Newcastle fans are often painted as having unreasonably high expectations. According to many-a-pundit we demand Champions League qualification as a minimum as well as our fair share of silverware. For loyal fans of a sizeable club that has not won a trophy in 46 years this seems a rather odd statement. All most Newcastle United fans truly want is for the club to at least punch its weight, aim to improve year on year and to have a proper go at winning a cup competition. However, during Ashley’s ownership a systematic, premeditated lowering of expectations has taken place, instigated by the man himself and other club officials to the point where, today, the club has no ambition outside of staying in the Premier League to collect its astronomical TV revenue.
Things weren’t always this way, far from it. Consider (for example) what Mike Ashley himself stated as his ambition after sacking Allardyce, which presented him with an opportunity to bring in his own manager (13 January 2008):
“I want a team that will go all out to try to give Chelsea a walloping, that will try to stuff Tottenham and that will be brave and bold enough to attack Manchester United.
“To date I have invested £250million to try and make it happen.”
Source: The Telegraph
That new manager would of course be none other than club legend Kevin Keegan.
In the lead up to their first (and last) transfer window together, there were early signs of friction between Ashley and Keegan. Keegan had suggested that challenging the top four would require a large investment, possibly more than was being proposed. Infuriated, Mike Ashley ordered Keegan to London for crunch talks – apparently at this stage suggesting top 4 would be beyond Newcastle was tantamount to swearing. Ultimately the ‘conflict’ was resolved, and club chairman Chris Mort explained exactly how Ashley planned to break the top four (6 May 2008):
“Over the summer, we will look to strengthen the squad further. In addition to immediate fixes, we will want to acquire players that can help make Newcastle United a top team for the medium and long term.
“It is frustrating that Modric, like Woodgate before him, should take less money than we offered to move to the bright lights of London and European football with Tottenham next season.
“But these are the sorts of difficulties that should get easier to address once we build a squad that competes at the right end of the table.”
The top four ambition was reiterated a few months later by Mike Ashley himself (8 August 2008):
“The top four have enormous resources, but over time it must be possible to compete with them. I’ve already invested £250m in Newcastle United and so that and some European nights of football must be the dream. That must be the ambition.
“Compared with some of the other owners in the Premiership I may be a middleweight taking on some heavyweights, but I’m building the boxer up.
“If you own Newcastle United then the one thing you want is do is win something. Kevin wants to do that and so do I.”
Source: The Chronicle
A few days later, Mike Ashley explained why he decided to buy Newcastle United over other clubs (12 August 2008):
“Maybe I could have bought a smaller club, but it just wouldn’t have been the same challenge. It’s like settling for the high jump when really you want to do the pole vault – you want more excitement so you go higher.
“I was being offered the chance to own one of the jewels, one of the diamonds of the Premier League. There was no hesitation, why would there be?”
Source: The Chronicle
In the wake of Kevin Keegan’s resignation Mike Ashley justified his transfer policy by comparing it to Arsenal and stated once more his ambition to ‘compete at the very highest level’ (14 September 2008):
“Arsenal is the shining example in England of a sustainable business model. It takes time. It can’t be done overnight. Newcastle has therefore set up an extensive scouting system. We look for young players, for players in foreign leagues who everyone does not know about. We try and stay ahead of the competition. We search high and low looking for value, for potential that we can bring on and for players who will allow Newcastle to compete at the very highest level but who don’t cost the earth.”
In the relegation season that followed, new Newcastle United managing director Derek Llambias explained the objective of Ashley’s new ‘five year plan’ (10 February 2009):
“In five years’ time I would hope we would be challenging for everything.”
Source: The Telegraph
And later that month, Derek Llambias again expressed the ambition to be ‘solid competitors at the top’, speaking to a supporters’ panel (25 February 2009):
“We want to be solid competitors at the top. That’s the way we’re going. We aim to be knocking on the door again.”
Source: The Chronicle
A club statement issued in the wake of Newcastle’s promotion back to the Premier League illustrates a paradigm shift in the owner’s ambition, the objective of the new ‘five year plan’ (sigh) being to ‘break even’ financially, with not a word about any sort of sporting ambition (9 May 2010):
“The Board at Newcastle United have issued this statement to the public to set out clearly to one and all the current financial situation and to state clearly that every effort will be made by the Board to achieve a “break even” financial situation by 2015.
