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Saturday, Sept. 20, 2008


Ashley proves business success irrelevant in soccer

LONDON — In the 1956 autobiography of former Newcastle striker Len Shackleton, one chapter was entitled "The Average Director's Knowledge Of Football."

Christopher Davies

It comprised a blank page.

The gallows humor of the player nicknamed the Clown Prince of Football seems more appropriate than ever 52 years later.

Mike Ashley became a billionaire thanks to his astute business brain, making Sports Direct one of the financial successes of recent times. As the owner of Newcastle the man who did everything right in the City has made a right pig's ear of running a football club.

We're talking two blank pages here.

The joint-least liked man on Tyneside along Dennis Wise, his executive director (football), Ashley has been stunned and scarred by his year and a bit in charge of a club which last won a major trophy just after Sir Winston Churchill stepped down as Prime Minister.

As the head of Sports Direct, Ashley was never booed by 50,000 shareholders. There were no mass protests calling for his resignation. He was liked and admired . . . the main man . . . the focus of all the praise.

If Ashley expected the same situation at Newcastle, he must also believe in the tooth fairy.

Fans don't gleefully chant the names of chairmen or owners who are expected to put in their millions and be relatively anonymous people.

They are the unwritten rules, but the lack of name-chanting is made up for by the huge profits those who invest in football can make. Money can speak louder than words.

Only when things go wrong does the board come into the spotlight, and for the past two weeks Ashley and his one Wise man have been attacked in a way the Newcastle owner could never have imagined.

Wise, who has the skin of an armadillo, would not give a hoot. He's been there, seen it, done it and heard it all before as a player with Wimbledon and Chelsea plus being manager of Millwall and Leeds.

Wise may be the most un-insultable person in football, a remarkable if dubious achievement. He also has a £1 million a year contract to comfort him.

It all went wrong for Ashley the day he appointed Wise, which was 13 days after he became the second-most popular man on Tyneside as he brought Kevin Keegan back as manager.

Eight months later KK quit, which prompted one newspaper headline "From the messiah to the mess."

As the head honcho at Sports Direct, Ashley would not have given a thought to appointing two of the most important executives in his empire who clearly would not get on. It just wouldn't make sense, but on Planet Football business (or common) sense is an occasional visitor.

When he brought in Wise, Ashley must have known it was light blue touch paper and retire stuff.

Ashley went from hero to zero and the end result is that Newcastle lost the most popular manager it's ever had and soon its least popular owner.

Last Sunday, Ashley bowed to fan pressure and announced he would be selling up, run out of town by the St James' Park lynch mob.

Money can buy many things but not popularity. Ashley dare not show his face at Newcastle again, and has been in Dubai this week talking to would be du-byers (sorry).

The Geordie nation wants one of its own in charge, no more Cockney Mafia. It wants Keegan back, forgiving the messiah for being born in Doncaster.

There is an arrogance about Newcastle supporters that only they cannot see. If Newcastle was as big a club as its fans claim, it would have won something which it hasn't managed in most supporters' lifetimes.

Look up "underachieving" in the dictionary and there should be Newcastle's club badge.

The notion that only "one of us" can understand how the locals feel is balderdash.

Freddy Shepherd was one of them, and when he was chairman he sacked Sir Bobby Robson three weeks after the start of the season even though, in his third, fourth and fifth years at the Newcastle, the club had finished fourth, third and fifth in the Premiership.

As Ashley continues his search for a buyer, Newcastle is also looking for a new manager. It seems blindingly obvious to most that it is pointless appointing a successor to Keegan and then handing the club over to a new regime that may not like Team Ashley's choice.

Under the present circumstances at Newcastle, don't rule this out, though.

His asking price of £400 million, around twice what he paid for Newcastle, was described as "Loony Tunes" by one financial source, while drinking alcohol in public during Ramadan did not endear Ashley to the locals.

Meanwhile, Newcastle faces West Ham on Saturday with morale as low as anyone can remember, players fed up with the uncertainty and lack of information from above, and opponents like Hull last week eager to take advantage of the current chaos at St. James' Park.

* * * * *

IF CHELSEA beats Manchester United on Sunday and Liverpool overcomes Stoke on Saturday, they will both be nine points ahead of the Premier League champions.

United has a match in hand over its rivals, but five games into the season nine points is still a significant gap.

The worry for United is that it has started the season looking anything but champions of England and Europe.

It was second best in most departments in the 2-1 loss to Liverpool last week, and the midweek goal-less draw against Villarreal was a tepid affair, the return of Cristiano Ronaldo as a substitute after an ankle operation the main plus.

The midfield against Villarreal — Nani, Fletcher, Hargreaves and Park — was industrious rather than inventive, while Nemeja Vidic, suspended for the game against Chelsea, was sacrificed for Jonny Evans, who will play against the Blues.

Chelsea, meanwhile, crushed Bordeaux 4-0, though manager Luiz Felipe Scolari, thought his team was sloppy and tactically naive. Just as well it scored four, then.

The first head-to-head of Big Phil and Fergie promises to be special. A World Cup winner against a two-time European champion.

Scolari has made a positive impression in English football and won't be fazed by his rivals love of mind games.

A Champions League final rematch . . . the two teams which slugged it out until the last day of the Premier League last season.

Just three points at stake?

I don't think so.

Christopher Davies covers the Premier League for the London Daily Telegraph.

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