From Wonderland to Nightmare for Ashley's Newcastle
At 3 o’clock on Saturday afternoon, the Geordie faithful sang a rousing rendition of their ode to their hero, "Keegan Wonderland".
For Mike Ashley, if he was listening, the aptness of that song, and in particular the line, “walking in a Keegan wonderland”, as for Ashley like Alice in the famous tale, his time in Wonderland has come to an end.
Yet how did it come to this? When Ashley took over as chairman of Newcastle it seemed a match made in heaven. Newcastle are a club who have long craved, and indeed felt entitled to success, yet have for so long flattered to deceive, talking big and delivering little—toying with the affections and emotions of their long suffering, big-hearted supporters.
Enter Ashley, a populist chairman in the true sense of the word, a successful businessman armed with cash who told the fans he was one of them, sitting amongst the Toon Army both home and away and who brought back their Geordie Messiah, and the one man who brought them closest to success—Kevin Keegan.
At this point, Ashley could do no wrong, yet here at his peak moment of popularity, as chairman often do, he sowed the seeds for his undoing.
As everyone knows the appointment of Dennis Wise as Director of Football, with a brief to look after youth development and player recruitment, at the time appeared a curious appointment and amongst the Geordie die-hards was a deeply unpopular one.
Yet last season, as Keegan engineered a revival that saw the team move from relegation peril to mid-table safety, brighter times seem to lie ahead on Tyneside. Even after the summer, though murmurs of disagreements over transfers came, on the whole especially after the first two games, things were looking rosy.
Then events well and truly took a turn for the worst. Keegan demanded signings whom Ashley couldn’t afford, and in order to strengthen the team sold one of their more prized assets, James Milner, and tried to sell Michael Owen and Joey Barton—all Keegan favourites.
As it is, Keegan read the signs, the chairman was not backing him over transfers and had his own agenda for the team, and principled man that he is, walked rather than be pushed.
With him went any semblance of support that Ashley retained amongst the Toon Army.
As it stands things are pretty clear—that Ashley was caught out, he had approached the fans, claiming to be one of them, yet as a chairman he didn’t act like one.
When presented with the big targets whom Keegan knew the Toon Army would adore (witness their reaction to Owen’s signing when they packed out St James’s Park to welcome him), names such as Ronaldinho and Henry were mentioned, but none were forthcoming.
Ashley vetoed them in favour of a more cost-effective and prudent root—hardly a ratings winner with the fans yet for the club perhaps the better option, after years of financial overspend with little reward.
Yet Ashley had claimed to the fans to be one of them, but refused to act as one and this was perhaps his crucial error. In public he was a man of the people, in private a businessman who put balance sheet figures ahead of team sheet names and for Newcastle fans, they realised that he had led them on a merry dance and so turned on him.
And now, as Ashley leaves with the boos and jeers ringing in his ears, the Newcastle fans must reflect on their prospects with a heavy heart. After Ashley’s experience, few businessmen will be willing to take on the challenge, and with the credit crunch in full swing few will be willing to take on the vast expense needed not only to run the club, but to provide the Newcastle fans with a team they can be proud of.
On the playing side, the club are manager-less, and for prospective candidates the prospect of little funds and a resentful crowd will bear little appeal, only one man could appease the Geordie crowds—Kevin Keegan.
But would he be willing to return to a place where he has to cope with little funds and much work to do once again?
So while the fans sing of "walking in a Keegan wonderland", for them it just seems to be one bad dream after another.
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