Mike Ashley was a busy man on August 9, but not in the way Newcastle United fans might have hoped.
It was the following morning that his Sports Direct company bought the struggling House of Fraser for £90 million. There was no such investment in the Magpies, though. Rafael Benitez had demanded new signings all summer long.
Despite a few additions on the cheap, they never really arrived.
Nobody on Tyneside was surprised by this, though. This has been the way of things for Newcastle in the Ashley era, an era that seemed close to a conclusion last year only for talk of a takeover to vanish.
Ashley is the ball and chain that weighs down one of English football’s biggest and most storied clubs. No matter what they try, they can’t cut themselves free.
While vociferous, and very visible, protests in the face of Ashley were once commonplace at St James’ Park, now a sense of apathy, helplessness even, has set in.
Twice, Newcastle United has been officially put up for sale, and twice they have failed to attract a buyer, with Ashley setting his asking price unrealistically high.
11 years of footballing austerity have taken their toll. The Magpies have suffered relegation from the Premier League twice under Ashley’s control having previously avoided the drop for 18 years, finishing in the top half of the top flight just twice in 11 seasons.
Their best players have come and gone without being replaced. Newcastle United are a club devoid of any ambition or direction.
This is a marriage of gross inconvenience for all concerned. Ashley himself admits he regrets buying Newcastle United back in 2007, going on to explain how he now feels “wedded” to the club.
“Do I regret getting into football? The answer is yes,” he said in an interview given in 2016. “I have had tonnes of fun in it, but I haven’t been able to make the difference I wanted to like I have at Sports Direct. I wanted to help Newcastle, I wanted to make it better. I do not seem to have had that effect.”
Indeed, he has not. So how can Newcastle United and their long-suffering supporters get out of this mess? How can they finally rid themselves of the worst owner in the Premier League? It might be time for them to take matters into their own hands. The Magpies have been mired in this situation for far too long.
A solution is desperately required.
The Fans Chance
Ashley wants around £400 million for the North-East club. That is a colossal sum which would most likely prove too much for a supporters’ group to raise on their own accord.
Newcastle boasts one of the biggest and most passionate fan bases in English football, but £400 million puts the prospect of a crowdfunded takeover out of sight.
But a concerted fan-led campaign might still be the best way for Newcastle United supporters to force Ashley to sell up.
They should look north of the border for a precedent to follow. Hearts’ fans, for instance, found themselves in a similar situation not so long ago, with a disinterested owner plunging the Edinburgh club into administration.
The £2.4 million required to take the Jam Tarts back into the black was too much for the supporters’ foundation to raise on their own and so they focussed their attentions on finding a benefactor to bridge the gap.
In Ann Budge, they came across a millionaire fan willing to stump up the cash to save Hearts in the short-term, with a plan put in place to gradually hand control to the fans’ foundation over a number of years.
Rangers are another club who, rather pertinently, rallied against Ashley, who bought an 8.92% stake in the Glasgow side in October 2014.
An organised effort from various supporters’ group eventually saw Ashley sell his entire shareholding to Club 1872, an amalgamation of those supporters’ groups, last year, with Rangers fans now represented in the ownership of the club. That stake allows them to act as gatekeepers to keep people like Ashley out. In a way, they now hold the keys to Ibrox.
This is the sort of grassroots activism now needed at St James’ Park. They can no longer count on a suitor emerging from the open market. At a time when Premier League revenues are stronger than ever before, when clubs from Bournemouth to Manchester United are considered global brands, Newcastle United should be an attractive proposition.
Ashley has made a livelihood from squeezing the value from companies like Sports Direct, and yet in Newcastle United, he has only ever achieved the reverse.
Protest has been tried before - we all remember the ‘Cockney Mafia’ banners being paraded around St James’ Park all those years ago - with a group of supporters even putting on a demonstration before Saturday’s home defeat to Spurs.
Of course, Ashley wasn’t there to witness it and therein lies the problem with this method. How effective is a protest when the subject is oblivious, perhaps deliberately so, to the message? Newcastle fans must now focus their restlessness on coming up with a solution. Protest with a purpose.
Such an approach would cause short-term pain. An orchestrated movement would further open up the divide between those in the stands and those in the boardroom.
Benitez would find himself stuck in the middle, an unfortunate victim of circumstance. The former Chelsea and Liverpool boss is already nearing the end of his tether after a summer of transfer market inactivity and so it’s possible further strife could force him to walk. That would be collateral damage.
The alternative is that Newcastle United resign themselves to Ashley’s austerity, to the sort of mediocrity which has seen fellow big clubs like Leeds United and Nottingham Forest languish in the Football League for a generation or more.
The Magpies have been fortunate to bounce back immediately on the two occasions that they have dropped down to the second tier, but a third relegation could well test Ashley’s drive to get back up.
As things are, the Magpies will probably be strong enough to avoid the drop this season. Assuming Benitez sticks with it, Newcastle won’t finish in the bottom three. But the club’s problems are about more than just the final look of the Premier League table.
What we see on the pitch is a manifestation of their situation, of their tragic tedium, but this only offers a hint of where Newcastle United are as a club right now.
Only the fans stand a chance of forcing change.