Newcastle United fans knew the situation was bad. We’ve been telling everybody who would listen that this was coming. Whilst the pundits appeared blind to Steve Bruce’s many weaknesses, game on game we’ve seen the ground work laid by Rafa Benitez unpicked, smashed up and any evidence itever existed is now barely identifiable. Whilst previous managers could point to a lack of investment, Bruce has been allowed to spend lavishly on Callum Wilson, Jamal Lewis, Allain Saint-Maximin and (sigh) Joelinton to name a few of the more expensive arrivals. Perhaps more importantly, he hasn’t had to sell to buy. The squad should be far stronger than it is but it is clear to all that it is under prepared and without a plan.
Newcastle went into Saturday evening’s game with fellow strugglers Brighton on a run of two wins in 19 games. It is relegation form no matter how you try and spin it. Brighton themselves could boast only one home win all season but could at least point to the statistics, which generally showed they were playing well enough to win games but lacking at the crucial moments. What transpired in this supposed “must win” encounter was a pathetic surrender from Bruce’s men, with barely a punch landed and near total domination from the Seagulls.
It seemed like a night where the camel’s back was finally broken. Calls for Bruce to quit are widespread from the local media, with relegation seemingly almost certain should he stay in his post. With an International break giving two weeks to make a change, it is now or never. But the headlines on Sunday morning were quite the opposite. Mike Ashley is backing his man to the bitter end. Why?
A supposedly smart businessman would surely see that paying the alleged £4m compensation to relieve Bruce of his duties is a small price to pay compared to the cost of relegation. However, Mike Ashley doesn’t do things the normal way. I’ve tried to think like Mike Ashley to rationalise the decision.
Theory 1: Change hasn’t worked previously
Newcastle have been relegated twice already during the Ashley regime. On both occasions, the owner rolled the dice to give Alan Shearer and Rafa Benitez 8 and 10 games respectively. Both fell agonisingly short of survival but in other relegation threatened seasons, Ashley rejected the option to replace John Carver and Alan Pardew without suffering relegation.
Whilst in black and white (no pun intended) that looks simple, I would argue had a change been made earlier in both relegation cases survival could have been secured. Benitez finished his attempt with a 6 game unbeaten run, the improvement was clear for all to see but it was too little too late.
Theory 2: Relegation doesn’t worry Ashley and he believes he already has a manager to achieve promotion.
I’ve already mentioned that Newcastle have been relegated twice during Ashley’s tenure but on both occasions, they have bounced back with promotion (as Champions no less) at the first attempt. It is possible that relegation doesn’t really scare Ashley as he believes he can spend a moderate amount to buy Championship players (see Dwight Gayle, Matt Ritchie and others) to secure an instant return. Bruce is seen as somewhat of a promotion specialist having achieved that four times but it is clear that his best days are behind him and if this side is relegated a fresh face must be in the dugout.
Ashley is clearly not a football man but this would be a new level of delusion if he sticks with Bruce to spearhead a promotion push.
Theory 3: Ashley believes Bruce’s bluster
Throughout this awful run of form, Bruce has blamed just about everyone and everything possible. Injuries have been a problem – as they have been for everybody – but there’s a chance that Ashley really does believe that the return of Wilson, Saint-Maximin and Almiron will lead to an upturn in fortunes. There’s also the Covid outbreak which would effect any team but does Ashley feel sympathy for Bruce having to cope with such an unusual issue during his “dream job”?
Missing those three for the last few games has obviously been a problem but not changing the system to suit the personnel you do have is just bad management. The fixtures after the International break are not particularly kind and even if we are at full strength, it’s doubtful it’ll be enough to overcome the opposition. There’s also been the bizarre jettisoning of the Longstaff’s at a time where it was clear we needed to try something different. The players being available doesn’t mean Bruce knows how to fit them into the puzzle.
Theory 4: Ashley has “checked out” and simply doesn’t care.
You could argue that Ashley hasn’t cared about Newcastle United for a long time. He clearly wants to sell to the Amanda Staveley led consortium because they will meet his asking price. That’ll allow Ashley to get out of his pickle without making a loss, which he would absolutely deserve to incur for his mismanagement over the past 13 years. It seems the deal had been all but agreed last year only for the goalposts to be removed at the last minute. If Ashley believe he’ll get his money eventually, does he really care? Is there a clause about the price remaining fixed even if Newcastle are a Championship club?
I can believe he doesn’t care but I find it unlikely that he would stand to get the same price for a Championship club. Not to mention the complications of the search for Premier League approval becoming the EFL approval process. It seems to me that relegation would only complicate at an already muddy situation.
Theory 5: Ashley believes relegation would further his court case
Mike Ashley and Newcastle United are currently taking legal action against the Premier League over the aforementioned takeover not being approved. Whilst thousands of words have already been written on this matter and the potential outcomes, would it further Ashley’s case if the club were relegated?
Ashley will argue that the current economic climate has inhibited his chances to invest in the club and that has resulted in relegation, loss of jobs and goodness know what else. All of which could have been avoided if they had allowed the takeover. It’s a bit of a cheap tactic and an enormous risk but if there’s a chance it’ll land Ashley some compensation, I’m sure he would pursue it. The stance has always been that the court action is not over compensation though and has been to try and secure a path to the takeover being approved but we all know Ashley is motivated by one thing.
Bruce insists he won’t walk away so it’s all down to Ashley (or his advisors) to pull the trigger. I’d love this to be a moot point by the time this is published but I have a feeling we’ll still see Bruce in the dugout come Tottenham at home after the International break. Whether any of my theories are right we may never know but we’ll certainly know whether Ashley should have taken one more gamble by the time the season ends – if not sooner.