By most measures, Mike Ashley has done a bad job of owning Newcastle United. Since buying out shares from the Hall family and the late Freddy Shepherd for around £134m in 2007, the retail magnate has overseen two relegations; lost two employment tribunals to senior members of the club’s staff; renamed the stadium; hired his equally contemptuous friends in board-level positions; and failed to re-invest the money generated by the club through TV and advertising deals into players or training facilities.
In the Premier League era, prior to Mike Ashley’s arrival, Newcastle had finished second twice, third twice, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh, while reaching two FA Cup finals and a European semi-final, and broke the world transfer record in 1996. They competed in European competitions more often than they didn’t and, historically, despite having not won a major trophy since 1969, are still the ninth-most successful English club in terms of honours won. Under Ashley, Newcastle have spent more time in the Championship than they have in Europe and have never once got past the fourth round of the FA Cup.
Ashley’s ownership is characterised by parsimony, an unwillingness to pay the going rate to compete, whether that be for players or the basic upkeep of the club’s stadium, and all the while maintaining only a modicum of communication with the media or supporters. He is more than willing to sell Newcastle’s best players, but less enthusiastic about replacing them.
His primary concern has never been Newcastle’s fortunes on the pitch, but simply keeping the club in the Premier League at the minimum cost to guarantee a proportion of the top flight’s broadcasting deal, while stocking the club shop with his own Sports Direct merchandise and emblazoning Sports Direct logos over as much of St James’ Park as possible.
Ashley’s attempts to sell Newcastle, which he usually uses as a smokescreen for a lack of activity in the transfer market, have so far felt insincere. There is an argument to suggest that something is worth what people are prepared to pay, but that Mike Ashley’s asking price of £350m for a club that have in recent years yo-yoed between divisions was unanswered for so long, seems a pretty clear indication that it was too high; or equally, that he didn’t really want to sell. Newcastle are worse off than when he bought them, so even allowing for inflation, how can they be worth over double the price he paid in 2007?
When the news broke last month that the £350m asking price had finally been met by the Abu Dhabi-based Bin Zayed Group (BZG) headed by Sheikh Khaled bin Al Nahyan, many Newcastle fans questioned its veracity. “We’ve been here before” was the tired sentiment echoed through the Twittersphere, with supporters speculating that it was either a ruse concocted by Ashley’s preferred PR firm, Keith Bishop Associates, to distract from another summer of minimalist spending, or that, if it was true, then Ashley would shortly pull the plug after wasting an interested buyer’s time.
But in the weeks since the news of BZG “agreeing terms” to buy Newcastle, there has been enough to suggest that something is different about this takeover bid. For a start, BZG has been in correspondence with the English press, and issued two public statements, both of which Newcastle have refused to discredit. While Newcastle have gone on to maintain a line of “no comment” to most other queries about the progress of the takeover, and indeed, the soon-to-expire contract of popular manager Rafa Benitez, fans and the media have been left in the dark. Newcastle’s wall of silence has been mirrored by that of the Premier League.
A new company, Monochrome Acquisition Limited, meanwhile, has been registered on Companies House with Sheikh Khaled listed as a director. Newcastle, for the uninitiated, play in black and white.
At the same time, Newcastle’s managing director Lee Charnley, regarded by many as Mike Ashley’s fall guy, has applied to strike off several companies linked to St James Holdings – where Ashley keeps many of the club’s assets. Some of the ground’s Sports Direct signs have also been taken down. Why? Newcastle United have declined to comment.
When some journalists tried to pour cold water on the takeover talks, suggesting that a member of the Abu Dhabi Royal Family has yet to provide “proof of funds” – an understandable requisite before any takeover of a Premier League club can happen – BZG bullishly dismissed this idea as “nonsense”. BZG claim it submitted proof of funds to Ashley and the Premier League after Newcastle’s 1-0 win over Leicester City, which confirmed they would be playing top-flight football again next season.
BZG’s statement read: “These terms have been reflected in a document, signed by both parties, which has been forwarded to the Premier League. The proof of funds statement was forwarded to Mike Ashley’s lawyers on 17 April 2019. The so called fit-and-proper Premier League process is a standard procedure which will take time, and we are doing all we can to assist the Premier League during this process.”
The uncertainty around Newcastle’s ownership, whether Benitez will still be the manager next season, and the fact that the club have not signed any first-team players since the transfer window re-opened, however, has not stopped Ashley from raising season ticket prices by five per cent. This marks a 25 per cent overall increase since the club’s promotion in 2017.
Amid everything else, though, it is the Benitez issue that perhaps best sums up Ashley’s lack of respect for Newcastle’s fanbase. Benitez approached Newcastle – make no mistake, it was that way round – because he saw the potential to turn the club back into what they were. He took over from former manager Steve McClaren for the last ten games of the ill-fated 2015-16 Premier League season, and despite going six games unbeaten, couldn’t stop the club from dropping into the Championship.
A huge emotional connection with Geordies led him to stay, much to the surprise of the football world, even after relegation. And under difficult circumstances, working within the flawed transfer remit imposed by Ashley, Benitez has delivered in three years: the Championship title, a league cup quarter-final, a top-half finish in the Premier League, and a solid mid-table finish last season, despite not being supported by his owner. In the only transfer window in which Benitez has been able to spend heavily, the summer of 2016, his signings were mostly funded through outgoing players’ sales, not Ashley.
Rafa Benitez represents the antithesis of Mike Ashley; he is an ambitious manager, who has won trophies at Valencia, Liverpool, Inter Milan, Napoli and Chelsea, and he wants Newcastle to be the best possible club they can be. He hasn’t asked Ashley to pump his own money into transfers, simply to use the money generated from TV and advertising deals. In May 2017, Ashley released a rare statement on Newcastle’s website that promised Bentiez could have “every penny” generated by the club to improve his playing squad.
Undoubtedly, Newcastle United are at a pivotal juncture in their history. Ashley has a willing buyer but as yet has done nothing to invalidate the opinion that he is an unwilling seller. New ownership is not a guarantee of success, of course, and there will be plenty to unpack regarding the background of BZG should the deal be completed, but after 12 years of Ashley, any change would be welcomed on Tyneside.
The hopes and expectations of Newcastle fans, it is important to note, are not to necessarily compete with Manchester City or Liverpool, but simply for the club to be run with the club’s interests at heart, not Sports Direct’s.
Ashley’s ownership is themed by selfishness and not caring about anything other than his own bottom line. Football, as it does in most post-industrial cities in the North, occupies a level of particular significance in Newcastle. It is the beating heart of the community and Ashley has done his level best to try and break it. If Mike Ashley does not sell Newcastle this summer, only greed could explain his decision.
Newcastle United did not respond to a request to comment.