“This week was tough, I’ve tried not to show it. It was a build-up to a cup final and we won the cup final, but it would be really nice to say at the end of a season that we’ve won something.”
The above quote came from Newcastle caretaker manager John Carver following his side’s 2-0 victory over West Ham last weekend to ensure their Premier League survival. There’s something quite sad about that, a club the size of Newcastle celebrating mere survival when they have the potential to be aiming so much higher.
It’s one thing to say that the fans don’t deserve to see their club in serious trouble, and they really don’t, but Mike Ashley absolutely does. It must be heartbreaking for the supporters to see their club being treated like just another wing of Ashley’s Sports Direct business, though the sad reality is that is what Newcastle has become.
The most galling aspect is that Ashley will probably consider this season a success – if John Carver could promise 15th place every season then he’d probably still be the manager when the new season starts in August despite quite clearly being out of his depth. Ashley’s ownership of the club is purely profit-oriented – everything else, the fans, the team’s performances, the club’s reputation, is secondary.
What used to be everyone’s second favourite club has now turned into a cold, mechanical laughing stock and certain parts of the footballing world would genuinely enjoy seeing them relegated, such is the grotesque and soulless husk that Ashley’s tenure has turned the team into. Of course it is his club and his prerogative if he wants to trim down the costs, but he has done so to too much of an extent and it almost cost them their Premier League status. The fact that important players were sold and replaced on the cheap is bad enough but when Ashley tried to take the same approach with the manager, it showed a staggering sense of complacency.
That being said, this shambles of a season could turn into a blessing in disguise for the club. In much the same way that 1997’s Batman & Robin was so awful that the whole Batman film franchise was burned to the ground and rebooted with a far better series, this could be to wake-up call for the Magpies to start again in terms of squad building.
If they have another season like the second half of the one we’ve just seen, they will be relegated. There can be no doubt about that. Therefore, they will really have to spend big and overhaul that squad. They were saved in part this year by Hull’s nightmarish run-in but they simply can’t rely on the form of others next year.
Stagnation is not an option this summer, especially if they have any intention to retain their few remaining assets, the likes of Tim Krul and Moussa Sissoko (though if Ashley gets his way, selling those two could potentially mean another £25-30 million in the bank).
Regarding their next choice of manager, the latest odds suggest that it will be former England boss Steve McClaren in the dugout at St. James’s Park next season. McClaren has a solid if unspectacular record in England, and realistically that type of solidity is exactly what Newcastle should be aiming for in the short run.
There’s an infrastructure and fanbase within that club that deserves a top half finish, and in a league where there is little to separate anyone outside of the top seven then it is not beyond the realms of possibility that Newcastle, with the right blend of manager and signings, could potentially be aiming that high next year. At the very least they should be looking at a cup run to restore some of the morale that has been eroded piece by piece from the long-suffering fans of this club.
Of course by now Newcastle fans know not to hope for any of that. They fully expect Mike Ashley to keep doing the bare minimum, make a few token signings to try and ensure relegation does not become such a distinct possibility but ultimately nowhere near the level required to challenge for anything of any real substance.
As long as Ashley is there, this will be the norm. This season was arguably the absolute worst it could get while coming out at the other end with top flight status intact, but as long as the bottom line is satisfactory then as far as the owner is concerned then it was a job well done. Ambition has given way to balance sheets on Tyneside.