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Quiet Ashley deserves credit

"It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool, than to open it and remove all doubt.'' - Mark Twain

Newcastle United owner Mike Ashley doesn't have a Twitter account but, if he did, it's fair to presume it might be the famous words of the author of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn that he would be quickest to retweet. Ashley would be applying the maxim to himself, of course, although perhaps he wouldn't be too disappointed if any followers misinterpreted the 'keeping your mouth shut' bit to refer to a certain Joey Barton.

The two have been involved in a high profile spat in recent days that only one has actually publicly engaged in; Barton using the increasingly popular social networking site to garner general support for his plight with a mix of insightful tweets and curious philosophical musings. Ashley, meanwhile, hasn't responded in any personal capacity, and has simply made the player available on a free transfer through the medium of a club statement.

For that, he has been widely pilloried. Barton might be a historically unsavoury character who has seemingly cleaned up his act in recent times, but the mere fact he is talking and his nemeses (included manager Alan Pardew in that group) are not, seems to have garnered him the verdict he is after in the court of public opinion.

Then again, Ashley was hated long before Barton started tailoring his thoughts to a 140-character limit, so maybe he isn't the big winner he appears to think he is. Ashley has never been a man interested in going out of his way to alter the public perception of him. Bar one interview when he bought the club - a 1,644-word statement when his popularity was at its absolute nadir - and a brief update when promotion back to the Premier League was secured, Ashley has steered well clear of any comments that can be directly attributed to him.

That leaves a vacuum others have moved to fill, not that he has been overly concerned. The media can write what they want about him and, well, if the public choose to believe it, then that is just their prerogative.

He can afford to adopt that approach, though, primarily because he is an incredibly successful businessman. Lord Alan Sugar (net worth: £770 million according to this year's Sunday Times Rich List) might be perceived as one of Britain's businesses tycoons as a result of his role on The Apprentice, but Ashley is younger, equally self-made and almost twice as rich (£1.26 billion) - not to mention prospering far more in this recession than his lauded contemporary.

Such a Midas touch hasn't entirely transferred itself to football, but a litany of well-documented debacles since buying the club in 2007 (sacking Sam Allardyce, hiring Dennis Wise, sacking Kevin Keegan, hiring an ill Joe Kinnear, tastelessly rebranding the stadium, seeing the club relegated) obscures the good work that appears to have been done more recently.

If the responsibility for relegation fell at his door, then it is only fair that some of the credit for their immediate promotion does too, whether or not he has gone out of his way to claim it.

Prior to the Barton saga, Ashley's most notable decision was the sale of Andy Carroll - but few can seriously argue that £35 million wasn't a Godfather offer, even for a home-grown crowd favourite.

Before that though, Ashley faced what was, at best, some serious second guessing and at worst outright derision for his decision to sack manager Chris Hughton (who, incidentally, was able to take most of the credit for the Championship title win as Ashley remained firmly in the shadows) and replace him with Alan Pardew when Newcastle were just clear of the relegation zone after a solid start on their return to the Premier League.

Critics were quick to say Ashley was unnecessarily meddling with a previously successful formula. Equally, however, he could be said to have acted quickly to deal with a slowly-emerging problem before it became too late. Whichever is true, history has shown there shouldn't have been such a rush to condemn what now looks an incredibly proactive piece of leadership.

Back in 2008, when Ashley sacked Kevin Keegan and his popularity with the fans got to a level that became almost untenable, he underlined his transfer ethos in one of the few public comments he has made about the club.

"My plan and my strategy for Newcastle is different. It has to be," Ashley said in a statement. "Arsenal is the shining example in England of a sustainable business model. It takes time. Newcastle has therefore set up an extensive scouting system. We look for young players, for players in foreign leagues who everyone does not know about. We search high and low looking for value, for potential that we can bring on and for players who will allow Newcastle to compete at the very highest level but who don't cost the earth."

Barton himself is a great example of the policy - the club getting at least two productive seasons out of a player everyone else had previously written off. Barton is happy to perpetuate the idea that he has done the club a great service but in reality the opposite is true - Newcastle kept his career alive after his most serious run-in with the law. Now he is no longer repaying their faith, indeed actively throwing it back in their face, they have every right to dispose of him.

There is talk about the transfer fee that the club are forgoing in their desperation to offload Barton, but that too doesn't stand up to much scrutiny. If the club were happy to let the 29-year-old (on £60,000-a-week) leave on a free next year, then logic holds that they are prepared to do so this summer as well. Considering his contract status, ability and age, Barton might command between £2-5 million on the open market, but the club would already be saving just north of £3 million in wages if he departs right now, not to mention 12 months without a disruptive presence in their midst.

Sentimentality is for fans; pragmatism is for those who control the chequebook. If Ashley and his confidantes don't believe Barton offers continued value at the terms he is demanding; well, that's their right.

Top scorer Kevin Nolan, too, fell victim to this and was replaced by Yohan Cabaye. The French international, who has a track record of both goals and assists along with defensive diligence, has joined as Nolan's de facto replacement - ensuring the club have transplanted a younger, more talented and equally versatile player into the midfield at no overall financial cost (the transfer fee may be marginally higher, but the wages are almost certainly not).

Elsewhere, there is hope in youth. Talented French youngster Mehdi Abeid was acquired in the summer and looks primed to flourish, while the likes of Haris Vuckic, Shane Ferguson (after the faltering Nile Ranger experiment) and Tim Krul could be set for growing roles this season, while further reinforcements are still to come. Carroll may be gone, but then when has Arsene Wenger ever sold an authentically homegrown academy product for £35 million?

Yes, the squad still looks thin - Carroll should certainly have been replaced more adequately, not just with Demba Ba - and not all the recent youth punts have paid off. The US tour debacle (which saw Barton and Ranger embarrassingly denied visas) was another reminder that foot-in-mouth syndrome has not left Tyneside completely.

Jose Enrique's exit might see the club lose their best player for the second time in as many transfer windows, but the reported £8 million fee involved would represent decent business for a talented player who could have left the club while they were languishing in the Championship for a fraction of that.

Fans may also moan that all the Carroll money has not been reinvested (as was promised, albeit in the heat of the moment), but then again the club returned losses of nearly £70 million in the two seasons between 2008 and 2010. Presumably the fans also want European football, yet - under the soon-to-be-introduced UEFA Financial Fair Play rules - those figures would make them ineligible. Money has to be saved somewhere.

Ashley's controversies are quickly jumped upon, but any positive action slides under the radar. Least of all the fact it is down to him, and him alone, that the club is on any sort of financial footing. That's more than can be said of many clubs in the division, and it has come at a personal cost that makes the Carroll money look like a drop in the ocean.

"I paid £134 million out of my own pocket for the club. I then poured another £110 million in not to pay off the debt but just to reduce it," Ashley revealed three years ago, even before the financial hit of relegation was heading at him like a freight train. "The club is still in debt. Even worse than that, the club still owes millions of pounds in transfer fees.

"I was left with a club that owed millions and part of whose future had been mortgaged. Unless I had come into the club then it might not have survived. Before I had spent a penny on wages or buying players Newcastle United had cost me more than a quarter of a billion pounds."

The mathematically astute will realise that's nearly 20% of Ashley's current net worth. That's a considerable commitment whoever you are. As of last summer "every effort will be made by the board to achieve a 'break even' financial situation by 2015", but in the meantime Ashley is plugging a lot of gaps.

Barton's case might have merit - then again it might not. But just because Ashley isn't arguing his case, does not mean he doesn't have one too.

• Follow me on Twitter: @alexdimond


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