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Mike Ashley, Andy Carroll and finding alchemy in the unpredictable

By Mark Douglas on Jul 20, 12 09:59 PM


WHEN Mike Ashley renamed St James' Park after the sportswear company that had turned him into one of Britain's richest men, the menacing warnings that emanated from a wounded Tyneside were stark.

Over a century of history had been tampered with in favour of the crudest form of commercialism but bubbling beneath the backlash, a curious thing happened. Sportsdirect.com recorded more traffic than at any point in the history of its online retail operation.

Ashley has long since learned to embrace the chaos of making difficult decisions, and history tends to bear him out in the long-run. Not necessarily in the short-term - his early struggles at St James' Park were replicated at Sports Direct - but eventually, Ashley has the happy knack of emerging on top.

Quite how that initial anarchy turns into alchemy is the key here. There is something that Ashley does in the meantime that clearly works - and pays off time and time again.

I know what your next question is, but if we could explain exactly what it is that Ashley does then it wouldn't be special. We'd all be doing it, and an unremarkable Ashley would blend into the background without his collection of helicopters and country mansions.

In trying to pin down the motivation for Newcastle's perplexing bid to bring Andy Carroll back, I think I might have accidentally stumbled upon a sniff of the Ashley secret. Talking to someone in the inner circle at St James' Park, we kept returning to one word: unpredictable.

Quite simply, even his closest allies can't really tell you what Ashley is going to do next. They can assume - and Newcastle's business model now runs to a pretty simple blueprint - but every now and then he'll throw you a curve-ball that you didn't see coming.

The pursuit of Carroll certainly qualifies. It is not that the England striker is not a good player - as anyone who saw him first time around will testify, he can be absolutely devastating - but it seems to make little success for Newcastle right now.

For a start, it has veered so far off the path of United's current transfer blueprint that it seems barely credible. Having made such progress by identifying targets whose valuations don't match their ability, it seems strange that he would sanction such a huge transfer - and in a position that United are well served in too.

Scoring goals was not the problem last season. In the first half of a gloriously uplifting campaign they had Demba Ba blazing a trail through top flight defences and when his goals dried up, the mantle was successfully grasped by Papiss Cisse and Hatem Ben Arfa.

From September onwards, you knew that Newcastle had goals in them. By the time they had blossomed into genuine top four contenders after a mid-winter wobble, they were arguably the Premier League's most devastating attacking unit.

If there was a problem, it was in defence. United were hardly porous - they still kept more clean sheets than any team barring Manchester City in those final weeks of the season - but there were times when they looked vulnerable. On the final day of the season there was an unedifying collapse at Everton which seemed to confirm that reinforcements were required.

Confronted with those facts, what does Ashley do? Sanctions a £13million logic-defying bid for a player that he sold for £35million just 16 months previously.

To this correspondent, the acquisition of Carroll makes little sense. It is an exciting development that I would love to see come to pass - if only because there is something intoxicating about a good redemption tale. But while United require a centre-back to bolster their starting XI, I would argue that this is where the priority should lie.

United are a different team from the one that Carroll left, much less one-dimensional and a great deal more nuanced in their approach play. They have players capable of supplying the bullets for Carroll but does anyone on the Gallowgate really want to see Newcastle return to the functional style of Chris Hughton's days?

I'm not convinced it is worth the gamble, but then I belong to a sizeable proportion of the population who you would classify as risk-averse. While Ashley zooms about in his helicopter, I shudder at the thought of stepping into a big, safe and comfortable commercial airliner.

I also would have paid the extra couple of million to sign Gervinho last summer, I wouldn't have cashed in on Carroll at such a crucial stage of the season and I most definitely would have signed a defender in January for insurance.

Ashley did none of the things above and yet Newcastle prospered, so he has earned our trust as he contemplates the next move in the Carroll chase.

Having identified the lucrative middle ground between recklessness and risk, he is entitled to have another go on the transfer roulette wheel. And I rather suspect he enjoys making our heads spin while he's doing it.

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