Newcastle United have suffered twelve years of Mike Ashley’s ownership. Throughout that time, there have been some truly baffling decisions and the standing and reputation of the club has only declined. Anybody who has tried to arrest that slide has been tactically removed and inevitably replaced by somebody less skilled. The same imbeciles who replaced Kevin Keegan with Joe Kinnear in 2008 are about to go one better and replace Rafael Benitez with Steve Bruce. How has it come to this?
Benitez represented the final bond between the fans and a once proud club. He had stepped in to try and correct the mess Ashley’s negligence had created in 2016. Renowned failure Steve McClaren had been appointed the previous summer and, despite an unusually healthy transfer kitty, the club was floundering in the bottom three. Benitez arrived and despite not being able to correct the situation immediately, he steered the club back to the Premier League and restored the basic principles a Premier League club should abide by. With his trusty coaches alongside him, Benitez was able to overcome transfer restrictions to guide an underfunded squad to 10th position. His reward? A negative net spend as the Spaniard was left having to scrimp and save to fund transfers. A respectable 13th place was tremendous given the circumstances, but once it became apparent this was the way it was always going to be, Benitez opted for pastures new.
For most owners, two midtable finishes following a promotion would be the perfect platform to build from. With a world class manager in place, already working wonders on a shoestring, now would be the time to invest and see the club improve.
Mike Ashley has no interest in improving. 17th place will see the club survive in the Premier League, bank the cash for another year, rinse and repeat.
Scraping the barrel
There were some decent names linked with the job. Young, hungry coaches ready to try and prove themselves at the top level such as Mikel Arteta, Giovanni Van Bronckhorst and Patrick Vieira would all have been intriguing propositions. They would also have wanted to compete and improve, aspects of owning a football club that Ashley does not want to entertain.
Instead, two experienced heads have been the target of Ashley’s glances.
Sam Allardyce, dismissed by Ashley in 2008 just 6 months after taking the job, claims to have been offered talks. The same report indicated Kevin Nolan would be the assistant manager, which explains his about turn on Mike Ashley’s ownership which saw him sold in 2011. It is a recurring theme that certain “personalities” turn up on Sky and Talksport to defend Ashley every now and again. They are either on the payroll or want to be on the payroll. Shola Ameobi could be seen on Sky sticking up for Mr Ashley last season and incredibly finds himself in the role of “Loan Coordinator” this season. It’s incredibly disappointing to see the likes of Ameobi and Nolan doing this but we aren’t stupid, we can see these people for who they really are.
With Allardyce apparently not keen, attention has turned to Steve Bruce. This is quite hard to get your head around for a few reasons. For one, he’s employed by Sheffield Wednesday which means he’ll need buying out of his current contract – an issue Bruce has tried to circumvent by resigning.
For two, he’s really not a very good manager. He’ll get you out of the Championship, which I suppose may be useful in 12 months’ time, but fundamentally no top-flight club has appointed Bruce since local rivals Sunderland did in 2009. He has, of course, managed in the top flight since then, taking Hull to the Premier League (and back down) but it seems to me that the game has moved on from when Bruce was considered among the elite. His list of managerial honours borders on non-existent, save for a couple of promotions and an FA Cup runners up medal.
I didn’t even dislike Bruce that much as a person before all of this. When he’s appeared as a pundit, I’ve found him palatable and I understand that as a Newcastle fan, he’s not going to turn down the job again at this stage in his career. The fact he managed Sunderland doesn’t really matter either, although whilst there he did accuse the Newcastle owner of “lacking class” which is undoubtedly true. However, when you consider how he has acted through all this, ultimately resigning roughly six months after taking the job, maybe it is he who lacks class.
Add to the fact that he has managed both Sheffield Clubs, Birmingham and Aston Villa, it is clear loyalty isn’t really a Bruce characteristic. Resigning to force the issue is the cherry on the cake. He must know that replacing the very popular Benitez was a thankless task even for a good manager, let alone one who is already a bit of a figure of fun. What do we know is that he will do what he’s told, probably get the club to 15th – 17th and then come back for more. He’s unlikely to stand up to Ashley in the way Benitez did and if he does, his punishment will be the loss of a job he’s supposedly waited his whole life for.
I have a huge amount of sympathy for Sheffield Wednesday in all of this. The reality is Bruce was doing a good job there and they’ve had their season derailed in July by Ashley’s incompetence. They also gave Bruce a delayed start to his time at Hillsborough so he could watch England play cricket in the West Indies. I would have thought that sort of hospitality would be rewarded with a little more respect but I suppose it was Sheffield Wednesday’s choice to wait for him.
