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Sep 20, 2008

Ashley hides away as Zola arrives

West Ham United 3-1 Newcastle

Newcastle owner Mike Ashley braved his army of enemies to watch the team who have turned his life into a living hell at Upton Park.

The cynics among the black and white hoards who travelled south on a glorious autumnal afternoon would be quick to suggest the only reason he was on hand at this game was because it happened to be staged in the city he calls home, yet Ashley was not foolish enough to don his Newcastle shirt and resume the position he has enjoyed among the Geordie faithful for the last year.

Instead, Ashley hid away in a private box surrounded by some of the characters who have turned his dream of owning a football club into an abject nightmare. Such a shadowy existence was not what he had in mind when he splashed out what he claims to be £250m to buy this permanently flawed institution.

It seemed fitting that his demise from terrace regular to recluse was confirmed at the home of a club whose own management decisions have been at the centre of attention in the first few weeks of the season.

In many ways, West Ham and Newcastle have more in common than they would like. Both are well supported and famous for believing they are 'big' clubs, while failing to win trophies to back up their boasts. Now have the distinction of being at the centre of controversies over their determination to employ Sporting Directors.

Manager Alan Curbishley walked out of West Ham in the same week that Kevin Keegan left his post at Newcastle over their refusal to work in an environment where they were not in charge of transfer policy and regular readers of The Insider will know this reporter has long predicted gloom for clubs who follow such a policy.

Tottenham, West Ham and Newcastle have suffered most at the start of this Premier League campaign and all three have a board determined to back the opinions of a shadowy insider rather than the manager they employed to make key decisions.

You would think that the walkouts of Keegan and Curbishley would have highlighted the folly of forcing coaches to fit in with men they hardly know in the pursuit of success. The only way this system can work is if the manager appoints the 'sporting director' himself.

The league table may suggest Tottenham's plight is the most bleak of this misguided trio, yet the reality may be that Newcastle are the club in deepest trouble. Owner Ashley has hoisted the white flag and vowed to sell the club he has rapidly fallen out with and after 36 minutes of this game in London's East End, he must have wondered why he bothered to put his life on the line by coming to this game at all.

Poor old Chris Hughton has been lumbered with the task of trying to steady a Newcastle ship rocking uncontrollably and while the former Tottenham assistant boss is an honest coach with a fine reputation, it would take a messiah with even more power than the departed Keegan to succeed in this task.

Hughton did not sign up for the starring role in this soap opera, yet as no manager will fill the void while Ashley is attempting to offload the club to the highest bidder, he may be left to muddle through for some time yet.

It took just seven minutes for West Ham to expose Newcastle's defensive flaws once again on a day when Gianfranco Zola slipped into the Upton Park hot-seat with little ceremony. The Italian was something of a controversial pick to succeed Curbishley as West Ham boss, yet the Hammers had to go the foreign route as no English manager would work with a sporting director who hires and sells players without telling the manager about it.

A decent display against a Newcastle side there for the taking was always likely to help Zola's cause and he got just that. David Di Michele sneaked into West Ham unnoticed on transfer deadline day, but he announced his arrival in a grand manner as he got an early shot in on goal and they received a huge helping of luck as his effort deflected over Shay Given to open the scoring after seven minutes.

His second was far more impressive from a West Ham perspective as more woeful defending gave the Italian on loan from Torino way too much space in the box and he lashed home with clinical ease.

You wonder what Hughton could say to his bemused and confused troops at the interval to raise their spirits as the pressroom gossip was all about the never-ending Newcastle saga reaching rock bottom. Like their deluded fans, some members of the travelling Newcastle media hang onto the fantasy that the club they follow is a giant waiting to waken up, with the notion that they are a minnow in Premier League terms hard for them to appreciate.

Vast support is not the mark of a 'big' club and when you have to go back to 1955 to remember their last major domestic trophy, Newcastle's real status in the game is revealed. Living in the North East cocoon allows all concerned to believe the good times from the 1950s are about to roll back, but don't hold your breath.

Matthew Etherington put the Toon Army out of their misery with the third goal eight minutes after the re-start as Di Michele's scuffed shot fell kindly into the path of the ex-Tottenham winger and the unfortunate Hughton was thrust forward as the apologist for this Newcastle farce.

"We knew it was going to be a tough task," he said. "We had a centre half in midfield and that is all we could do with the players we had. Conceding a goal so early in the game was the worst scenario for us. The goals we have given away are soft and you can't afford that against a team with so many attacking options.

"The second half was better and we put in a spirited performance. I can't fault the players application. We all appreciate this situation is very difficult and they are all trying their best. It's not easy for any of us."

Michael Owen showed a moment of clash as he burst past Lucas Neill and gave the Newcastle fans something to cheer about with a fine consolation goal, but Zola could not complain as he reflected on his opening day as a manager.

"We worked so hard all week and this win means so much to us," said a smiling West Ham boss. "We played with a 4-3-3 formation and this seemed to work well. The system gives us some mobility, but they also have to work hard. I'm pleased for David Di Michele to start with two goals and I must say Carlton Cole and Matthew Etherington caused a lot of problems. It is a fantastic start. I couldn't ask for more."

Newcastle fans will tell you that Tottenham are Mike Ashley's favourite club so you wonder whether he will return to St James' Park for the Carling Cup clash between those two sides on Wednesday night.

Some may expect him to show up at that game wearing a Tottenham shirt. Anything is possible in this persistently depressing football drama.

MAN OF THE MATCH: David Di Michele

The Italian was impressive as he marked his West Ham debut in the grand manner. He should serve the Hammers well during his loan spell and could have scored more than the two he finished with.

CHANT OF THE DAY: West Ham fans have always had a sense of humour and the Newcastle followers will not have appreciated the jibe of 'there's only one Mike Ashley'.

HAMMERS SPONSORS: West Ham's lack of a shirt sponsor was solved as the club emblazoned huge squad numbers where the XL logo used to be. It proved highly useful for those of us in the press box.

ZOLA WATCH: The little Italian bounced around on the touchline with real zest on his debut as a Premier League manager. He could not have wished for a better start.

NEWCASTLE VERDICT: The Newcastle team sheet looks half decent, with Michael Owen playing just behind new signing Xisco, but their defensive weakness is still a concern. Young David Edgar had a shocker at the back, but it is hardly surprising that these players lack self belief as they play for a club lacking any sense of direction.

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