From being a team in a stadium to be feared, Newcastle United have become a laughing stock under Mike Ashley, an owner who turned down Luka Modric
It’s almost exactly ten years since Newcastle owner Mike Ashley was filmed in the away end at Arsenal, downing a pint of beer while wearing a replica shirt that accentuated his “no-stranger-to-an-all-you-can-eat-buffet” physique.
Ashley was “one of the lads”. He dressed like them, looked like them, suffered like them and was even forced to drink like them by the way his team was playing: Newcastle lost 3-0 and were lucky it wasn’t worse.
In hindsight the pint-downing incident seems contrived. What were the chances of a camera picking Ashley out at the exact moment he happened to be downing a pint? A pint that he wasn’t legally allowed to drink in view of the pitch and that must, therefore, have been smuggled past a distracted or complicit steward? When Newcastle claimed it was non-alcoholic, Arsenal pointed out they didn’t sell non-alcoholic beer.
It was Kevin Keegan’s final game in his second spell as manager and this week the former European footballer of the year has been giving a series of interviews to publicise a book in which he describes coming up against “a wall of incompetence, deceit and arrogance” at Ashley’s Newcastle, before lobbing in the world “tragicomedy” just in case anyone had missed his point the first time around.
One of the most damning put downs details Keegan’s bid to hijack the deal that saw Luka Modric sign for Tottenham, only to be banjaxed by Ashley’s recruitment supremo Tony Jiminez, who thought the future multiple-Champions League winner and World Cup finalist was “too lightweight”.
(It’s widely reported that Arsene Wenger turned Modric down for the same reason, although this sounds implausible given that in that same era he signed a succession of midfielders built entirely from tapioca).
Keegan, sensing what was coming, resigned and successfully sued for constructive dismissal.
Newcastle’s descent into farce accelerated as Joe Kinnear replaced him. Kinnear, who’d been out of work for several years at that point, began his tenure with a staggeringly profane press conference in which he swore at reporters like a fishwife with Tourette’s, before admitting he’d only got the job because everyone else had turned it down.
Kinnear lasted a matter of months before the heart problems that forced him to leave Wimbledon in the nineties returned. Alan Shearer took over, but looked like Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom, trying to figure out how to fly a plane that was about to crash into a Himalaya.
Ashley promised to sell the club. He didn’t.
Chris Hughton took over and won promotion back to Premier League at the first attempt. So naturally Ashley sacked him. Alan Pardew took them to fifth place and the quarter-finals of the Europa League the following season. So naturally Ashley decided he needed some help and brought back Joe Kinnear as Director of Football. Having called Charles N’Zobia “Charles Insomnia” during his first spell, Kinnear now managed to call Yohan Cabaye “Yohan Kebab”. Under his expert tutelage Newcastle tanked, and Pardew was sacked. Steve McLaren took over and spent £80 million on players who looked like they’d won a raffle.
Ashley again promised to sell the club. Again he didn’t.
St James Park during the 1990s was place where teams like Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham and Liverpool expected to lose. Under Ashley it’s become a place where teams like Bournemouth expect to win and where fans channel their anger by punching innocent police horses.
Modric was crowned FIFA’s best men’s player of 2018 on Monday night, but just think of the player he might have been if only Kinnear had got his hands on him.