NEWCASTLE, England - Just when Newcastle fans and owner Mike Ashley seemed to have reached a truce, the Premier League club prompted fury among supporters Thursday by announcing it had renamed its 119-year-old stadium with immediate effect.
Ashley's uneasy relationship with the Magpies fans settled over the past three months as manager Alan Pardew guided Newcastle to third place in the Premier League as one of just two unbeaten sides.
But the renaming of St. James' Park to the Sports Direct Arena — after owner Mike Ashley's sports retail company — has provoked the sort of indignation and anger fans already exhibited several times in Ashley's four-year tenure.
"Just as Alan Pardew and his players are doing so well, with a new spirit emerging between the club and the supporters, Ashley takes aim with a shotgun and shoots Newcastle United in the foot — again," said an editorial in Newcastle fan magazine True Faith. "This will be a tragedy if the inevitable outpouring of anger goes anywhere to detracting from the impressive work of the manager and the players.
"But if it does, the responsibility will rest entirely with Mike Ashley who once again appears not to have had his appetite for destruction sated."
The efforts of Pardew and his squad had appeased fans angry at the sale of top performers Andy Carroll, Joey Barton, Kevin Nolan and Jose Enrique since January.
"It's no coincidence that they have performed a typical politician's trick and waited until things are going well to slip in something like this," said Mark Jensen, editor of The Mag, another fan magazine. "It's quite cynical."
Ashley was initially popular with fans after buying the club in 2007, donning the team's famous black-and-white striped jersey to watch matches alongside supporters in the stands.
But misgivings had already emerged by the time popular manager Kevin Keegan resigned in September 2008 after just nine months in charge, upset that decisions were being taken either without his knowledge or against his wishes.
Ashley put the club up for sale but changed his mind when he was unable to make a profit on what he had paid for it. He tried again without success after Newcastle was relegated in May 2009, a demotion that again provoked protests from fans.
Ashley then tried to rename St. James' Park the "Sportsdirect.com (at) St. James' Park Stadium" two years ago in an effort to attract bidders for the name.
"We invited sponsors to attach their brand to that of St. James' Park," managing director Derek Llambias said. "However, it has become clear that in order to make the proposition as commercially attractive as possible, a potential sponsor must be given the opportunity to fully rebrand the stadium."