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Nov 7, 2009

Time for Mike Ashley to get out of Toon

As hordes of black-and-white disciples trudge up Gallowgate towards the newly crowned sportsdirect.com@St James' Park stadium, that familiar smell of rebellion hangs in the air.

It's a stench that has permeated Mike Ashley's Newcastle United regime since his shock takeover in the summer of 2007. We had no idea who he was back then and few people cared. He wasn't Freddy Shepherd.

Flash forward two years and we have learnt all too much about the man and his fundamentally flawed modus operandi. And if ever a week acutely demonstrated why Ashley is reviled on Tyneside, this was it.

His latest brainwave is to attach sponsorship to the ground that has hosted Newcastle games since 1892 and turn it into a clumsy slogan that sounds more like a spam email address than an advert. It's the first football ground in history where you have to remove a hyperlink after you've typed it into a computer.

It certainly is a unique way to do business: pluck a feverishly unpopular idea from thin air and then attach the name of your own business to it. For his next trick, perhaps he'll auction the club's, admittedly small, clutch of trophies off on eBay to the highest bidder.

But then this is the man who presided over the Magpies' relegation from the Premier League for the first time in 17 years as well as hiring and snubbing two Geordie messiahs, signing a player as a 'favour' to a South American agent, appointing the disastrous Joe Kinnear and Dennis Wise, admitting to publicly lying to supporters and putting the club up for sale twice and both times having to take it off the market.

Fans who have long since sunk into apathy at the tainted regime have had the fire stoked in them again once more by Ashley's latest gimmick. In the Strawberry pub before the game, there is anger that once again the rest of the country is laughing at Newcastle. It's a feeling we've grown accustomed to.

The news was despatched in predictably hapless fashion by managing director Derek Llambias. He offered "sportsdirect.com@St James' Park stadium" as an example of how the sponsorship could work. The following day, that title was confirmed as the official new name.

Then, with a straight face, he went on to decry the amount of "negativity" around the club, completely ignoring the fact that he and Ashley themselves had caused most, if not all, of it.

Not many fans hailed Chris Hughton's appointment as manager as a step in the right direction either but it is hard to quibble with results on the pitch.

The former Spurs coach deserves credit for fashioning a coherent unit out of the shapeless mess that was relegation, and for leading them to the top of the table.

It's not that the team are playing particularly well - it's just that it turns out that the same scratchy level of performance Newcastle were turning in week in and week out in the Premier League is good enough to scrape past most opponents in the Championship.

Their commitment to the cause cannot be doubted either, and the fans are delighted at seeing young, local lads like Steven Taylor and Andy Carroll straining every sinew to take us back up.

The last time I watched a game at St James' was back in May when Newcastle, led by Alan Shearer, beat Middlesbrough 3-1. It was a classic Tyneside night, bursting with atmosphere and brimming with Geordie pride.

Despite those vital three points, Newcastle couldn't avoid the drop. Shearer was then dumped like a bad smell despite Ashley describing the former England striker's appointment as the "best decision he ever made".

My patience, which had been sorely wavering during the JFK months, snapped. Every fan has their breaking point and mine had been reached.

Today, the sights and sounds are the same - that buzz on Northumberland Street on a match day. That unmistakable smell is the same, but it isn't Manchester United or Chelsea we are hosting: it is Peterborough United.

No offence to Darren Ferguson's men, but Posh they ain't. They do at least sell out their 2,600 allocation of tickets, something Bolton or Wigan rarely did.

That game itself begins in low-key fashion before Jonas Gutierrez runs from the halfway line and slaloms into the area before slotting his first goal for the club. Three minutes later, Andy Carroll rises highest from a corner to give United the advantage they deserve.

Newcastle look a yard quicker in all departments than their opponents with Alan Smith and Kevin Nolan particularly impressive. After Danny Simpson scores his first goal for the club in the second half to kill the game, attention turns again to the directors' box.

A hearty rendition of "Stand up for St James' Park" attracts a round of applause before a roar of approval greets a banner unfurled at the Gallowgate End that reads: "Not wanted @ St James' Park." Abuse rains down on the over-zealous stewards who escort the instigator out of the ground and the game ends with more pleas for Ashley to "Get out of our club".

Three points are secured and a two point lead at the top is maintained but Newcastle is not a club fully united. Not until Ashley finally leaves will there be harmony @ St James Park.

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