“Newcastle United Football Club is an organisation that holds a special place in the hearts of Geordies worldwide and the Board understands that it is they who are the spiritual torch holders of Newcastle United Football Club.
“The Board has made this statement so that all those involved with Newcastle United be they supporter, member of the media or an individual with an interest in football can be aware of what the Board will strive to achieve over the next five years.”
At least the objective of ‘five year plan’ #2 was achieved and then some. The very next financial period (roughly coinciding with the 2010/11 season) the club posted a massive profit and the club has been in the black ever since. You would think posting £43.9m profits in three years would allow for the purse strings to be loosened somewhat for squad investment to set their sights higher again, but then you’d be mistaken.
In the 2011/12 season the club massively overachieved and qualified for the Europa League by finishing fifth. The objective for the Premier League 2012/13 season was a top 8 finish, but the club ended only just above the relegation zone in 16th, as well as reaching the Quarter Finals of the Europa League. This prompted manager Alan Pardew to praise the lord that we would not be in Europe (!) the season after (12 May 2013):
“I think if I put my best XI out every week we would be a top-eight side but I’ve only been able to put it out three times at most. It’s an unforgiving league and if you look at this division, the likes of Swansea and West Brom are only five or six points ahead of us.
“It’s been an unbelievable season and I think it’s been so, so tight because of the financial rewards at stake this year. I will make sure that we are well prepared for next season and thank God we are not in the Europa League again.”
In the summer transfer window that followed, having just narrowly escaped relegation and having posted impressive profits for three years running, the club did not bring in a single senior player on a permanent deal. Alan Pardew was keen to explain that we could not hope to compete financially with such powerhouses as recently promoted Southampton. This is the same Southampton whose new director had just a week before admitted the club was in a ‘difficult financial situation’ (7 August 2013):
“You look at a club like Southampton, and they’re in a much stronger financial position than us in terms of purchasing players.”
Source: The Journal
Subsequently, the target for the following season (2013/14) was set as top ten, and the long-term ambition remained uniquely, financially motivated as explained in a Fan Forum meeting (23 September 2013):
Phil Patterson (PP) – “Can you explain a bit more about the club’s five year plan?
“The club’s board (LC and JI) explained that the club has a football plan that it works to. Last season knocked the club back a little and resulted in the club revising its expectations for this season. The club’s intention last season was to finish in the top eight. Because we finished lower, the club re-evaluated and we want to finish in the top ten this season.”
Chris Forster (CF) – “What are Mike Ashley (MA)’s long-term intentions?”
“The board explained that MA has no real intention or ambition to sell – he is as committed today as he was three or four years ago. He wants the club to move forward but to do so within its means. He wants the club to stand on its own two feet. The club’s business model was outlined, which is to get club on an even keel financially, then make it stronger and more self-sufficient.”
With the club now apparently targeting no more than mid-table mediocrity and subsequently stability in the Premier League (and excessive profitability of course), you would expect us to give the cups a right go, wouldn’t you? Seeing as the club had not won anything of note for nearly half a century? Well…no. As the board explained in the same Fan Forum meeting (23 September 2013):
Phil Patterson – “Realistically, the cups are about the only chance of silverware, but year in year out we don’t seem to target one, why not?
“The board said that we utilise the cup competitions to secure match experience for the wider squad. The club is also mindful of injuries following last season’s Europa League. Our primary aim and focus has to be the Premier League and we don’t want to jeopardise that.”
Chris Forster – “A cup would be success for fans.”
“The board said the financial rewards of being a PL club are so great that we have to make sure that we do everything we can to stay in that position. Examples of three recent cup winners who are now no longer in the PL were given. The board added that the extra 14 games we played in the Europa League and the injuries sustained had contributed to a lower league finish.”
In the next Fan Forum meeting, the board explained no extra funds would be made available for squad strengthening if we ‘accidentally’ qualified for the Europa League again, and reaffirmed their stance on the cups (6 January 2014):
Liam Hall (LH): “Regarding strength of the squad, if we did qualify for the Europa League this season, would we strengthen where we didn’t last time?”
