So Mike Ashley has now seen off five managers in just under three years as the owner of Newcastle United. Perhaps he is in a race with Milan Mandaric, who went through six managers in his three-and-a-half years at Leicester City. These people are a disgrace to football.
To suggest that trust and continuity once bound a club and its community together is to sound like a hopeless romantic, drunk on nostalgia. And of course managerial sackings are not something that started to happen only after the Premier League came into existence. But all the available evidence suggests that the ability to make a decision and stick to it, maintaining faith even in difficult times, is more effective than a restless desire to use decent, gifted, experienced men like Chris Hughton as disposable lightbulbs.
Ashley can, of course, do exactly as he likes, having been willing to sink more than £200m of his own money into the club. But it is probably fair to say that had Ashley run his Sports Direct business in the way he and his cohorts have run Newcastle, there would never have been the £200m in the first place.
Operating in a highly competitive sphere, he employs 20,000 people in the UK and four years ago his company became the country’s largest sportswear retailer. You know his brands: as well as the Sports Direct and Lillywhites outlets, he owns Dunlop, Slazenger, Donnay, Lonsdale, Kangol and Karrimor, most of them bought in what amounted to fire sales. Ashley is an expert in taking a trademark that once stood for British-made quality and outsourcing the production to the Far East.
But does he know how to run a football club? The evidence points to only one answer, which is that even when he makes a good decision, he quickly undermines it. In May 2007 he bought Sir John Hall’s 41.6% stake in Newcastle for about £55m. Stock exchange rules obliged him to make an offer for the rest, and to achieve 100% ownership cost him a further £79m. Only then did he begin to discover the extent of the liabilities at St James’ Park.
The supporters were pleased when he made his first managerial change, sacking Sam Allardyce in January 2008 and bringing in Kevin Keegan. Allardyce was not popular with the fans, but a man of his experience and achievements deserved a longer run – particularly since he was trying to lay the foundations for long-term stability. Hiring Keegan was a populist move which was promptly destroyed by the appointment of Dennis Wise, a man with no previous connection to either Newcastle or Keegan, as executive director (football).
Keegan left in September of the same year, initiating action, through the Premier League’s arbitration panel, which eventually forced Ashley to pay him £2m in compensation. On his departure the owner immediately announced plans to sell the club, but despite an expedition to the Middle East in search of a buyer, that Christmas the club was taken off the market. Following Joe Kinnear’s health problems, the short-term appointment of Alan Shearer merely accelerated a decline which culminated in relegation.
Efforts to sell Newcastle continued, however, until Ashley took the club off the market again in October 2009, just as Hughton, who had stepped into the breach as caretaker manager on three occasions, was winning the job on a permanent basis as a result of his work in laying the foundations for a return to the Premier League at the first time of asking.
This season Hughton’s Newcastle have beaten Aston Villa 6-0 in the league, removed Chelsea from the League Cup with a 4-3 win at Stamford Bridge, won 1-0 at both Goodison Park and the Emirates, held Chelsea to a 1-1 draw at St James’ Park at a time when the London side were anxious to reverse a slump in their own form, and thrashed Sunderland 5-1 in the Tyne-Wear derby. Something must have been happening to inspire these results.
Perhaps the hardest to manage of all England’s leading clubs, Newcastle are built on legends and myths. Sometimes the owners and the fans find it difficult to differentiate between the two, and the task for a manager in the current era is complicated by a dressing room that has long given the impression of resembling the Augean stables. Given the club’s inherent volatility, Hughton performed a great deal more creditably than his employers, whose bad decisions are now so numerous that it is hard to imagine them ever making a good one.