Soccer | PREMIER REPORT

Managers find the going tough at Ashley's Newcastle

by Christopher Davies

Last summer I was having lunch in a restaurant in London’s West End with two friends who work in the legal profession. A client — they are partners in a practice — noticed the familiar faces and came in.

We were introduced and for reasons which will become obvious, I was just “Christopher,” the client assuming I, too, was a solicitor.

The client was Mike Ashley, the owner of Newcastle United who does not speak to the media — knowingly, anyway. For an hour Ashley spoke about Newcastle with a passion that would have surprised those in the Toon Army who consider him little more than the godfather of the cockney mafia running the club.

A billionaire through his company Sports Direct, Ashley paid £135 million for Newcastle eight years ago. He has subsequently loaned the club roughly the same at zero interest and thanks to Ashley, Newcastle is on solid financial footing.

Ashley could not understand why the fans are so against him when he has done so much for the club. Ironically, it is basically because Ashley runs Newcastle like a business which has made him so unpopular on Tyneside. They want his money, but not his business plan.

The key person in Ashley’s set-up at St. James’ Park is head scout Graham Carr, who has worked the French and Dutch markets superbly, bringing in young, virtually unknown players at bargain prices and subsequently selling them on for top dollar.

Herein lies the problem with Newcastle managers who are not always consulted about signings and part of the reason why Kevin Keegan and, now, Alan Pardew quit.

Pardew preferred to return to Crystal Palace, where he was a player, than remain at Newcastle where there is far greater potential yet the underachieving club’s last major domestic honor was the F.A. Cup in 1955 when Elvis Presley made his TV debut and “Rock Around The Clock” by Bill Haley & The Comets was No. 1.

A man not lacking confidence or ego, Pardew has done as well as he could under the circumstances at Newcastle where the fans never really took to him, probably because he wasn’t a Geordie. It was an uneasy marriage and if the divorce was never going to be a surprise, the timing was.

In the program for Newcastle’s Boxing Day 3-3 draw against Burnley, there was an eight-page review of 2014 without a single mention of Pardew, who was airbrushed from history within days.

Ashley, a man who has twice appointed Joe Kinnear as manager, is impossible to second-guess, but whoever he is, Pardew’s successor will have to work within the Ashley restrictions as a tracksuit head coach.

John Carver, Pardew’s assistant, knows the Ashley system well and would suit an owner who does not tolerate criticism from those he employs.

Meanwhile, former Palace manager Tony Pulis has taken over from Alan Irvine, who was sacked by West Bromwich earlier this week. Chairman Jeremy Peace, like Ashley, keeps his books well-balanced though some would say this is achieved by taking the cheapest option.

Peace was no doubt swayed by the fact Pulis has never been relegated as a manager, though the Welshman is Albion’s fourth head coach in a year and ninth in just under four years.

West Brom will retain its continental structure whereby Pulis will work with technical director Terry Burton and sporting director Richard Garlick, who in turn report to Peace.

The days of the traditional English manager are rapidly disappearing.

* * *

IT MAY BE difficult to justify calling a player who has won the Champions League, Europa League, the F.A. Cup, two European Championships, one World Cup and 110 caps for Spain a failure.

Yet as Fernando Torres returns to his roots at Atletico Madrid, he can reflect on an extraordinary career where people tend to remember the lows and forget the highs.

The good times were a few years ago and it is the recent memories that are freshest to recall. Torres deserves to be remembered in a better light, though his difficult days at Chelsea leave an indelible picture of a non-scoring striker who at times struggled to even look ordinary.

After joining Liverpool from Atletico in 2007 he became the fastest player in Liverpool history to score 50 league goals.

So where did it go wrong for Torres?

Before the 2010 World Cup he underwent two knee operations — the second in April — in a bid to be fit for South Africa. He was successful and Spain became world champions, but perhaps it was too much, too quickly and the blistering pace that made Torres such a lethal striker had vanished.

Even so, in January 2011 Chelsea paid a British record £50 million for Torres, paying him £175,000 a week. Torres’ strength was having the ball played ahead of him to use his speed, though they rarely used this tactic and the sands of time were catching up with him. The player once Europe’s best striker became the butt of jokes at Stamford Bridge.

Until he joined AC Milan on loan last August, Torres had cost Chelsea nearly £85 million in transfer fee and wages — £1.88 million for each of his 45 goals.

It took Torres 54 minutes to score his first Serie A goal, but in 534 subsequent minutes he did not find the back of the net. In a transfer whose details have yet to be revealed, Milan agreed to sign Torres on a permanent basis, only to immediately loan him to Atletico on an 18-month deal.

Chelsea was just relieved to lose the Spaniard, 30, from its payroll, and while Chelsea and Milan fans have few happy memories of Torres, Atletico supporters have welcomed El Nino like a returning hero.

No club has fonder memories of The Kid than Atletico, though it will take more than love for Torres to regain his form of seven years ago.

* * *

JOSE MOURINHO believes there is a campaign against Chelsea by the referees. In other surprise news, the Vatican confirmed the Pope was Catholic.

True, Chelsea players have been on the wrong end of a few incorrect yellow cards for simulation. On the other hand, Branislav Ivanovic was very fortunately not to be cautioned for diving against West Ham.

Mourinho has been punished more than any other European coach for comments made to or about match officials or technical area misbehavior. If there is any campaign with referees, it is from the Portuguese, not vice versa.

* * *

WIGAN OWNER Dave Whelan has been given a six-week ban from all football-related activities and fined £50,000 by the F.A. for his comments about Chinese and Jewish people.

The Guardian newspaper reported that Whelan used the word “chink” and also said that “Jewish people chase money more than everybody else.”

Whelan said: “If I have upset one person, I apologize.”

If . . . ?!?

Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.

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