“The board explained that the Europa League generated circa £6m last season and that was not a significant amount to strengthen the squad. Any funds available would be used to strengthen for the Premier League and not for the Europa League.”
CF: “If current form continues and the club qualifies for Europe, would the club learn the lessons and strengthen?”
“The board reiterated that the squad is stronger than last year. Given that the Europa League can be a drain for clubs for very little financial reward, the club believes the structure of the competition needs to be reassessed.”
VV suggested that while the league is the priority, the club would go to another level if it won a cup. TC added: “If we don’t compete in the higher positions and we are eighth, will we keep the likes of the top players?”
“The board suggested that financially, the club is not under any pressure to sell players and remains an attractive proposition to players.”
SH: “We need to get the message out there that we’re competing for it, challenging for top four. It’s good to be aspirational.”
“The board reiterated that 10th is not the highest it wants to achieve, it is the minimum target.”
One month later, in yet another Fan Forum, there was more depressing revelations. Whereby, apparently, we can’t expect to compete with clubs who have higher commercial income, even though we don’t treat said revenue stream with any interest or urgency (24 February 2014):
CF: “There seems to be a lack of ambition at the Club, that’s the feeling that fans have.”
“The board explained, as in previous Forum meetings, that the aim for the Club is always to finish as high up the league table as possible, with top ten a minimum requirement this season. In the context of commercial revenue (which it was earlier explained has a major bearing on clubs’ spending power) and overall income, the six teams currently above NUFC and Everton should, theoretically, given their financial power, finish higher year-on-year.”
CF: “Fans wanted us to capitalise on the 5th-place finish and invest the same as those top six clubs to push further.”
“The board posed a question of how much it would have needed to invest in order to ensure year-on-year it finished above the likes of Chelsea and Liverpool given their resources and income levels.”
Astonishingly, the board stooped yet another level lower in response to fans questioning our lack of trying in the cups once more in the next Fan Forum meeting (12 May 2014):
CF: “Do the club not think it is worth a cup run next season?”
“The board outlined research into Premier League clubs in relation to domestic cup competitions in the last five years, with Swansea City the only club outside the traditional top six to win a domestic cup and not be relegated in the same season (Birmingham and Wigan Athletic were both relegated). Independent research into the cost of relegation over the past ten years showed there is a 50% chance of not gaining promotion back to the top flight and a 30% chance of being relegated to League One or further. In addition, if clubs do return to the Premier League, it takes four years on average.”
GG: “If the club finished higher in the Premier League, would they aim for a cup?”
“At this moment in time, the club’s priority is the Premier League.”
No ambition to do well in the cups, or compete for Europe, so really it shouldn’t come as a surprise that at the start of the current campaign, manager Alan Pardew set the season target at a lofty 48 points, one point LOWER than we achieved the season before, which was mediocre at best (12 August 2014):
“The average for this club over the last 10 years is 48 points. If we get that or anything above that it will be a good season for us.
“At this stage of the season we dream higher than that. We will have to see where we go.”
Source: Sky Sports
After yet another disappointing start of the campaign, and a point salvaged at home to the mighty Hull City, manager Alan Pardew reminded everybody that top 6 is well and truly beyond us, seemingly forgetting for a moment that he had done just that only two years prior (20 September 2014):
“I think our fans are realistic – they know the top six is beyond us. We can’t compete with those clubs at the moment. But we should be competing for seventh, eighth, ninth, 10th, 11th, we have proven that we can do that in the past.”
Source: The Independent
So there you have it. When Mike Ashley had just taken over Newcastle United he assured fans that his ambition was to see the club compete at the very highest level, challenge for cups and aim for more European nights like the ones his predecessors delivered. These promises were not followed by any sort of action indicating that they were genuine. In fact, after overseeing relegation in 2010 through sheer mismanagement, and subsequent promotion back to the Premier League, the statements coming out of the club indicate that there is no ambition other than to stay in the Premier League nowadays. The cups are literally foresaken these days, and European qualification avoided at all cost. Newcastle United has gone backwards massively since (and because of) Ashley’s takeover, and is now primarily a huge cash cow for Mike Ashley, one that offers him a world wide audience to advertise his cheap tat for free no less.