As I write this, Newcastle United are perched in the lofty heights of third in the Barclay’s Premier League table. Such a position can be dismissed as an anomaly after a handful of matches, but with more than a quarter of the season over, and having yet to taste defeat, it is fair to assume there is something more to this current run of form.
Though the fixtures list has thus far been kind to the Magpies, with Arsenal at home the only encounter with a traditional “big club” to date, the Geordies have combined a defensive stubbornness with the free-scoring exploits of Demba Ba to sit comfortably in the Champion’s League places amongst the usual suspects of the two Manchester clubs and Chelsea.
So where has it all gone right for the man they love to hate on Tyneside? Mike Ashley announced his arrival at Newcastle in 2007 with a “man of the people” act, a short-sleeved replica shirt stretched over his ample frame. But such sycophantic behaviour was only going to delay the real judgement call from the fans, and ultimately, investment and results are what the supporters crave most.
For the most part, both have been in short supply, and Ashley has given the reins to no less than seven managers is his brief spell. Add to that a spectacularly disastrous attempt to offload the club, and you can see why the relationship with the Geordie faithful quickly soured.
When Ashley initially gained control of St James Park, Sam Allardyce was the man at the helm. Despite his consistency at Bolton, I’ve never really been a fan of Allardyce and his star had certainly fallen since departing Lancashire. Now at West Ham, he is perhaps finding life in the Championship a little more comfortable despite ludicrous assertions previously that he would be “more suited to Inter Milan or Real Madrid.”
Though, in hindsight, you would be forgiven for suspecting that any owner who chose Rafa Benitez to replace Jose Mourinho, might have considered, at least briefly, Big Sam for the job, but Massimo Moratti has yet to confirm or deny this
Ashley gave the people what they wanted and the “Messiah” returned. Kevin Keegan’s second spell as manager was never really going to reach the maddening heights of his first.
The Premier League had moved on exponentially in terms of the level of investment needed to make a push for the top. While Newcastle were breaking world records for transfer fees in his first stint as manager, they were operating on a shoestring during his second and Keegan was out after only a few months citing internal issues.
Next into the hot seat was likeable Dubliner Joe Kinnear, brought in from the managerial wilderness to the bemusement of many. While Kinnear had done an extremely admirable job at Wimbledon many years previously, the expectations at Newcastle are on another level entirely.
Despite, or perhaps because of a typically tumultuous period in charge, Kinnear’s health problems sadly got the better of him and, true to form; Ashley again gave the fans what they thought they wanted, Messiah number 2,
The inexperienced Alan Shearer was put in charge. The Newcastle owner must have been studying his Roman history when he thought the best way to appease the masses is not to address their genuine concerns, but instead to give them a show. For Ashley, St James Park is his coliseum.
Shearer did what he was expected to do, and the club got relegated anyway. The club was put up for sale, and Chris Hughton was promoted to first team manager. His first season in charge couldn’t have gone much better. A string of early manager of the month awards were just recognition of the turnaround he presided over. Newcastle stopped the rot and intensified the gulf between the two top tiers as they stormed through the Championship.
A solid start to life back in the Premiership followed, until Ashley again wielded the axe. To the surprise and condemnation of almost everyone, Hughton was sacked in December 2010, with the Newcastle hierarchy citing a need for someone with more managerial experience.
To this end, they appointed Alan Pardew, hardly a name to feature on the top of any fan’s wish list. It seemed, just as with Alan Curbishley at Charlton, Hughton could feel aggrieved at being replaced by such a lesser light. Hughton is now finding his feet in both domestic and European football with Birmingham and he could get another chance in the big league, with or without Birmingham.
By accident or design, Ashley has once again made a great managerial appointment. Despite the continued lack of investment by “Billionaire” Ashley, and the sale of their star player and local hero Andy Carroll for an astonishingly over-inflated 35 million, the dark clouds have lifted and Newcastle’s journey has begun a steep upward curb.
Buoyed by some extremely solid performances at the back and some star turns from Ba, Newcastle are doing all they can to convince the world their current position is not a false one. If they can maintain momentum and at least achieve European qualification this season, Ashley may once again be able to sit amongst his people.