Monday, December 06, 2010


Superb article by George Caulkin who in my opinion is the best sports writer out there.

Source: The Times

Having spent time in the company of Derek Llambias, I can confirm the following: he does not have cloven hooves and a forked tail. Having listened to him discuss his ambitions for Newcastle United, I know that there is more to the club's managing director than the one-dimensional, cockney mafia, wrecking-ball stereotype.

In a lengthy chat at St James' Park earlier this season, Llambias was engaging and witty, interesting and provocative. I came away from the meeting gratified that some context had finally been given to Mike Ashley's tenure on Barrack Road, although there was plenty which continued to offer discomfort. This is not a straightforward or simplistic regime.

Chief amongst that was the attitude towards Chris Hughton, a manager who had restored stability to the Newcastle dug-out and, at one of the most febrile points in the club's recent history, led them back to the Barclays Premier League. But, in effect, Hughton had been placed on trial.

That had not been the expectation. After all the hyperbole and disruption which was a continual feature during the brief interregnums of Kevin Keegan, Joe Kinnear and Alan Shearer, Ashley appeared to have stumbled upon a manager he could do business with. A manager who could fit into his system and work with it.

There were disputes and disagreements, of course - there are at every club - but having been appointed as first-team coach under Keegan, Hughton was open-eyed about the challenge and, in successive transfer windows, eked out limited resources from his notoriously unpredictable employer. A balance seemed to have been found.

On the pitch, Newcastle were hardworking and unified, off it Hughton was the figurehead - quiet and undemonstrative. Llambias and Ashley allowed him to speak for the club and while, in truth, he said very little, that deflective approach allowed Newcastle to rebuild away from an intrusive spotlight.

Yet promotion did not bring Hughton any reward. Unconvinced by his record in the transfer market and suspicious of the trust he placed in his players, Ashley viewed this season as a vast step up in class for his employee. No contract extension was offered because he and Llambias believed that it was incumbent on Hughton to prove himself.

There would have been some logic there if it did not run so counter to a simple footballing truth - stability flows from the manager. Newcastle the city needs little excuse to wallow in rumour (socialising and sport remain indelibly linked) and the uncertainty infiltrated every area of the club.

It had taken Hughton and the input of his senior players - who came together in the aftermath of relegation, determined to rectify matters - to bring purpose back to Tyneside, yet Ashley viewed it as well-paid prima donnas doing what they should. A tiff over bonus payments hardened opinions on both sides, with Llambias regarding it as further evidence that Hughton was not in control of his domain.

(For the record, it is a risible suggestion. While Hughton went out on a limb to continue picking Andy Carroll during the height of the striker's off-field notoriety, he has also dropped influential figures such as Michael Owen, Joey Barton and Alan Smith. He retained the respect and affection of players because he behaved towards them with honesty and integrity).

From the perspective of directors with a history in retailing, the bonus system was as antiquated as the notion of plying millions upon agents was insane. They walked away from transfers when middlemen demanded excessive recompense and while that was understandable, a similar attitude caused internal resentment.

Ashley has often been described as a maverick and it is accurate. The heart of his success with Sports Direct has been aggression and a refusal to conform to the status quo and the same applies to Newcastle. When people told him it was not appropriate to dress casually in the directors' box, he shrugged his shoulders and wore his jeans. He is not interested when people explain that there are some things you do not do in football: why not, he would ask?

Keegan railed against the impertinence, but Ashley and Llambias wanted to speak to their manager on the day of matches and chat about tactics and team selection. When things went wrong, they would shout, swear, threaten and then forget about it afterwards, simply because it was the way they worked. Creative tension can be fruitful, after all.

They recognised early that a financial recalibration was coming to sport as a consequence of recession and Ashley's commercial instincts kicked in: cut back, pare-down, strip away. While supporters would have no cause to notice it, almost every department at St James' is operating with a skeleton staff and tiny margins.

Yet they would argue that something had to change. Football in general and Newcastle in particular - a club which has made millionaires of so many gilded wastrels - could not continue as it was. There should be no more stellar signings at the expense of team-building, but young players, either unknown elsewhere or nearing the end of their contracts, should be sought. Each must have a sell-on value.

The days of managers determining which players would be bought and sold were over; Sir Alex Ferguson is an anachronism. The system introduced under Keegan, when Dennis Wise had responsibility for acquisitions, was tweaked but effectively remained in place, with names being put to Hughton for his approval. Having interviewed him on the day that Hatem Ben Arfa's loan from Marseille was agreed, I know that his participation in the process was not fundamental.

Hughton's great strength - the serenity which allowed him to both reject attention and soak up pressure - was, peversely, seen as a weakness. With a more experienced, high-profile manager, Newcastle might earn more television revenue, although it is precisely that approach which has repeatedly undermined the club.

It was within this prism that Ashley and Llambias have had designs to re-name Newcastle's iconic stadium. In a drive towards self-sufficiency and at a time when no area for raising revenue could be ignored, it was, at least, an understandable notion, although as with much else, it was explained clumsily and with minimal detail.

They are combative people, but they have a warmer side. There have been plenty of arguments with supporters in bars and restaurants, but they have often concluded with invitations to lunch in the boardroom, where children are encouraged to roam freely, before home games. Yet it is not something which people hear about.

Their reluctance to engage with their public is a longstanding source of frustration. It is also baffling. While Llambias would say that Ashley has never been given a chance by fans and the media, it is more accurate to say that he has rejected it. He arrived with one great strength - he was not Freddy Shepherd, the former chairman - yet neither he nor Llambias has ever held a press conference, so their story has never been told.

That story is genuinely interesting. The men who run Newcastle have compelling ideas, some of which challenge an insular world and others which feel misguided and contradictory. They would laugh if you told them they must be a nightmare to work for and agree wholeheartedly.

I know what they want. They want a club which funds itself. They want that because it continues to drain Ashley's pockets and while there are no plans in place to sell Newcastle, if a firm and reasonable offer came along, they would consider it readily. Self-efficiency would make it a far more attractive proposition. And if that isn't what they want, then why the hell don't they come out and say so.

What I don't know is what more they expect. For all their concerns with Hughton and a sequence of five matches without victory, do they really suppose that anybody else could have done much better? Do they really think that a return to upheaval will benefit Newcastle at a crucial juncture in their history? Will anybody else prove more malleable? Question: what do they want from a manager?

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