This is what Freddy Shepherd could teach Mike Ashley about communication at Newcastle United

Writer Miles Starforth has reported on Newcastle United for 20 years. This is the latest in a series of recollections and anecdotes from his time covering the club.

Wednesday, 29th April 2020, 1:00 pm
Updated Wednesday, 29th April 2020, 1:39 pm

The first edition of the newspaper hadn’t long been on the streets when the desk phone rang.

I can’t remember the entire conversation, but I do recall a blunt message from the caller.

At the other end of the line had been an angry Freddy Shepherd, then the chairman of Newcastle United.

Shepherd – who sadly passed away in 2017 – had read an interview I’d done with Olivier Bernard in which the defender had spoken candidly about the contract dispute which would eventually lead to his departure from St James’s Park just over 15 years ago. Shepherd hadn’t liked it, and had reached for the telephone to let me know.

But I liked that. Shepherd didn’t hide behind a press officer.

And there was a dialogue between Shepherd – who was making the key, day-to-day decisions at the club – and the newspaper, even though, at times, the relationship was fractious. That was important.

Things have been very different under Mike Ashley’s ownership. There isn’t a relationship between him and the journalists covering the club, who crane their necks backwards in the press box each game to see if has made a rare appearance at St James’s Park.

Newcastle United owner Mike Ashley and managing director Lee Charnley.

Ashley has never spoken to the print reporters who cover United week in, week out, while managing director Lee Charnley – who has been running the club since 2014 – rarely speaks publicly.

As such, communication has been a problem, a big problem, though that’s not a criticism of the club’s dedicated and hard-working media staff. Communication has got to come from the top.

All too often, it’s been left to managers to put their heads above the parapets and explain, and justify, off-the-field decisions that they haven’t made and which they, privately, disagree with. Players have also faced awkward questions.

Ashley and Charnley, of course, would have been in a better position to answer the questions about the club’s transfer policy and direction which have punctuated press conferences for more than a decade.

NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE, ENGLAND - MARCH 05: Newcastle manager Steve McClaren (l) and coach Paul Simpson react during the Barclays Premier League match between Newcastle United at A.F.C. Bournemouth at St James' Park on March 5 in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

Steve McClaren, appointed as head coach in the summer of 2015, should have been in a position to answer them given that he was on curious a three-man board with Charnley and Fairs Cup-winning captain Bob Moncur.

However, McClaren, acrobatically dodged just about every question of transfers and transfer policy in his nine-month stay. It was beyond awkward at times as McClaren ummed and ahhed week after week.

The ill-fated McClaren era had kicked off with talk of better communication. Paul Simpson, his assistant, spoke of a new spirit of openness while on tour in the USA with the club. Simpson said: “We don’t have any secrets, and we want to be open about the way we do things.”

There were emails from Charnley and McClaren to fans in the early months, but it didn’t last. The season unravelled, and, eventually, McClaren was replaced with Rafa Benitez.

Of course, Benitez – who became involved in a series of stand-offs with Ashley over transfers and his contract – was one manager that wouldn’t stay on-message, though he did choose his words very carefully. You often had to read between the lines.

A member of the late Sir Bobby Robson’s staff once stressed to me, years after he left St James’s Park, the importance of accountability at a football club, and he was right.

And that’s something that a new owner – financier Amanda Staveley, backed by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund and the billionaire property investors David and Simon Reuben, has agreed a £300million deal for the club which with the Premier League for approval – must address at St James’s Park.

Yes, the club is a privately-owned business, but there’s a need for transparency and accountability given that it’s an integral part of the city. The club means so much to so many people.

How much has it meant to Ashley? Maybe we’ll never know.

The bottom line, certainly, is important to the billionaire, who seemingly bought the club on a whim all those years ago.

For at time there was a misconception on Tyneside that Keith Bishop, a close associate of Ashley’s, was briefing journalists. Positive stories were seen as being “planted” by Bishop, who owns a public relations consultancy.

That was never the case, though, unquestionably, it would have been useful had Bishop – who used to travel up to Tyneside to sit in on Rafa Benitez’s press conferences – briefed journalists about Ashley’s thinking and his plans. Journalists have had to go elsewhere for answers.

Benitez, certainly, was more open when Bishop wasn’t sat, silently, at the back of the room.

Steve Bruce, Benitez’s successor, has tried to be open and honest since day one when he joined up with the squad in China last summer, and we’ve had a small insight into his own dealings with Ashley, who put the club up for sale in late 2017.

Ashley’s tenure, however, is all but over as we wait for the restart of the Premier League, which was suspended last month with nine games left to play due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Hopefully, the club’s next owners will have learned lessons from Ashley’s time as owner.

And one of those lessons is the need for better communication from the very top.

Read what Craig Bellamy said after scoring against Sunderland here