In Mike Ashley, Jeremy Corbyn picked the perfect example for his attack on football club owners

Ashley does not understand football fandom, let alone how to run a club.

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As Jeremy Corbyn outlined the Labour Party’s plans to democratise football in a speech at Newcastle City Hall last weekend, he name-checked Mike Ashley, who has owned Newcastle United since 2007, in a tirade against billionaires who had put their “business interests above everything else” when it came to running a club. The Labour leader used Ashley as an example of an owner who had not recognised football clubs’ roles as community assets that deserve upkeep and improvement in line with their needs in a competitive market and regular supporter input. 

Among several initiatives discussed by Corbyn were plans to allow supporters’ trusts to buy shares when clubs change hands and to give fans an active role in hiring and firing members of club boards. Corbyn also said that a Labour government would mandate that a portion of any revenue generated by broadcasting deals has to be invested directly into upgrading clubs’ academies.

At face value these ideas appear a progressive and refreshing attempt to reform a sport currently controlled by a small group of wealthy individuals. The only people you would expect to take issue with these proposals are those who stand to lose money or influence from their implementation – like Mike Ashley, who commissioned a strongly worded response that was published on Newcastle’s website on Tuesday night. 

The statement says that “other than sums provided to the club on a short-term, interest-free basis and repaid to him as intended”, Newcastle would “like to make it clear that Mike Ashley has not taken a penny” out of the club “in interest, salary or dividend”.

Of course, Ashley’s frustration at being held up as an example of a bad football club owner would be understandable, were it not for the fact that he is actually a bad football club owner.

What his response fails to mention is that those loans were necessary in the first place to offset the costs of two relegations from the Premier League. Those relegations, many would argue, were largely down to Ashley’s ownership model, which has featured a misguided transfer policy that prioritises profit margins over quality of players, as well as a series of terrible business decisions, including the hiring of Steve McClaren and Joe Kinnear, twice. 

The statement also does not mention how Ashley uses Newcastle as a heavily discounted advertising conduit for his sportswear business, Sports Direct. Indeed, club accounts for 2018 confirmed that Newcastle receive just £2m a year for Sports Direct advertising – a measly amount within the context of the Premier League.

The statement also overlooks that Ashley has publicly attacked club legends such as Alan Shearer and Kevin Keegan, and lost an employment tribunal over Newcastle terminating the contract of a player because he had cancer. On top of that, season ticket prices at St James’ Park have increased by 25 per cent since the club’s most recent promotion to the Premier League in 2017 and this season Newcastle’s are the most expensive replica kits in the top flight. 

The truth is that the Newcastle United that Ashley bought in 2007 were a very different prospect to the one he owns now. In the Premier League era, prior to Ashley’s arrival, Newcastle 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. Under Ashley, United have spent more time in the Championship than they have in European competition and not once got past the fourth round of the FA Cup.

Newcastle’s statement paints the club’s parsimony in the transfer market – relative to most of the Premier League at least – as shrewd rather than uncompetitive. “We will not apologise for being financially sustainable,” it says, “but we will push the boundaries of our budgets as far as possible to maximise the impact on the team.” Is that why Newcastle’s last manager, the verifiably world-class Rafa Benitez, was replaced with the twice-relegated Steve Bruce, who is now the lowest-paid boss in the division? Is that why, routinely, over the past 12 years, Ashley has sanctioned the sales of the club’s best players without replacing them?

Jeremy Corbyn chose to target Mike Ashley for good reason. He is the face of unregulated capitalism in English football, and uses Newcastle more as a billboard than as a football club. Labour’s plans to keep ticket prices down and to hold rogue owners to account with regular meetings with supporter groups scare people like Ashley, who for too long have been able to exploit the loyalty of fans without offering them value for money.

Newcastle fans do not demand success on the scale of Liverpool or Manchester City; they simply want to see the club’s money spent on the club and to have their concerns listened to. Under Ashley, Newcastle United are under-equipped in terms of their playing squad, run on skeleton staff with the smallest board in the league, and have not matched the investment of other rival clubs in terms of their training facilities, all the while being very uncommunicative. When fans asked for clarity of this summer regarding the possibility of a takeover by a consortium from the Middle East, they were met with a wall of “no comment”. When the leader of the Labour Party criticised Mike Ashley personally, however, he received a response within a couple of days.

Tuesday’s statement accuses Corbyn of “a surprising lack of knowledge about our national game”. That there are more Sports Direct signs around St James’ Park than Newcastle have won Premier League games over the past five years suggests that people in glass houses should not throw stones. Corbyn’s comments about Ashley may well be an electoral ploy, designed to curry favour in the north east, but they are certainly not without foundation. Mike Ashley has never run Newcastle with the club’s or supporters’ best interests at heart, only his own.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman