccountable suits that sit on the St James’ Park board, but it won’t obscure an uncomfortable truth.

On Mike Ashley’s watch, supporter satisfaction and connection with the club has plumbed new depths, the organisation has become riven by internal politics and paralysing power struggles and the painfully-inconsistent team that Pardew manages have developed an alarming tendency to self-combust when pressure is applied.

It is a unholy trinity of problems that has been brought to a head by a damaging derby defeat and a regional press ban that is an affront to newspapers that have covered and supported the club fairly and without prejudice for more than a century. To be banned by a director of football who has a somewhat elastic relationship with the truth is laughable; that the order probably came from Ashley is depressingly par for the course.

Back in September, The Journal mused on the slow disintegration of Newcastle United’s reputation within the city. It has been a largely unseen and unspoken process: supporters still attending matches, but feeling increasingly divorced from the club they have invested emotionally and financially in.

Their reward is to know that their hard-earned support is filtered through to Joe Kinnear – a man who has mocked and misunderstood the club that pays him handsomely for a role that he singularly failed to do over the summer. No wonder the fizz of rebellion is never far from the surface. But the bond is strong. Disillusionment and discontent has turned the relationship toxic but has not yet severed it completely. Moreover a channel for that discontent is yet to be discovered, even though the Time4Change march was a bold attempt to galvanise the support in the name of a new direction.

It is this event that has caused the schism between club and local papers.

They believe the coverage of the march against the owner is disproportionate and described it as “staggering”. Yet the only thing that seems staggering here is that the club mistake a lack of attendance as complicit support for an owner who has held them in contemptuous disregard almost from the moment he wrestled control from Sir John Hall.

Ashley’s lack of accountability is not the biggest issue here, though. It is the direction that he delivers from the top that causes most anxiety. A culture of fear seems to echo through the corridors of power which castrates the efforts of good people who work there. It was a sickening turn of events that as Newcastle made two respected members of their press office redundant they were building an office for Kinnear at the ground.

How is this justified? Simple: it is not. Ashley doesn’t talk, he doesn’t work through the decisions he makes with anyone at the football club. They are simply left to pick up the pieces, much as the embattled press office were left isolated by their employer when he parachuted Kinnear in. He didn’t even put his name to the press release.

And there are consequences to this method of running things that have a direct impact on the club. Graham Carr had to be talked out of walking away twice this summer. Yohan Cabaye resolved to leave because he could not see ambition at St James’ Park. He harbours resentment because of the way Kinnear – who claimed in board meetings to be close to Arsene Wenger – failed to negotiate with Arsenal in what he thinks was an honourable way.

Ashley has free reign to run the club how he wants, but it is his attempt to control external forces that exposes the flaws in his approach. The number of bans handed out to journalists is disgraceful. The club has banned journalists from the Daily Mail, the Telegraph and – on a previous occasion – the Sunday Sun’s former sports editor Neil Farrington for penning things they did not like. Under Ashley, the muzzling of the Press has become a desperately depressing but recurring theme.

Indeed it can now be revealed that they issued warnings about various shades of non co-operation to ncjMedia when we refused to call the ground the Sports Direct Arena (a renaming that Ashley paid not a penny for). We didn’t back down then and won’t now.

Funnily enough, the club’s attitude to the Press is not mirrored in their dealings with the nascent Sports Direct News website.

They were granted a ‘one-to-one’ interview with Alan Pardew over the summer, along with gaining access to Cheick Tiote at the training ground. All this was at the behest of the owner.

You see, this is the thing with Ashley and it always has been: Newcastle United is strictly business. For as long as it benefits the fantastically successful Sports Direct, it will be worthwhile for him to continue to cling on to power at St James’ Park.

Perhaps because it is the company that made him one of Britain’s richest men, Ashley treats Sports Direct with respect.

He employs good people with far-reaching knowledge of the leisure-wear business, rewards his staff and consistently invests in the business. Last year he bought Republic, the youth fashion line, and the gamble paid off.

By contrast, in the world of football he listens to the likes of Dennis Wise and Kinnear. In the words of his most high-profile employee Pardew: “He loves football but he sometimes can’t understand how it works and it confuses and upsets him, and when he is upset he does things that aren’t brilliant for the football club.”

It is a spectacularly ill-advised approach. Surely nourishing the club’s soul and empowering good people would be a better approach from the owner? If you’re unsure ask the people of South Wales who support Swansea City, one of the biggest success stories of the Premier League era.

Presumably, Ashley and his cronies had hoped to send a message by preventing us from asking questions of the manager or attending matches. They did just that, and the proud supporters of Newcastle United are hearing it loud and clear.

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer