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With no ambition and fans revolting, Newcastle in freefall and risks being relegated

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LONDON — There was a time when Newcastle owner Mike Ashley gave the impression, in public at least, that he cared about the team and that it was more than just a profit-making offshoot of his sports retail empire.

It wasn't just the way Ashley would squeeze into a tightly-fitting Newcastle jersey and down pints of beers with supporters, or the crowd-pleasing managerial appointments of club legends Kevin Keegan and Alan Shearer.

Even when the "for sale" sign was put up at St. James' Park in 2008, after the relationship with fans soured, the billionaire owner of Sports Direct let it be known that criticism of his ownership was biting.

"I hope that the fans get what they want and that the next owner is someone who can lavish the amount of money on the club that the fans want," Ashley said in rare public comments.

Back then, the tycoon was blunt in a statement: "I am not stupid and have listened to the fans ... you want me out."

Seven years on and the fans are still stuck Ashley, only this time the owner isn't listening to them. Takeover talks collapsed long ago, and so did any sense of ambition at the northeast club, which Ashley bought in 2007 for 134 million pounds (then $270 million).

Now amid fan boycotts of matches, the team is in freefall and could be relegated from the Premier League for the second time in six years unless an alarming decline can be halted.

John Carver's control of the dressing room has been gradually eroding since he took temporary charge of the team in January. It reached a nadir on Saturday after an eighth successive loss when he accused one of his own players — Mike Williamson — of getting sent off on purpose in the 3-0 surrender at Leicester.

There are few more serious accusations that could be leveled against a player by his own manager, and Williamson wasn't happy. In a statement that didn't name the manager, Williamson said: "I would never do anything intentionally to hurt the team or its supporters."

Many fans, however, are accusing Ashley of hurting the club, for failing to reinvest the profit from transfer deals into the team and bring in an experienced manager.

PHOTO: Newcastle United's Daryl Janmaat, left, challenges Leicester City's Jamie Vardy for the ball and is shown a red card by referee Mike Dean during their English Premier League soccer match at the King Power Stadium, Leicester, England, Saturday, May 2, 2015. (Nigel French/PA via AP)       UNITED KINGDOM OUT     -     NO SALES     -     NO ARCHIVES
Newcastle United's Daryl Janmaat, left, challenges Leicester City's Jamie Vardy for the ball and is shown a red card by referee Mike Dean during their English Premier League soccer match at the King Power Stadium, Leicester, England, Saturday, May 2, 2015. (Nigel French/PA via AP) UNITED KINGDOM OUT - NO SALES - NO ARCHIVES

Fans did successfully force Alan Pardew out of Newcastle in January, with the SackPardew.com website trumpeting how the "goal has been achieved" after "an alarming nosedive in form and results."

But it was Pardew who decided to defect to Crystal Palace and he is having the last laugh as the south London club has raced up the standings away from the relegation zone while Newcastle has plummeted in the opposite direction. Only two points separate Newcastle from the drop zone with nine points to play for.

Carver, who has never had a permanent managerial job in England, has presided over just two wins in 17 games and is unlikely to have a future in the dugout from June.

Newcastle disclosed in a statement on Monday that there has been "two days of frank dialogue with John Carver and senior players" and that "all parties accept responsibility for the current situation."

Offering no sense of a plan for the future, Newcastle only stated that the "focus at this time" is staying in the topflight.

Which top-level manager is going to risk his reputation by taking on the Newcastle job? Steve McClaren is the favorite but could decide that leaving Derby for Tyneside is just too risky when his managerial standing is only now recovering from a dismal spell with the England national team.

When Ashley issued that rare public statement in 2008, he expressed a desire that the club would be able to "compete at the top table of European football."

Now, when it comes to players, Newcastle dines out on scraps with the best cuts sold off to the highest bidders. Just staying in the world's richest league has appeared to be the target, in order to protect the lucrative television revenue stream.

A first major trophy since the 1955 FA Cup looks unlikely in the immediate future, a first league title since 1927 even more fanciful while Ashley remains at the helm.

Seven years after Ashley said he would heed the fans' demands and sell up, he is going nowhere. Much like the team itself.


Rob Harris can be followed at http://www.twitter.com/RobHarris

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PHOTO: FILE - In this Sunday, Aug. 17, 2014 file photo, Newcastle United's owner Mike Ashley watches the English Premier League soccer match between Newcastle United and Manchester City at St James' Park, Newcastle, England. There was a time when Newcastle owner Mike Ashley gave the impression, in public at least, that he cared about the team and that it was more than just a profit-making offshoot of his sports retail empire. It wasn't just the way Ashley would squeeze into a tightly-fitting Newcastle jersey and down pints of beers with supporters, or the crowd-pleasing managerial appointments of club legends Kevin Keegan and Alan Shearer. (AP Photo/Scott Heppell, File)
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