So Newcastle United have finally confirmed Joe Kinnear as their new Director of Football on a three year deal. He will be responsible for all football matters, and both manager Alan Pardew and chief scout Graham Carr will report into him. After Kinnear’s meltdown on Talksport on Monday night, Newcastle fans are steeling themselves for the latest episode in the Mike Ashley saga.
The most fashionable explanation for Kinnear’s return is that Ashley is trying to manoeuvre Pardew out of the club, unimpressed with his performance last season after feathering his nest with an 8 year contract. But it’s now thought that the length of this contract was more symbolic than anything else, a supposed indication of a new period of stability at the club, but could actually be broken quite easily. A more plausible, yet infinitely scarier possibility is that Ashley simply thinks it’s a good idea.
The man’s got form. Like his Sports Direct chain, which operates as a perennial large-scale jumble sale, the Ashley led Newcastle United is a paper thin veneer over total chaos. His reign has seen them in the top five of the Premier League, the return of noisy European nights to St James’, and the development of a sophisticated European scouting network. But it’s also firmly established Newcastle as a national laughing stock, the victim of Ashley’s hare-brained schemes, enthusiastically nodded through by his pals and corporate ‘yes-men’. Here are just a few of them, in case you were convinced by his apparent conversion to Machiavellian genius.
Man of the people
Mike Ashley has built-up a personal fortune of over £1bn. Presumably this involved a degree of marketing savvy, which he immediately seemed to abandon with wanton glee once he bought Newcastle in 2007. Ashley was initially notorious for wearing a replica shirt in the director’s box and sinking a pint, and for appearing, like some sort of beer-soaked cockney Batman, in Newcastle nightspots to put his credit card behind the bar.
Newcastle fans initially warmed to this routine, which seemed a naff but interesting way to ingratiate himself with fans. But as soon as results didn’t live up to expectations it became a ridiculous spectacle. Geordies, like fans of any other club, enjoy a drink and a laugh when they go to watch their team, but it is secondary to success and being entertained on the pitch. It was so achingly obvious that Ashley was doing it in an attempt to paint himself as an ‘honorary Geordie’. Only delivering success for the club was likely to bestow that honour.
SJP to SDA
If there’s one thing that Toon fans do well, it’s romanticise their club. It is testament to the power of the Geordie faithful and the pulsating atmosphere when in full throat at St James’ Park that they’re still considered a big club amongst other fans. The ground itself dominates the city, visible from all corners. Its physical hallmarks are iconic, from the Strawberry pub to the towering Gallowgate End, its great hulking physicality at Newcastle’s very heart. It is the very antithesis of corporate re-branding.
So you have to wonder what Ashley’s motivation was for renaming St James Park’ the Sports Direct Arena. Had he simply given up trying to win the affection of his club’s supporters by this point? Derek Llambias, regularly trotted out to defend Ashley’s decisions, suggested it was purely business. But no popular decision when you’re running a football club can be. If it was purely a vehicle to advertise Sports Direct, a brand already well-established in the city with its mega emporium in the Eldon Square shopping centre, it backfired spectacularly. Fans tore the signs down, daubed the old name on the walls and most people, even in the media, carried on calling it St James’ Park anyway.
Wonga – just plain Wronga?
It’s not even the jarring insensitivity of a bloated rich man negotiating a multi-million pound deal with a company whose business success is predicated on charging interest rates of over 4000% in one of the most economically deprived regions of the country which most warrants this inclusion. It’s the fact that Newcastle’s best three players – Papiss Cisse, Hatem Ben Arfa and Cheick Tiote, are Muslim and have expressed deep reservations about wearing a shirt emblazoned with the Wonga logo as its business practices are incompatible with Islamic law. Although a creative solution involving black tape will probably be achieved, it is of utter embarrassment that the club has managed to alienate its best players in such a crass way.
Not so Wise
Bringing back Kevin Keegan was an idea doomed to failure, but at least it was appreciated by Newcastle fans, hungry for the naked optimism which accompanied his first spell in charge. But what better way to completely undermine Keegan’s influence than by appointing Dennis Wise above his head as Executive Director, responsible for player recruitment. Suddenly Wise, on the back of two plucky lower league managerial jobs at Swindon and Leeds, was suited up in the director’s box, operating at a strategic level he had no experience of. This ghastly year long spell brought only the signings of Xisco (9 appearances in 3 years) and Nacho Gonzalez on loan (2 appearances) before Wise was quietly shown the door.
Kinnear – the first incarnation
Just ever so slightly less inexplicable than re-hiring Joe Kinnear this week is the fact they hired him in the first place back in 2008. Kinnear then too stumbled from one debacle to another, whether it was his sweary evisceration of the nation’s press, or the Charles Insomnia affair, the first in a line of comedy mispronunciations of foreign player’s names. A heart attack led to a hasty withdrawal from the game, before his surprise reappearance.
Throughout all this, Mike Ashley has remained at the helm. His plan of putting the club up for sale seems to have been shelved for now, but if the reaction of the Newcastle fans this week is anything to go by, it may have to be dusted off again soon.