With 11 games of the season gone, Alan Pardew’s high flying magpies remain unbeaten in the Premier League and sit snugly between Manchester United and Chelsea in third place. A terrific 3-1 win at Stoke City on Monday night was followed by Saturday’s hard-fought victory over Everton. Both performances were characterised by a team-spirit and organised resolve that we don’t usually associate with Newcastle United. Pardew has instilled a previously unseen togetherness into a team freshly shorn of its established stars.
As a Sunderland fan, this is difficult to concede. If there’s anything I’ve been able to rely on in the past, it’s Newcastle’s remarkable capacity for self-destruction. At least two or three times a season an incident will unravel that undermines everything they are trying to achieve. Whether it be a player punch-up or a porky owner spilling lager over his spammy belly on television, it has provided a pleasing antidote to the infinite toils of supporting Sunderland. So far this season however, things have gone insufferably smoothly for Pardew and his players. The reasons for this deserve deeper exploration. It’s proving so painful that I need a diagnosis.
Enough has been said about matters on the pitch. As we know, Pardew has coped admirably with the dissolution of the old, powerful, players’ committee and responded by establishing an ego-free dressing room, determined to prove a point. He is an ambitious, meticulous manager who trusts in training ground detail. Under his guidance Newcastle are developing into a team capable of monopolising possession and seeing out games they are winning by keeping the ball; a prerequisite for clubs with regular European qualification as their ambition.
Off the pitch, however, the club’s chairman, Mike Ashley, has made a legitimate contribution to the upturn in his club’s fortunes. It was only until about a year ago that I was calling for him to be awarded an OBE for his services to Sunderland Football Club. He appeared fixed on muddying the name of Newcastle United FC with his ill-advised beer swilling and penchant for gambling. Although this hasn’t stopped altogether (http://www.people.co.uk/news/uk-world-news/2011/09/04/newcastle-united-owner-mike-ashley-s-full-monty-strip-in-a-chinese-restaurant-102039-23394181/), he has still somehow managed to transform the club’s prospects entirely and give Newcastle a financial stability they haven’t had in years.
The road to this period of tranquillity has been bumpy, yet throughout, Ashley has remained focussed on assuring the club’s long-term financial security. He has made a number of critical judgements that have affirmed the acumen of a businessman who enjoys a net worth of nearly Â£1bn. Refusing to appoint Alan Shearer as manager is the perfect example of his savvy. He was berated for this at the time, Newcastle had just been relegated under Shearer’s catastrophic short term stewardship but the supporters were still clamouring for his permanent appointment. Ashley had other ideas however and, despite knowing it would make him ‘persona non grata’ (Joey7Barton, 2011…) he opted to employ Chris Hughton as a cheaper but more experienced alternative. Consequently, he was subjected to the type of cut-throat vitriol that only north-easterners can mete out, yet his decision proved financially astute and paid off spectacularly with Newcastle’s immediate promotion back up from the Championship.
Once in the Premier League, Ashley’s decision to dismiss Hughton was a little more confusing however, it is widely acknowledged that he feared the alliance that Hughton was forming with Kevin Nolan and Joey Barton might jeopardise his grip on the club as well as his attempt to cut the wage bill. Both players were critical of the way Ashley was conducting business and so a clash was unavoidable. The pair were bundled rather unceremoniously out of the door during the summer along with Spanish left-back Jose Enrique; unsurprisingly three of the club’s biggest earners.
Newcastle’s transfer policy is now one based around finding value for money. They are no longer a club spending beyond their means. The Â£35m sale of Andy Carroll was terrific business. Ashley deserves credit for not bowing to the pressure of the fans and squandering the fee giddily on a big name replacement as is usually the habit at St James’. Instead he has demonstrated sagacity and, following the recommendations of Chief Scout Graham Carr, approved the signings of Tiote, Cabaye, Obertan, Marveux, Santon, Ben Arfa and Ba for a combined Â£22.5m whilst simultaneously reducing the wage bill. Newcastle have become ‘Nouveauchateau’ and, as yet, haven’t looked back.
Owning Newcastle United FC has cost Mike Ashley a huge amount of money and much of his credibility. Many of the grievances directed his way have been legitimate, yet – if you can get past all of the unbearable blunders – the debt-laden, loss-making, Championship-bound club he purchased in 2007 appears transformed. Ashley has worked hard to ensure that Newcastle are a lucrative proposition to potential investors. Whether this is in his own interest is largely irrelevant, the fact that he has just about managed to balance the books at Newcastle is an effort fans should appreciate, if not be thankful for. It remains to be seen if Newcastle can maintain their fantastic start to the season, the club’s financial future, however, would seem in safe hands…