Mike Ashley is a gambler. Possibly to the point of addiction. Famously, he lost £1 million in two hours at Aspers. More notoriously, he lost over £100m by not carrying out that most basic and standard of business practices, due diligence, when buying Newcastle United from the Hall and Shepherd families. He is instinctive, has a great deal of faith in his own judgement, and seems unperturbed when it backfires
Most of us look at some of his more well-known decisions and wonder how on earth he manages to successfully dress himself in the morning, much less make over a £1 billion in a competitive market place. His appointment of Kevin Keegan, his subsequent appointment of Dennis Wise, hiring Joe Kinnear, sanctioning the purchase of Xisco and Nacho Gonzales to replace James Milner, after assuring the manager would be able to buy whoever he liked to replace him.
Most of these moves were calculated gambles, but none of them came off. Keegan, correctly, took a huff and walked out. Dennis Wise fell out with the fans and his transfers were a disaster. Xisco and Gonzales barely played, and we’re still, literally, paying for the fall-out. Joe Kinnear, being a terrible manager, got us relegated. Most of the decisions that characterised his first two years in charge can be accurately described as a complete f***ing train-wreck.
But then, after our promotion, something odd happened. He continued to make bewildering, almost insane decisions; he sold Andy Carroll, Kevin Nolan, Joey Barton and Jose Enrique, sacked Chris Hughton, appointed Alan Pardew and then – as a final insult – didn’t fully reinvest the proceeds of the sales. Incredibly, it came off. The cheap, relatively unproven players we brought in to make up the numbers have performed exceptionally. Alan Pardew has taken us to levels that Chris Hughton – for all of his considerable virtues – wouldn’t have managed. Our team spirit is the best its been since the halcyon days of Sir Bobby and the Champions League.
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It is entirely conceivable to picture an alternative course of events last season; the combination of a resentful squad, led by Barton and co, taking against the new manager, the goals drying up due to Carroll’s exit, a 17th place finish, and the subsequent sale of Barton et al leading to unproven, unheard-of, demotivated and cheap replacements throwing us straight into a relegation fight. It is almost inconceivable that we were spared this chain of events, and no one must be more relieved than Mike Ashley and Derek Llambias.
So what explains risky decisions going so heinously wrong two or three years, and so startling right today? Luck. Mike Ashley, lest we forget, is a gambler. He flies by the seat of his pants, chances his hand, and speculates to accumulate. And it looks to have come off. A fragile truce had emerged, with the fans respecting Ashley’s vision for the club, if not the means by which he’s implementing it. Perhaps, we thought, after a few years of experience, he finally ‘gets’ Newcastle. As a place, and a football club. But the evidence suggests that he lucked out, went on a winning streak. That we sit where we are today is down, yes, to the hard work and skill of those at the club, but Ashley was lucky that everything, everything, went his way.
The latest odd decision, the move to rename the stadium from St James Park to the Capitalist Moneyhole Arena (or whatever fetid, stinking name he’s come up with) before selling it on to somebody else, is his latest gamble. It may come off, with a £20m sponsorship deal harvesting new players and contracts, but it may not. There is a chance that this decision, with the appalling atmosphere it has reintroduced around the City and the club, it could upset the fragile harmony of the dressing room, reignite the ‘Ashley Out’ movement, and feed through to the players on the pitch.
Some things are beyond monetary value. The City Council are certainly skint, but it’s difficult to imagine them renaming the Tyne the ‘River EasyJet’ or Grey’s Monument ‘The Tesco Tower’. St James Park is as much a part of our identity as anything in the NE post-code, and by toying with the emotions and sensitivities of local people, of fans and the City, the ownership have deployed possibly another huge gamble. But even if it does come off, we’ll have lost something. The ownership have inflicted a loss of pride, heritage and tradition on an entire city. There is a feeling that this simply wasn’t his decision to make, and that something sacred has been trampled on by a rogue outsider.
Mike Ashley has played his hand, but the pack is rigged. This is one gamble he cannot win.
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