There was a point earlier this summer at which it seemed change was finally on the horizon for Newcastle United. The age of Mike Ashley, the Premier League’s most maligned owner, appeared to be coming to an end with reports of a takeover led by the cousin of Manchester City owner Sheikh Mansour surfacing.
Talk of a takeover and Ashley’s banishment disappeared, though. Rafael Benitez, the one man the Geordies had adopted as a figure of hope in recent years, left after his demands for investment in the playing squad were denied. Steve Bruce, a Championship manager with a questionable record at the top level, will, in the coming days, be appointed as his replacement.
Newcastle aren’t just back where they started, they’re even worse off.
This isn’t the first time St James’ Park has welcomed an underwhelming managerial appointment. It’s nearly 11 years since Joe Kinnear replaced Kevin Keegan, himself a baffling, albeit more popular, hire. After that, the completely inexperienced Alan Shearer was dropped into his first management job to save Newcastle from relegation. He failed.
John Carver and Steve McClaren were similarly underwhelming before Benitez bucked the trend, taking the job when few others of his stature would have touched it. But Ashley even managed to turn Benitez into another tool of despair, with the Spaniard’s departure at the end of last month (when his contract expired) further highlighting the damage being done to the club.
Newcastle United have suffered two relegations under Ashley’s control. Their best players have been sold with no replacements signed. Fans have been left disenfranchised by an owner who wants nothing to do with them. And yet this, what has happened over the past few weeks, feels like a new low. The nadir.
This summer has seen the Magpies sell Ayoze Perez to Leicester City and miss out on permanently signing last season’s Player of the Year, Salomon Rondon – to Benitez’s new club in China, incidentally. Bruce’s appointment exposes the lack of ambition currently at St James’ Park more than anything else, though.
In the mind of Ashley, it seems Bruce being a Geordie sufficiently qualifies him for the Newcastle United job.
If that is the case, why hasn’t he also interviewed Ant & Dec, Cheryl Tweedy and the writer of Billy Elliott?
A number of Premier League clubs have been lumbered with neglectful owners at various points in their history, but none have hollowed out the centre of a club like Ashley has with Newcastle United. The club still stands, as it always has, at the centre of the city, St James’ Park towering above the skyline, but the spirit and character of the place has been changed forever by a man only interested in profit.
Last season, Benitez claimed it would be a “miracle’ were Newcastle United to avoid relegation. Ultimately, the Spaniard led them to a highly respectable 13th place finish, well away from the bottom three. With not one signing made so far this summer, it’s difficult to envisage Bruce pulling off the same thing this season.
The Magpies’ place in the Premier League was somewhat false anyway. Their top-flight position was a mark of Benitez’s quality, with the Spaniard returning the club to the Premier League from the Championship and making sure they stayed there. Now with Benitez gone Newcastle United’s safety cushion is gone.
Instead of one of the best managers of the Premier League era in the dugout, Newcastle now have Bruce, a man so despised by Aston Villa fans last season he had a cabbage thrown at him, to guide them through another tumultuous spell. That doesn’t bode well. Nothing much ever bodes well at St James’ Park, but this time the darkness seems even darker.