Worse to come for Newcastle under Ashley and Llambias
Last week's developments are merely the tip of the iceberg for Newcastle, writes Richard Buxton
Committing the heinous crimes of masking almost 120 years of history in the name of commercialism and slating two living club legends would be unthinkable for any club.
But Newcastle United’s current hierarchy appear to have turned it into an audacious artform.
When Mike Ashley succeeded the previously infamous duo of Freddy Shepherd and Douglas Hall, the Toon Army could have not envisaged how much further on a downward spiral they would be taken.
Yet the owner of Sports Direct and chief executive Derek Llambias have added a literal dimension to the club’s animated nickname with alleged behaviour more befitting of the Wacky Races than football.
Hall and Shepherd were understandably despised by some fans after reportedly launching a damning broadside on the club’s fans and legendary hit-man Alan Shearer.
But even their premiership, littered with similar controversies, seems minor by comparison to the past four years of the Ashley empire, with last week’s developments merely the tip of the iceberg.
Rebranding St James’ Park ““ described by the late Sir Bobby Robson as the “cathedral on the hill” ““ was pure sacrilage, and not just for the diehard Tyneside devotees.
The walk from Newcastle’s Central Station to the stadium is a pilgrimage which the majority of football fans, of varying levels of stature, genuinely relish in spite of the preceding journey.
And Shepherd attempted to offer some redemption when he stated that rebranding the stadium as the Sports Direct Arena will only deter potential investors rather than encourage.
Unlike the Emirates or the Reebok Stadiums, rebranding an existing stadium is incredibly shady territory, with only Manchester City previously bold enough to make this step with the City of Manchester Stadium – now known as the Etihad Stadium.
But rather than lobbying potential sponsors, Ashley turned St James’ into a full-blown shrine of personal vanity, having previously opted for a partial approach with ‘Sports [email protected] James’ Park’.
Some fans will argue to the contrary, but it has signalled the loss of Newcastle’s identity.
However, explaning that to the cash-driven clothing magnate is likely be a pointless exercise judging by his willingness to sell key players who helped fired the Magpies back to the Premier League 18 months ago.
Some applaud his ingenuity in commanding money for what is essentially old rope.
Steering Newcastle to the upper echelons of the table, even at this still early stage of the new campaign, is nothing short of miraculous from Alan Pardew given the club he inherited – one which seems to perenially veer on the extremes of controversy.
Little over £10m has been spent in strengthening the side since their return to the top flight, while their income has far outstripped their expenditure in all bar one season under Ashley’s ownership – which is not necessarily a sign for excessive negativity.
There has been sterling scouting work undertaken by Graham Carr, who is credited with bringing Hatem Ben Arfa and Yohan Cabaye to the North East
And granted, capitalising on Liverpool’s desperation to fill the void left by Fernando Torres’ departure to Chelsea by offloading Andy Carroll to Anfield for the excessive price of £35m was a stroke of hardened capitalist genius, for a striker playing on the back of a purple patch.
But rather than being the brains behind the villainous Dick Dastardly, however, Ashley is more akin to Muttley; the sidekick with a smile and a wheezy snicker when things go wrong.
He allows Llambias to take the role of Dastardly, delivering his bidding to the long-suffering Newcastle fans while he attempts, rather unsuccessfully, to depict himself as “˜one of the lads’.
Llambias is the croupier at the St James’ Park roulette table but he has displayed tendencies reminiscent of a hardened door man in his recent dealings with Newcastle fans.
Like Hall and Shepherd, he appears to have broken the first commandment in the book of the Gallowgate in allegedly ridiculing Shearer, the local lad made good player but later mediocre manager.
Yet that was not enough to alienate himself further as he reportedly tore into fellow messiah Kevin Keegan, also considered untouchable on Tyneside, and Pardew’s predecessor Chris Hughton.
Hughton was considered too placid for their liking, which appeared to be the motivation for his unceremonious departure last December, yet steered Newcastle back to England’s top division.
The back-slapping old boys’ culture which resides within the corridors of power at what is now known as the garish Sports Direct Arena seems to dictate the direction in which the club’s future it takes, which sets a worrying precedent for whoever replaces Pardew in the long-term.
“You guys don’t understand how f****** horrible we can be”, Llambias is quoted as having warned fans ““ and if the previous four years are considered their genial approach, incurring their wrath is unthinkable which will only end in further suffering for the Toon Army.