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14 January 2019

Either Rio Ferdinand is ignorant, or he represents everything that is wrong with football

The former Manchester United defender’s arguments in favour of Mike Ashley were riddled with errors. 

By Rohan Banerjee

Rio Ferdinand has been bullshitting again. The former Manchester United and England defender, while serving as a pundit during BT Sport’s coverage of the Premier League clash between Chelsea and Newcastle at the weekend, insisted that Newcastle fans should “thank” tycoon Mike Ashley, for his running of the club. He was too modest to mention that his own clothing range, FIVE, is sold exclusively through Sports Direct, the discount sportswear chain Ashley also happens to own.

Ferdinand, who, when pressed, said that his business interests were “irrelevant” to his capacity to offer impartial comment on Newcastle, launched an error-riddled defence of Ashley’s tenure. The 40-year-old suggested that Magpies fans should be grateful to Ashley for spending £50m of “his own money” to win promotion from the Championship in the 2016-17 season, despite the club generating over £100m in player sales during that same campaign. The club actually finished the summer of 2016 with a profit in the transfer market, largely thanks to the sales of Andros Townsend (£13m), Moussa Sissoko (£30m) and Georginio Wijnaldum (£25m).

Ashley, who has owned Newcastle since 2007, is an unpopular figure on Tyneside. Prior to his arrival, in the Premier League Newcastle had finished second twice, third twice, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh, while reaching two FA Cup finals and a European semi-final. They were in a European competition more often than they weren’t and, historically, despite having not won a major trophy since 1969, they remain the ninth-most successful club in English football in terms of competitive honours. Since Ashley became owner, the club have been relegated twice and finished in the bottom half of the Premier League table on a regular basis.

To highlight the temerity of Ferdinand’s comments, consider that before Ashley became Newcastle owner, the club had been relegated four times in 102 years, compared to twice in the 11 after. And they are at a risk of making it three times in 12 years, should the club go down again this season, which, following the 2-1 defeat by Chelsea, is a distinct possibility.

Ashley, under pressure to sell Newcastle after a disastrous reign, insists that he is trying to, but has made no effort to make the club an attractive prospect to buyers. The club’s record signing remains the £16m paid for Michael Owen in 2005 – well below the going rate for even mid-table Premier League sides these days – and Newcastle’s current squad is arguably the worst in the top flight, totalling in value at around half of the amount Manchester United paid for Paul Pogba.

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But Ferdinand said that Ashley should not be expected to invest any more money in the club when he is trying to sell. How sincere those attempts are, however, are doubted by supporters, who have noted that discussion of a takeover at the Toon usually only happens during transfer windows. The PR smokescreen set up by Keith Bishop Associates, who also represent Ferdinand, has become a tired trope of the Ashley era.

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Not content with spouting nonsense on TV, Ferdinand followed up his comments with a tweet in which he said Newcastle fans should also be grateful for “no debt”, claiming that Ashley had balanced the club’s books. In fact, the club’s debt is over £140m, having doubled since Ashley arrived. This information is publicly available, yet Ferdinand, who is paid to analyse football, clearly made no attempt to find this out. Confronted with this, he reportedly said he was “not bothered” about his inaccuracies

Still, on one level, Ferdinand is right: Newcastle are a yo-yo club. But that is Ashley’s doing. They are a shadow of their former sides, such as those seen under managers Kevin Keegan and Bobby Robson, that Ferdinand actually played against. His cousin, Les, was even part of Keegan’s famous “Entertainers” team.

Newcastle now exist as a billboard for Sports Direct – Ashley pays a pittance to advertise his brand at the club – so fans could be forgiven for wanting to prioritise player signings over the “profit” that Ferdinand thinks is such a feather in his cap.

Given the breakdown in their relationship, Newcastle fans know better than to ask Ashley to pump his own money into the club; but they are entitled to demand that the money generated by the club, through lucrative top-flight broadcast deals, player sales, and the prize money earned from the odds-defying top-half finish delivered by current boss Rafa Benitez last season, should be spent on improving the squad and training facilities.

Newcastle turned a profit in excess of £20m in the summer window just gone and as yet, two weeks into the January trading period, have made no signings. Ashley claims that takeover talks are in progress, but the club’s Premier League status is, again, in jeopardy. In the 1995-96 season alone, Newcastle won 24 top-flight games. Since the start of the 2015-16 campaign, they have won just 25 in nearly four years.

Ultimately, Rio Ferdinand’s comments are either wilfully ignorant or wilfully biased. So, what, then, are BT Sport paying him for?