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Sport
Culture: Fog on the Tyne
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Sunday, 14 September 2008 Written by Henry Midgley
Mike Ashley has had enough- he has announced that he is selling his stake in Newcastle to anyone with a couple of million pounds and a fondness for taking abuse and spending billions. Ashley's statement is interesting though because of the fact that it demonstrates how little he understood about football. Rightly he lauds the Arsenal model at Newcastle, rightly he argues that you cannot buy your way to become Chelsea unless you have an owner like the Sheikhs at Manchester City- wrongly he deemed the correct men to perform his vision were Dennis Wise and Kevin Keegan and possibly even further from reality, he beleived Newcastle fans could see his vision.

Kevin Keegan has never been a manager who is able to husband resources well. At Newcastle the first time, at Fulham and at Manchester City he bought a load of players for a load of money. He is a motivator of dressing rooms- but he is neither an inspirer nor a cultivator of youth players. At Newcastle the first time he closed the youth academy and very few young players made it through to his Manchester City side- it was under Stuart Pearce and Sven Goran Eriksson that City's academy players took off (with the exception of Shaun Wright-Phillips). If Ashley wanted to go the Wenger route, then appointing Keegan was a daft choice.

It was daft as well because of the way that Newcastle fans see Keegan. For a mediocre manager's departure, this week's protests have been a complete overreaction. Keegan leaving is not a good thing- he is good at inspiring players- but neither is it a disaster. Were this a calmer club, they could look at alternatives like David Moyes of Everton or Roy Hodgson of Everton or even some of the good young managers in the Championship, men like Ade Boothroyd at Watford, Gary Johnson at Bristol or look abroad where there are plenty of good and promising managers- Didier Deschamps or Laurent Blanc for example. But this is not a calm club and Keegan was the messiah- his previous acheivements at Newcastle were amazing but the world has moved on, and Newcastle are no longer the wealthy club they were- they must rely as Ashley sees upon the virtues of thrift, fortune and future planning.

If Keegan was never the man to perform that plan, then neither was Dennis Wise. The Londoner has had two spells in management- one at Millwall and one at Leeds. His last one at Leeds demonstrated how much Wise has to learn- he was fine for the first few months of the season, indeed did brilliantly, but Leeds fans soon saw that it was not Wise but his assistant Gus Poyet who had made the difference. When Poyet left, Wise's Leeds careered off into disaster and were only rescued when Newcastle poached Leeds's manager and Leeds got McAllister in. Wise does not have a great record at spotting good young players- and though his recruitment effort at Newcastle hasn't been bad (having said that spotting that Colloccini, an Argentinian international playing at Milan, was a better centre half than Titus Bramble does not rank amongst the most spectacular finds of the summer) he is not someone who has proved himself as an analyst of the game.

Again one wonders about whether Ashley thought of some other names- one would thought say Dario Gradi, probably too old now, might have been considered as when it comes to finding young players from David Platt to Dean Ashton, there are not many who are better. What about others who lack Wise's ego for the role- Paul Hart for example who nurtured the Leeds United generation would be perfect for a role that was not that of a frontline manager but was that of a development director. By hiring Wise, Ashley had stored up trouble because he had hired someone who seemed to be a second manager- a competing rather than a helping figure for Keegan. And as to Keegan- well by hiring him Ashley was making ready a noose for his own neck, when inevitably Keegan's expectations of Newcastle collided with financial reality.

The difficulty I have now is in trying to imagine who would want to buy Newcastle United. The fans may have won a pyrrhic victory. They have by doing this done two things- firstly put the board on notice that they do not have the patience to do things the Arsenal way and secondly suggested that their emotional ties to individuals like Keegan and Shearer (who must be the next unwise appointment at Newcastle) goes beyond their rational expectation of what the club can and should do. Ashley had the right strategy but picked the wrong individuals to perform it- the fans seem unwilling to let this board implement that strategy- they might let a new board in to do it but even so the shades of Shearer and Keegan would hang over the club. (The argument that those shades are the invention of the media has been truly diffused by this week's performances outside St James's Park)

In that circumstance- the only person who might buy Newcastle would be someone with the billions to match Abramovic and City's new owners- there aren't that many people out in the world with that money- and the Premiership is becoming more difficult to dominate through money as the number of clubs owned by the superrich goes up. The only sustainable model in the Premiership is Arsenal's- but then again Mike Ashley's mistakes and the fan's hysteria about Keegan may have made that a more difficult model to implement on Tyneside than anyone would have supposed.

The Fog on the Tyne for once is not merely a physical reality- it is clouding the judgements of everyone involved in Newcastle United Football club.