Why didn’t Ashley start looking for a new manager in May when it was apparent Benitez was leaving? The subplot this summer has been an alleged takeover of the club which has seen more dips than your average roller coaster. The story was broken by a tabloid at the end of May that the Bin Zayed Group had agreed terms to buy the club, backed up by a statement from BZG less than 24 hours later confirming that was the case. It was all just a matter of the Premier League doing their bit and that would be that. The nightmare over. Yet here we are nearly two months later in a far worse situation. A club about to appoint Steve Bruce, a threadbare squad and both of last season’s top scorers no longer at the club. I can guarantee you the price hasn’t come down either.
There is enough evidence to suggest the interest from BZG is real. Of course, the statement itself is pretty conclusive along with the set up of “Monochrome Acquisitions Ltd” – a company created in June 2019 for whom two prominent members of BZG are appointed as Chairman and Director. I’m sure you can see where the Monochrome part fits in. A statement in early July from BZG (bizarrely issued via a Dubai radio DJ) confirmed they had done everything required to complete a takeover. Yet the club has not been taken over and Steve Bruce is to be appointed.
My own personal theory on this is that with any £350m acquisition there’s an awful lot of checking to take place, not to mention the seller being notoriously difficult to negotiate with. This has been rumbling on since April (BZG stated talks began after the Leicester City game) which suggests to me that Ashley was loathed to appoint a manager if he doesn’t have to. Newcastle haven’t signed any players either so maybe it is just the optimist in me but I like to think they are or were holding out for the takeover to complete. At the very least, I believe the interest is genuine, something which has been disputed due to the aforementioned lack of professionalism.
However, as we are now less than a month away to the start of the season, Ashley had to act. If the takeover fell through between now and August, he is left with a club with no manager and a poor playing squad that would surely be relegated. That severely reduces the value to him and would cost a small fortune to put right. He had Benitez to do it for him last time, I don’t think he would be as lucky this time around. Therefore, he has gone looking for a manager who he deems a “safe pair of hands” – someone who should keep the club up and will deal with what he is given. Ashley has always been an advocate of signing players under a certain age so they can be sold on – a key point of disagreement for Benitez. Don’t be surprised if a collection of pre-selected signings arrive within days of Bruce. He’ll have had very little to do with them.
Of course, it is possible that the takeover is already dead in the water and that is why we’ve suddenly got a manager hunt. The problem is, the fans just don’t know. The club have said absolutely nothing in regards to any of this all summer. Surely if somebody claims to have purchased your football club you would let the fans know something? There was even a 5% rise in season ticket prices and the release of a home shirt that is as cheap looking as we’ve ever seen yet is being sold at one of the highest prices in the country. Needless to say, season ticket renewals have not been high thus far.
It is obvious to anybody that Ashley is taking the fans for granted. If you assume this takeover isn’t happening, why is anybody still supporting this club? The whole point of football or any sport is to try and be the best you can be. Newcastle United is no longer striving to achieve that. It’s barely trying at all. It is a cash cow for a greedy owner, a way of peddling his sports brand at no extra cost to an audience of billions. We’ve put up with it for too long and if he won’t change for a manager of Benitez’s stature, he never will. It’s time to take action. Even if by some miracle Bruce does well, we all know what happens next. Doing well is actually too good for Ashley’s tastes. A summer of no investment will follow and as long as survival is ensured the following season, the cycle will repeat.
Everybody has the right to choose what they do, what they spend their money on. The match day experience is the cornerstone of many relationships as is the club in general. I doubt I’ll feel emotions like I have in St James’ Park anywhere else but why are we settling for this tacky brand version of the club we love? Fan groups have come together to try and organise a movement. It starts with boycotting Arsenal on the first game of the season. It’s a big wrench for people to give up season tickets they have had for decades and that’s a decision that can’t be made lightly. But an empty St James’ Park will send such a message. It’s just one game. I’ve given up my season ticket so it’s an easy decision for me but have a think about what this club means to you and what it would feel like to get it back. Boycott Arsenal, Empty for Ashley, If Rafa goes we go, AshleyOut and many more are trying to make a difference and at this stage, what else is there to lose? We’ve already pretty much lost our club, missing one game is really the least of our worries right now.
Like most things over the coming months, this is bigger than Bruce.
If you love tactical analysis, then you’ll love the digital magazines from totalfootballanalysis.com – a guaranteed 100+ pages of pure tactical analysis covering topics from the Premier League, Serie A, La Liga, Bundesliga and many, many more. Buy your copy of the July issue for just ₤4.99 here, or even better sign up for a ₤50 annual membership (12 monthly issues plus the annual review) right here.