Before I go any further, I need to declare that I am a die-hard Sunderland fan, and that no malice towards my Newcastle United-supporting brethren is intended with this piece.
My thoughts and feelings are genuine and come from a position of empathy. The fact that between our two clubs, we are capable of attracting 100,000 home fans and are yet seen as two of the most gibbering basket cases of upper-level English football is a scandal, something that we should be deeply ashamed of and angry about.
Right now, punch-drunk Sunderland are slowly pulling themselves off the canvas after a brutal 12-month mullering that culminated in a hugely deserved relegation. But up the road on Tyneside, they’ve been there and done that, and the green shoots of recovery are supposedly sprouting once more.
Except they’re not. Because it pains me to say that the Magpies owner Mike Ashley is at it again – and the club’s supporters seem to be once more giving him a free pass.
It’s not a complicated situation – Mike Ashley is a colossal blight upon the history of Newcastle United, and it baffles me as to how the fans’ attempts to drive him out of the club for good have dried up.
It’s been a frustrating summer for the Toon Army faithful. Once promotion from the Championship had been achieved (no mean feat given the thorny, laborious nature of that league), Mike Ashley was said to have promised ‘every last penny the club generates’ to Rafa Benitez in order to fund a proper crack at the Premier League.
But time is ticking, the transfer window is slowly closing, and it’s no secret that Benitez’s irritation has reached a critical level. After the home defeat against Spurs, he was smiling but his body language was that of a man who is privately tearing out what’s left of his hair.
After missing out on realistic targets like Tammy Abraham and Willy Caballero, bringing in Javier Manquillo, a right-back who could barely get involved in Sunderland’s horrifying relegation season while on loan down the road, doesn’t bode well. Splashing £5m on Joselu, a striker who could only muster four goals for Stoke and was then shipped out to relegation-battling Deportivo La Coruna on loan for a year, isn’t marquee stuff.
The Premier League is a brutal threshing machine, and Newcastle have been relegated twice in recent seasons because of catastrophic decisions at the club. The man pulling the strings on both occasions?
Mike Ashley. And Mike Ashley is at it again.
In recent years, Ashley has deemed Joe Kinnear, John Carver and Steve McClaren as worthy of managing a club with designs on a tilt for European football. Anyone with even the vaguest of knowledge about the game could have told him that he’d be asking for trouble.
And yet, here we are in 2017, and Newcastle should be in the strongest position since Ashley slapped his wad down on the table and picked up the St. James’ Park keys. He’s got a manager who has won the Champions League at Liverpool and who was running things at the mighty Real Madrid less than two years ago. Rafa Benitez clearly loves the club, and the fans idolise him. But Mike Ashley is at it again.
At times, it almost seems as though he is actively trolling the Toon Army.
Seemingly publicity-shy, Ashley has an uncanny knack of going public just at the time when there’s damage to be done. His one-to-one interview with Sky Sports made MY teeth itch at times, and I’m supposedly pre-disposed to hate Newcastle United.
Sly remarks about about how the fans would happily finish a place or two lower in the Premier League rather than flog off the naming rights to St. James’ Park and spend the windfall that would bring came across as a shitty way to shift the blame for the lack of transfer activity this season.
He also had the gall to publicly apologise to Kevin Keegan and Alan Shearer for letting them and the fans down, while at the same time, history is repeating itself as Benitez is being stifled from doing the job he wants to do. It comes across as self-sabotage.
Ashley is like Donald Trump – he will never, ever change.
And right now, it looks as though the fans are enabling him. The ‘Ashley Out’ campaign made plenty of noise and organised successful boycotts in 2015 but seems to be dormant these days. Of course, that’s what a season of success can do, even if it’s at a lower level.
But surely right now is the time to start piling the pressure on Ashley. You can be Team Rafa or Team Sports Direct but it looks impossible to be both. Revive the boycotts. Pile your ill-advised Sports Direct purchases high on the Town Moor and set them alight. Smuggle a trained attack goose into the ground and release it into Ashley’s face.
Because the patience of the notoriously thin-skinned Rafa Benitez will only stretch so far, and once he decides that the Geordie jig is up, you’ll probably end up with another unsuitable left-field managerial appointment. If things go REALLY badly, you might wind up with Paolo Di Canio making a return to the Premier League via the front door of St. James’ Park. Because Mike Ashley is at it again.