Dubbed by many in the game as a “sleeping giant” of football, Newcastle United have long failed to live up to their potential under the tenure of Mike Ashley. But with the news that the club is up for sale, that could be about to change. The fact that the “Cockney Mafia” might finally be heading back down south has been greeted enthusiastically by virtually every Newcastle supporter, especially with the rumoured interest of businesswomen Amanda Staveley and her £29 billion worth of backing. After years of mediocrity under Ashley, Newcastle fans might be about to discover if the grass is greener on the other side.
Ever since Ashley’s 2007 takeover, he has had a fractious relationship with supporters. His regime got off to a promising start, with the businessman sitting with fans, wearing a Newcastle shirt, and downing pints while being egged on by the crowd around him. This continued with the appointment of prodigal son Kevin Keegan, famous for an entertaining, attacking brand of football that saw Newcastle flirt with the title in the 90s, and infamous for his “love it” rant that accompanied a spectacular title race collapse. However, things quickly soured with Keegan resigning just nine months into his tenure, claiming that the club’s hierarchy was impossible to work with. Such was the anger of the fans at the loss of Keegan, Ashley put the club up for sale within ten days of his departure. This debacle was just the first in a series of disastrous managerial appointments and departures with Ashley seeming to be incapable of finding a candidate to satisfy both him and the supporters.
The inability of the board to find a suitable manager led to many failures. It began with the replacement of Keegan with Joe Kinnear, whose list of gaffes are too numerous to fit in a single article, yet his biggest sin was being the man who doomed the Magpies to their first relegation from the Premier League, despite club legend Alan Shearer’s best efforts. This incompetence continued with the preposterous decision to sack Chris Hughton, despite him having led Newcastle back to the top flight at the first attempt, as well as a 5-1 thrashing of local rivals Sunderland. The extent to which the board were out of touch with the fanbase and the region was summed up by the appointment of Alan Pardew, the latest addition to the “Cockney Mafia,” despite his career seeming to be on the decline. Pardew, apart from an odds-defying season that saw Newcastle finish fifth, never had a good relationship with the fans, with it often deteriorating into outright hostility. This was typified by a 3-0 home win over Cardiff in 2014 that saw Pardew on the receiving end of deafening boos every time he left the dugout. It was of little surprise when he left Newcastle for Crystal Palace the following season. What was surprising was the decision to replace him with the inexperienced John Carver, whose tenure saw Newcastle lose eight matches in a row at one point, with the side sliding from the top half in January, to surviving on the last day only thanks to a 2-0 win over West Ham. The final whistle was greeted with chants from the fans of “we want Ashley out” and “you fat cockney b******, get out of our club.” By this point Ashley’s relationship with the fans was irreparable.
While the decision to appoint Steve McClaren as Carver’s successor was uninspiring, especially given his failure at Derby County, fans had their hopes raised by a summer spending spree that saw promising talents like Georginio Wijnaldum and Aleksander Mitrovic brought to Tyneside. However, the early optimism was erased with Newcastle languishing near the bottom of the table for much of the season and supporter unrest growing. This culminated in a disastrous 3-1 home defeat to Bournemouth, which saw McClaren recall misfiring Emmanuel Riviere in a move that smacked of desperation. The board, of which hewas bizarrely a member, subsequently dismissed the hapless manager, although the fact that it took the best part of a week exposed just how shambolically the club was being run. It is of no surprise that Newcastle were relegated again that season. It was fully deserved.
A silver lining to the horror-show of a season for Newcastle was the appointment of Rafa Benitez as manager, the first truly world-class appointment since the late great Bobby Robson. Benitez saw past the pitfalls of working with Ashley and Lee Charnley, and instead focused upon the massive potential of the club, being persuaded to stay and guide Newcastle back to the Premier League after being won round by the adoration of the Geordie faithful. It is thanks to Benitez’s “Rafalution” — not Ashley — that Newcastle are now so attractive to potential buyers like Stavely, with the club having a world class manager at the helm and 52,000 fans filling the cathedral of football that is St James’ Park every week. Garth Crooks has been mocked recently for suggesting that Newcastle could win the Premier League under Benitez, but should a new owner come in that is willing to back the Spaniard it is not inconceivable that Newcastle could once again challenge for silverware. It is important to remember that it was not long ago that the Magpies were reaching cup finals, fighting for the title, and even beating Barcelona in the Champions League. If Manchester City can be turned into champions, then so can a club with the pedigree of Newcastle.
While fans are undoubtedly encouraged by the prospect of Ashley selling their club, they will remain sceptical until the deal is confirmed, not least because Ashley has tried to sell the club twice before with no success. Furthermore, while this article has focused on the woes of Newcastle on the pitch under Ashley, the off-pitch gaffes have been equally frequent. Whether it was the renaming of St James’ as the Sports Direct Arena, allowing the black and white stripes to be stained with the payday loan company Wonga, or his banning of hostile media outlets from the stadium, it is fair to say that the scepticism of fans is well founded. Although, fans will be buoyed by the news that any prospective buyer must provide a letter of intent detailing their ambitions for the club. As one protest banner aimed at the Ashley regime read, “We don’t demand a team that wins, we demand a team that tries.” If a wealthy new owner is willing to try and achieve something special with Newcastle, by backing Benitez, then it is entirely possible that this sleeping giant of English football could finally be about to wake.