My childhood home was a musical household. Not in a von Trapp or Carter family sort of way, none of us were talented singers or musicians, but there was always music playing from morning ‘til night. The dining room had a large stack Hi-Fi system in the corner, with two tape decks, a CD player, and a turntable on top. Two large booming speakers sat either side of the bay window, with several leather vinyl boxes between them. On the other side of the room was a large in-built cupboard containing what seemed like thousands of CDs and the sideboard drawers were stacked with cassette tapes. Somehow there was also room for a table and chairs in what was essentially a music library that we happened to eat in. We didn’t have a lot back then, but we certainly had everything we needed for a musical youth. Pass the Dutchie.
I was born in 1983 so my school years were largely in the 90s, with the weekend activity of kneeling by the tape decks hitting record and pause to the chart show being practised by all. Mix tapes were no place for radio adverts and I kept mine in a suitcase, along with hundreds of other initially blank cassettes I used to copy anything I could get my hands on. I used to go to Fenham library and borrow reggae cassettes to copy, as the UK enjoyed a resurgence of interest in 70s roots reggae, along with contemporary offerings from the likes of Chaka Demus. Presumably, Scott Parker never heard Aswad’s Don’t Turn Around. Definitely a fan of Dead or Alive…keep spinning round like a record, Scotty.
Anyway, to the point of this article. Music always makes me think, ‘What if?’ What if Otis Redding had lived beyond 26 or Kurt Cobain beyond 27? What if The Beatles had never existed? As George Michael said, ‘Turn a different corner and we never would have met.’ Football offers these same moments in time to wonder, ‘What if?’ What if we’d signed this player, not sold that player or not sacked this manager? I heard John Lennon’s Imagine the other day for the first time in many years and it got me wondering, ‘Imagine if Mike Ashley had done things differently.’ Imagine what the last 13 years could have brought? It’s easy if you try.
As Newcastle United entered the Mike Ashley era in the 2007-08 season, we did so as a club that had finished 3rd, 6th, 2nd, 2nd, 13th, 13th, 11th, 11th, 4th, 3rd, 5th, 14th, 7th and 13th in our fourteen Premier League seasons. We were relegated the following season, after finishing 18th. A further relegation was suffered four years later and finishes of 10th, 13th, 15th and 16th have become the norm with those days of challenging at the top and enjoying European nights now distant memories for some of us and beyond imagining for the younger generation. It must be difficult only knowing Mike Ashley’s Newcastle United and hearing stories or watching YouTube videos of those halcyon days before your time. In his reign of mediocrity, so starved of Gary Speeds and Rob Lees, there is a whole generation thinking Jonjo Shelvey is ‘quality’. Without living through Beardsley and Ginola, there are hordes of Twitter pages proclaiming Joelinton as ‘creative’. I’m not mocking them, it’s all relative and you can only support what you have in front of you, but although we’ve had some diamonds shine out over the last thirteen years our standards have clearly dropped. It must be like thinking The Script and The 1975 are good because you weren’t around for the Blur and Oasis years. Can anyone else remember singing, ‘He’s from down South, he’s got a big mouth, he’s a Cockney!’ to Blur’s Country House? Man, I miss the 90s.
With the emergence of Man City’s financial dominance and Liverpool’s well-assembled squad, it seems unlikely that any version of events under Mike Ashley would have us in the top two teams in the country at this moment in time. However, when you look beneath that is it unrealistic to imagine that we could have been amongst the best of the rest? Leicester, Chelsea, Man Utd and Wolves follow those two in the current league standings. In the 2007-08 season, when the Ashley era began, Leicester were relegated to League One while Wolves finished 7th in The Championship. So, what happened? I’m sure there’ll be whole books dedicated to this subject, but I’ve picked out three areas – early squad investment, managers and strengthening at key times.
These figures are rough calculations but in Ashley’s first four seasons as owner, we made around £43.5m profit in transfer fees. When the late Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha bought Leicester in 2010, over the following four seasons they spent around £18.25m more than they received in transfer fees. Since Fosun International bought Wolves in 2016, over the following four seasons they have spent around £210m more than they received in transfer fees. Investment in the squad has provided a catalyst to their rise through the divisions and into the top of the Premier League and European competition. Indeed, in Newcastle’s first four years in the Premier League, back in the Sir John Hall era, we spent around £36m more than we received in transfer fees. The evidence suggests that these early few years matter and set the foundation for success or failure and Mike Ashley spent them turning transfer profits rather than investing in our squad.
The first season begins and Allardyce is gone by January 2008, then Keegan by September 2008, Kinnear by February 2009 and Shearer by the summer of that year. So in his first two years as owner, Ashley had already seen four managerial departures. What followed was, in my opinion, the biggest error he ever made. With a squad infamously removed of its wantaway misfits and a manager who earned respect in a calm, understated way, we had a foundation to build on. Having stabilised and united a fractured dressing room (and fanbase) and gained promotion at the first attempt, the popular and trusted Chris Hughton was sacked in December 2010. When you find a manager who makes us all united, players and fans alike, then you take advantage of that momentum and you build. Ashley did the opposite with Hughton’s dismissal and proceeded to sell off the core of that influential squad over the following transfer windows. Imagine being fortunate enough to find another manager who united the players and fans, who offered another opportunity to take advantage of momentum and build the club and making the same mistake again?
It’s widely accepted that strengthening your team and squad at key times is an influential factor in success or failure. Ashley had clear evidence of this in the 2011-12 season, as Papiss Cisse arrived at the midpoint to score 13 goals in 14 games and help us to finish 5th, our highest final position during his ownership. However, despite qualifying for the Europa League and therefore having an additional competition to play in, that summer saw Vurnon Anita as our only major signing and we were once again in a relegation battle by January. Despite the belated reinforcements arriving from across the channel, we finished 16th that season. From 5th to 16th, a missed opportunity to build on success. That summer we loaned Remy as our only incoming business and made a total £20m transfer fee profit by the end of the season. One year later, we survived relegation on the last day. One year after that, we were relegated again. Time after time, Ashley failed to spend at key times and we stagnated or regressed.
Right now is another key moment in our club’s history, except this time it’s not one in Ashley’s hands. We’re all hoping to hear the news any day now, open our cans and begin imagining again. With the right investment during the early years, the right managerial appointment being allowed to build the club and strengthening at key times to maintain momentum, why can’t we make the progress of Leicester or Wolves? Why can’t we be like the Newcastle United of the Sir John Hall and Kevin Keegan years? You may say I’m a dreamer but I’m not the only one…