The Blog

St James' Park - Why Newcastle Fans Renamed Mike Ashley Years Ago

St James' Park sits at the top of Newcastle like a colossus. I can see it from my window as I type. To a football-mad region, it is reassuring presence - a 52,409 seat monument that stands strong in the whirlwind of madness and mismanagement that has engulfed the club for decades.

In one sense it's fair enough - most Newcastle fans changed Mike Ashley's name years ago.

True the commercial gains were slim, but referring to our portly owner by the initials 'FC' - something an appreciation of terrace humour will help decipher - has given bruised Geordies some small sense of revenge against a man who has found several inventive and sadistic ways to insult us since he arrived in 2007.

First though - in the interest of fending off the 'hysterical Geordies' tag beloved of those who once watched a fat man in a black and white strip cry on Sky Sports News - the positives.

Mike Ashley's tenure of Newcastle United has so far been a game of two halves, with us spiralling like a dazed moth towards the relegation carpet on the stroke of half time. The litany of scuffed shots, own goals and red cards that took us to that point we will recount shortly, but it's fair to say that since then, the big lad's not played too badly.

He had the good sense to sit back during our wilderness year in Championship and let the then-manager Chris Hughton get on with what was to be an emphatic and immediate return to the Premiership. Hughton was backed in clearing out dead wood from the squad and retaining those with the requisite passion to embark on a record-breaking, pride-restoring promotion campaign.

Since then, a refreshingly austere but shrewd transfer policy has seen the club reinvented from one that hands out inflated contracts to mercenaries like Michael Owen to one that cherry picks the likes of Cheick Tioté and Yohan Cabaye from Europe for bargain prices. His unpopular gambles - selling the club's top scorers and replacing an extremely popular manager with the unfancied Alan Pardew - were painful, but have been vindicated by our staggering league position and defensive record this season.

Since we were relegated, in other words, 'FC' has been playing so well he was almost at a point where the Toon Army could imagine singing his name from the stands. Which makes his decision to rename St James' Park 'Sports Direct Arena' all the more depressing.

Depressing, but not at all surprising. Ashley's first year in charge of the Toon was reminiscent of an unpopular lad at school trying too hard to fit in. Turning up in the Bigg Market and 'getting a round in', downing pints in the stadium and sitting with the away fans at Sunderland were all cringe-worthy attempts to endear himself to Geordies that accumulated in the jaw-dropping decision to reinstall Kevin Keegan as the club's manager in January 2008.

Keegan's appointment was a growing success on the pitch, but a total disaster off it. Undermined by Ashley's bizarre decision to put Dennis Wise in charge of the club's player transfers, Keegan left under a cloud of acrimony nine months later. A premier league arbitration panel found the club guilty of "constructive dismissal". One local hero had been humiliated.

A short, farcical Joe Kinnear 'era' later, Ashley turned his targets on Alan Shearer. The former Toon captain and record goal scorer was parachuted in that April to save us from relegation - despite having no qualifications for the job - and was then discarded when, unsurprisingly, he failed. Rather than being backed and given a proper shot at the job, big Mike unceremoniously dumped him, leaving most fans wondering what exactly the point had been. That was two local heroes humiliated, leading many to fear Ashley's next move would be breaking into Peter Beardsley's house and urinating on his carpet.

Next up was the astonishingly undignified attempt to sell off the club, in which Ashley even went as far as to set up an email address for 'interested parties' that was duly and gleefully spammed by ecstatic Sunderland supporters. It was after that failed attempt that an effort to change the stadium name - another kick in the teeth - was first made. We were now to visit the ' @ St James' Park Stadium'.

Mike Ashley's supporters point out that he has done much to stabilise the club's finances, and that much is true. Ostensibly it's the reason for doing away with almost 120 years of history by scrapping the name St. James' Park altogether.

But as Joey Barton pointed out on Twitter this week, all it really proves is that Mike Ashley knows the price of everything but the value of nothing. St James' Park sits at the top of Newcastle like a colossus. I can see it from my window as I type. To a football-mad region, it is reassuring presence - a 52,409 seat monument that stands strong in the whirlwind of madness and mismanagement that has engulfed the club for decades.

Selling off its name for financial profit is the act of a man who never has and never will understand what separates football from the cold, calculated world of business. Paradoxically, pride, passion and regional identity are the things that sustain football and the things its vultures tear their lumps from. Mike Ashley has shown that, despite our recent success, he remains one of those vultures, circling menacingly above the crowd he once tried so hard to join.

Newcastle fans won't ever stop travelling in their thousands to the Sports Direct Arena, but perhaps we can ignore the match day programmes, replica shirts and over-priced stadium pints - and communicate with 'FC' in the only language he understands.