By Rob Stewart
Newcastle United legend Peter Beardsley believes that the Tyneside club would have been heading for financial disaster rather than European football had it not been for owner Mike Ashley.
Beardsley thinks that Newcastle could have ended up like Scottish giants Rangers or Championship side Portsmouth, who have both been placed into administration, had it not been for sports retail tycoon Ashley.
"I think that people are starting to appreciate Mike Ashley," Beardsley told Goal.com.
"Don’t get me wrong, he won’t please everybody and he probably never will be able to and I think that he realises that.
"But his heart is definitely in the right place. He knows what this club means to the fans and I really do believe that.
"Hopefully now people are starting to realise that without him we could be a Rangers or we could be, on a lesser scale, a Portsmouth and we could have serious problems. So we have to take our hat off to Mike and let him get on and do the job."
Ashley, who founded the Sports Direct empire, took over the club five years ago and after relegation two seasons ago, and two unsuccessful attempts to sell up, Newcastle are on the up again.
The billionaire has come in for criticism for re-naming St James' Park the Sports Direct Arena but Newcastle are on course for a Europa League place with a chance to strengthen their grip on sixth place in the Premier League against Norwich City on Sunday.
"They have probably exceeded most people’s expectations with the way they have performed this season and the position they are in the league," said Beardsley, who is now the club’s football development manager.
"But with the way things are now I would have thought that they would be looking to kick on and hopefully finish in the top seven but even now it will not be easy.
"It is fair to say that they have over-achieved as far as most people are concerned but I really think that the manager [Alan Pardew] likes that. He likes being at the top end of the table but he obviously sees it as a stepping-stone for the club as a whole.
"I don’t mean now in terms of Europe but next year we will want to do better than we did last season. If we finish in the top ten this May that will still be an incredible achievement because we were only promoted two seasons ago and we finished 11th last season.
"He [Pardew] will want to make sure that the club kicks on again next season. We had a meeting this week about the plans for the club and everything he talks about is positive."
Beardsley spoke out as he formally opened a new 3G artificial grass pitch, part-funded by a £102,000 grant from the Football Foundation, at the Walker Technology College which sits on the banks of the River Tyne in Newcastle.
His appearance was proof of Ashley’s desire to foster links with the grassroots football community in the North-East of England.
"I didn’t get the chance here as a youngster but Newcastle will always be my club and a lot of people know that and that is why – and this might sound big-headed - Mike has got me involved in that side of the club because he thinks I can help," Beardsley added.
"I will never have a negative on the club because that is the way I am. Don’t get me wrong we have had bad results this season and ten, 15 years ago and we will have bad results again but in the main the club is going in the right direction and they deserve a lot of credit for that."