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The Camden Cad
Aug 24, 2004
North London
Newcastle United are going down. Whatever you read in the press, whatever club sources say on the website, they are circling the drain ready to be sucked down into the Championship. There is no hope on Tyneside anymore. Their supporters, more than anyone else at the club, realise that this is the culmination of much more than just one poor season. They've been at St James Park for years, they've bought lots of the t-shirts and they knew the horrible truth months ago. Newcastle are going to be relegated, not because of Michael Owen's injuries or Joe Kinnear's health, but because of years of chronic mismanagement.

Mike Ashley remains public enemy number one in the city. All the replica shirts and pint-guzzling in the world can't save him from the fact that, if the Toon Army had their way, they'd march him to the town limits with pointy sticks. They were dubious about him when Dennis Wise arrived as director of football, they were furious with him when he sacked Kevin Keegan. Heaven only knows how they'll feel about him when they go down. He may need to go into hiding. And I'm only half-joking.

In defence of Ashley, and you won't read that sentence very often, it's not entirely his fault. His enemies castigate him for failing to undertake due diligence, a thorough investigation of the finances of the football club, but the same hideous debts would still be there, with or without Ashley. Former chairman Freddy Shepherd had staggered the payments of transfers deals, so the club still owed millions for players they already owned. Worse still, the money for forthcoming commercial and sponsorship deals had been taken up front and squandered. Not only did Newcastle have no money, but they'd spent their future income.

Shepherd was culpable for the lack of stability at the club as well. He was the chairman who appointed Ruud Gullit, a unmitigated disaster that left the club in the relegation zone. Sir Bobby Robson came to the rescue in 1999 and under his tutelage, the Magpies finished 4th in 2002 and 3rd in 2003, challenging for the title for much of the season. But Robson was a victim of his own success. Far from being satisfied with the progress, Shepherd grew impatient for more, not realising that that's not how football works. Teams rarely progress in straight lines. Newcastle followed their title challenge with an uneven campaign, finishing 5th and missing out on the Champions League. Robson was sacked and, with typical Shepherd foresight, Graeme Souness arrived just as the transfer window closed.

Souness was a response to the perception that Robson had bred a squad of naughty schoolboys, wrong 'uns that needed their bottoms kicking. The fiery Scotsman was happy to oblige, but it led to an exodus of young talent and the arrival of some ludicrously expensive replacements. Misfiring Albert Luque, a GBP10m signing from Spain, epitomised the era. After Souness came Roeder, a fine youth coach, but not a top flight manager, or even a second flight manager as Norwich recently discovered. Shephered's final act was to hire Sam Allardyce, an excellent but entirely unsuitable figurehead for Newcastle.

Ashley has made a series of horrendous mistakes, (see sidebar), but history must record the mess that he inherited from Shepherd. The sportswear dealer remarked at the time that he couldn't undertake correct research because the seller had insisted on a swift conclusion to their talks.

"I was told that there was an opportunity to acquire Sir John Hall's stake in Newcastle United, that he may be a seller, but only if someone acted without delay," he told a local newspaper.

Aha. Sir John, it appears, was more cunning than anyone realised.

In 2004, Shepherd gave a speech at Soccerex Conference in Dubai, a sun-drenched gathering of the great and the greedy.

"There is no sympathy here," he said of those teams unfortunate enough to be outside of the Premier League. "I think it is dog-eat-dog. The others can't hold us back. The time will come when the Premier League is running the whole show. Most of those teams will have to go part-time. When we have got 52,000 fans at every home game, the last thing we worry about is clubs in the third division."

What a shame that Shepherd won't be there to see the final result of his arrogance. A broken team, financially ravaged and destitute, discovering like Leeds United, Nottingham Forest, Southampton, Coventry, Charlton, Norwich and Sheffield Wednesday, just how difficult it is when the Premier League runs the whole show. But he will be long gone, and it will be the people of Newcastle who have to deal with the mess.


1, Ashley should have made a quick decision on Sam Allardyce. If he wasn't the right man, his contract should have been amicably settled before the season started. If he was, then he should have been given more than six months to build his team. Sacking him six months into the season was a waste of time and money.

2, Dennis Wise should not have been appointed as Director of Football. If that role was required then the decision should have been taken in accordance with Kevin Keegan's wishes. Appointing a young, high profile and out of work manager to oversee a notoriously prickly and insecure veteran was insane.

3, Kevin Keegan should never have been allowed to leave. All Newcastle had to do was to tread water in the Premier League, pay off the debts and play good football in the meantime. Keegan was never going to win the title, but with better communication he could have laid down the foundations for the future.

4, Ashley's suicide not to the club's website was rash and self-destructive. Deciding to sell up and leave the club was one thing, listing the horrendous state of the finances was another. Did he really think it would easier to attract buyers if he told the world that the club was ruined? How many potential investors were scared off?

5, Joe Kinnear has a history of heart trouble and was in semi-retirement. Hurling him into a stressful relegation battle was reckless at best. Now, with Kinnear convalescing after emergency surgery, Ashley must realise that there were better options for an interim manager. Like any one of the young manager in the second flight, for example.