Mike Ashley. Just What Is He Up To?
By Graeme Bell
Wednesday 31 Aug 2011 10:17:00
Browse all Graeme Bell articles


It is a question Newcastle United fans have been asking ever since he bought the club in the summer of 2007, but what does Mike Ashley actually want to do with it?
It is a question he has never felt the need to answer. In fact, he has never felt the need to answer any questions during the course of four difficult years as owner.
There is no conclusive answer because Ashley simply hasn’t given one, so in its absence all we can do is make an educated guess based on actions and off the record briefings from Newcastle’s managing director Derek Llambias.
The conclusions I have drawn are unlikely to make pleasant reading for those who can still remember standing toe-to-toe with Manchester United for the Premier League title on more than one occasion.
A club that has qualified for the Champions League three times, more than any other side outside the traditional Big Four – Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United.
As far as I can tell, Ashley’s ambition amounts to keeping Newcastle United in the Premier League as a self-sufficient business which occupies little of his time and none of his money.
Having spent £286m to buy the club and then keep it afloat following a relegation to the Championship his bad decision making facilitated – Joe Kinnear as manager, Dennis Wise as Director of Football anyone? – Newcastle’s owner does not want to have to spend a penny more.
He will not put any money in, but neither will he take any out. He expects the club to survive in the top flight without his help, maybe dabble with a cup run.
The suspicion is Ashley just wants to keep things ticking over until someone buys it from him and pays back the interest free loans, totalling more than £111m, put in.
When Andy Carroll was sold, fans were told all the money would go into the strengthening of the side, Ashley has used it to strengthen the books of a business which previously lost him money.
That is his prerogative, he is the owner and there is no rule or stipulation he has to bankroll the club, match the expectations of supporters or throw money at new players in the vague hope it will be restored to former glories.
Newcastle United are not up for sale because of the uncertainty it breeds, but if you have a spare £300m knocking about and you want to buy arguably the last English club able to achieve something with the right investment, it rapidly would be.
But that wasn’t Ashley’s initial intention, he bought Newcastle United to turn it into European football contenders, to have fun, or so we were told by those – former chief executive Chris Mort and now Llambias – employed to run it for him. So where did it all go wrong?
Naturally suspicious of the media, initially the business journalists who covered his rise to riches, and then the football hacks who yearned to know what he had in store for a football club light on achievements, but big on ambition.
Newcastle United is a great football club which rarely achieves great things. It is an iconic brand, one of the “crown jewels of English football” as Ashley – in one rare public comment shortly after his takeover – described it.
Initially perceived as a knight in shining armour, liberating Newcastle United after years of dissatisfaction under the Hall-Shepherd alliance, he was the billionaire who would rival Roman Abramovich’s spending at Chelsea.
Even when it quickly became apparent he was not interested in blowing a big chunk of his personal fortune on new players, Ashley retained his popularity even if only because he had removed the former chairman, Freddie Shepherd, from office.
From what little information there was about him, Ashley came across as a self-made man; a common man with an extraordinary talent for business. He was a bold entrepreneur with a sharp eye for an opportunity, a gambler who had taken huge risks and won.
He bought Newcastle United because he loved football and had the money knocking around to buy his own club to play with.
Nothing new there, the only difference is it takes a billionaire, rather than a millionaire to do it in the Premier League.
At the back of his mind, though, Ashley probably felt there was the chance to make a profit. Football was riding the crest of a wave, the country as a whole was still in the boom before the bust and football clubs were traded as hot property.
It has not worked out like that, partly because of a global recession, partly because football is a business, but it is a business not quite like any other.
There is too much emotion involved. The personalities are different, they have egos and will not simply be told what to do. The media interest is not like any other. It means too much to people for the same belligerent rules that have served Ashley so well in his business empire to apply.
Not content with alienating one club legend in Kevin Keegan in his second season, Ashley managed another in Alan Shearer.
On both occasions Ashley brought them on board and fell out with them to his cost. In Keegan’s case because of broken promises about control of recruitment and in Shearer’s because the club was up for sale following relegation in 2009 and he didn’t want to spend the money the former Newcastle captain required to build for the future.
Keegan’s resignation in complaint at boardroom interference – in other words Wise’s control over transfers – was the beginning of the end for Ashley, even if that end remains out of sight.
He had a shot at salvation with Shearer, but blew it. He even had another shot when he covered huge losses during one season in the Championship. He wasn’t popular, as such, be he was appreciated a little more.
The sale of Carroll and Kevin Nolan, last season’s top goalscorers, combined with the treatment of Chris Hughton, and the lack of spending on new players this summer means he has probably blown it again.
According to research done by one fan’s website, Newcastle United have made a profit of more than £31m in the transfer market since 2006, by far the highest figure in the Premier League. 
Ashley brought Newcastle to have some fun and he did for the first year, sitting and drinking with fans at away games. He wanted to be one of the lads and he was accepted.
But as soon as that went following Keegan’s resignation so, it seems, did Ashley’s enthusiasm. The knight in shining armour had been knocked off his horse by King Kev.
He is abused and he is resented and he knows it. He is a very rich man, but why should he continue to spend his own money to bring success to a club and supporters who have made it perfectly clear they don’t like, thank or respect him?
It is an increasingly well-run business, which in one of Llambias’ favourite phrases, can wipe its own nose, yet supporters are still more likely to wipe a tear from their eye.
They don’t care about books being balanced, they care about what happens on a match day and this is a club which once aimed for far more than a shot at a top ten finish.


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