Not everywhere, but in some places there are now too many excuses being made for Mike Ashley. Recently, a few too many articles have began with cursory acknowledgements that he’s not the best owner in football, but that not everything that happens at Newcastle can be traced back to him.
The latest burst of this came after the League Cup defeat to Nottingham Forest. It was a feeble loss with little mitigation and – yes – Rafael Benitez must take some responsibility for the attitude and application of his players. He picked the team, they underperformed.
The trouble with isolating blame like that, or distancing an owner from it, is that it ignores that whomever controls a football club ultimately sets its mood. In this particular instance, years of under-investment and acrimony have helped to create a situation in which failure is acceptable. As long as Ashley owns the club and continues to operate it as he has done until this point, there will exist a justifiable, perma-excuse for under-achievement.
Specifically, any criticism of how Newcastle perform in cup competitions has to be tempered with the understanding that, publicly and on more than one occasion, club officials have expressed a complete indifference to those same tournaments. They don’t care; they see them as a threat to Premier League survival.
Within that context, is it still reasonable to take issue with certain players or tactical decisions? Absolutely, but that really isn’t the same as pretending that an hermetic seal exists between the boardroom and the rest of the club. In fact, the moment that mentality takes hold is the specific point at which the effect of corrosive ownership starts to become trivialised.
Majority stakeholders are often physically isolated from the organisations they own. They may be rarely seen, for instance, or communicate only via intentionally opaque statements. The fact remains though that they, courtesy of the culture they create and the scale of ambition they show, are responsible for the environment beneath them. If, for example, they clearly demonstrate that stability and monetisation are their aims then the club in question tends to acquire traits relative to that.
The best way to make that argument, really, is to point out just how few examples of the opposite actually exist – or have done in history: how many times, across all sports, have successful teams appeared in spite of an ownership who aren’t broadly pointed towards success? How have Manchester United done, for instance, since they become a private company, loaded themselves with liabilities, and prioritised commercial growth ahead of on-pitch achieviement? How about Arsenal under Stan Kroenke?
It’s subtle – like an infection in the water supply or toxicity in the air conditioning – but it’s real enough to effect everybody in the building.
There’s a macro and a micro here, of course there is, but Ashley’s influence is not to be understated and nor should it be assumed that anything’s really capable of growing under the cloud that he creates.