Mike Ashley and Newcastle: The punditry silence is deafening

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Conspiracy theories are not cool. People who have a conspiracy theory for everything are also a little bit frightening.

Let’s draw a quick distinction though, because there are different grades. Believing that Lee Harvey Oswald didn’t act alone is actually quite rational. But nodding along to the manipulative rhetoric of a David Icke lecture? That categorises someone as a particular type of person.

What follows falls into that first category and is intended more as an open question than anything else.

Why is Mike Ashley not criticised more than he is? Why, to be more precise, is there such a disparity between the way Newcastle supporters speak of him and the reaction he engenders during discussions on television, radio and in the more visible parts of the written press?

Whatever your take on that situation, it’s inarguably odd.

There are some exceptions. People who have worked under Ashley’s regime are typically damning. The sections of Kevin Keegan’s autobiography which deal with his second spell at the club, for instance, are both a must-read and also a highly descriptive account of the toxic dysfunction which characterised the organisation at the time. Similarly, among his peers, Alan Shearer’s withering anger makes him an outlier. Even within the agenda-free confines of the Match Of The Day studio, he manages to exhibit an anger roughly commensurate with the situation.

There are also journalists who have routinely thrown sticks and stones. The Times’ George Caulkin has been consistently honest and excellent over the years, while our own Daniel Storey has written many strong pieces condemning the route Newcastle United have taken. But elsewhere it’s surprisingly quiet.

Picture the scene: Newcastle have slumped to another insipid defeat during a televised game and the pundits are gathered in front of the cameras, constructing the post-mortem. In many a season gone by, the club’s on-pitch failings have been directly attributable to under-investment or a failure to address obvious positional weaknesses. More often than not, though, those issues are skirted around in favour of something less accusatory. A bad tactic, perhaps, or a poor refereeing decision.

What you don’t hear, which you do in every other place where Newcastle discussions regularly occur, is people wondering aloud about the bigger picture: how did Joe Kinnear, Alan Pardew, John Carver get this job? Where is the money from the sale of Yohan Cabaye? Why is more not being done to keep Rafael Benitez at the club?

It’s especially strange when it’s considered how often such questions are asked of other clubs. In some instances, that can be explained by those teams’ involvement in title races or battles for the European places. How often, for instance, is Daniel Levy’s ambition questioned and how regularly, particularly in the last year, have those same pundits speculated publicly about Roman Abramovich’s commitment to Chelsea? Conversely, with Newcastle there’s always a different energy in the room – a silent, invisible something which has to be talked around and which leaves ex-professionals and presenters nervously playing with their hands and shifting awkwardly in their seats.

And when they aren’t tongue-tied, they make remarks which bear no scrutiny whatsoever. Rio Ferdinand’s infamous, on-air defence of Ashley is the most prominent example – that came back in January – but Richard Keys continues to peddle his own bizarre take on the situation, possibly to be provocative, but more likely because he’s bound by this same, nebulous omerta.

‘The owner here doesn’t share my ambition (so I’m off to China for £12m/year)’ Rafa Benitez. ‘I couldn’t be more proud to manage this club. It’s my club. It was my Dad’s club’ Steve Bruce. I hope the Toon Army eventually works it out. Get behind your team today guys. 👍🏼👍🏼👍🏼.

— Richard Keys (@richardajkeys) August 11, 2019

Often, it’s more than silence and involves the habit of portraying the supporters in a negative light – as an army of modern football caricatures, who can never be satisfied by any level of investment. Within those conversations, Ashley is almost portrayed as a hero character, and as the long-suffering custodian selflessly labouring on behalf of those who can never understand the complexities of ownership.

He’s allowed to wear that costume, too. The most recent interview with him actually read like a press release. It was thousands of words built on unchallenged half-truths and false-equivalencies. It was a rambling page of feigned self-pity, during which none of the pertinent questions were answered and no journalistic challenge seemed to be offered. It was applauded, of course, because football writing culture dictates that any interview is now a good one, but it would have been better had it never been published.

From a supporters’ perspective that’s certainly true; they probably could have done without another affront to their intelligence.

So what is this? Not a conspiracy, but one of those bizarre curiosities that nobody ever seems able to explain. Like Piers Morgan being pally with all of those famous people who seem to be otherwise decent. It doesn’t seem logically right and, as a result, implies a sort of sub-text.

On the first day of the season, thousands of Newcastle fans boycotted the game against Arsenal. It was the manifestation of years of dissatisfaction and widely-held consensus over how their club is being run. Given how rare that sort of uniformity is and how long it has been sustained, is it not incredibly strange that, even now, those supporters are drawing little more than bemused smirks and disingenuous rhetoric from the game’s talking heads?

 

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