I recently celebrated my ten year wedding anniversary.
As I sat in my car outside of a Morrisons petrol station with a bouquet of carnations, I chewed on my biro and tried to think of those magical soppy words that women love to read, those words that feel so unnatural to the men writing them.
As I tried to recall romantic events I could reference in my note of love and devotion, I couldn’t help but think of the time we were so close to divorce. Our marriage nearly fell apart, all because of a tube of Slazenger tennis balls.
On the evening in question I returned home from work as I had done a thousand times before. As I walked into the kitchen I spotted the bright pink sticker, the unmistakable gaudy pink label highlighting Sports Direct’s bargain of the century, “Was £7.99, now £1.99”.
I lost my cool. Voices were raised, tea cups were thrown and only after a few nights spent in the huffy bed, did the wife and I start speaking again. The incident that kicked off Armageddon in my family home will seem pathetic to most people, downright petty to others. To fans of Newcastle United I think you will understand. I refuse to shop at Sports Direct.
In 2015 Sports Direct’s profit reached £240m, so I doubt Mike Ashley was too concerned that I was spending my money in JD Sports instead. However, during a time when Newcastle fans have suffered desperately under his regime, the Newcastle United name was being used as an advertising vehicle for Ashley’s cheap sports store.
Ashley Out, Support the Team – Not the Regime, and stadium boycotts, have all done their best to blow away the toxic cloud hanging over the city but we reached a new low when these groups started to argue amongst themselves. The fans felt powerless.
I admire those who tried to make a change and respect those who decided not to go to games but as a father of two boys, I just couldn’t stay away. Admittedly I’ve spent more time watching non-league football of late but the lure of St James Park was too great when my lads asked to watch Newcastle. Why should my kids suffer because of my stubbornness?
So, my family have been issued with strict instructions, do not buy anything from Mike Ashley.
Every penny spent in that store would end up in the pocket of a man who seems to be single handedly bringing down my football club. If my family want a Donnay umbrella, a Slazenger basketball, an oversized NUFC mug, a Karrimor set of golf clubs or heaven forbid a Firetrap tracksuit, they’ll have to find it elsewhere.
During shopping trips when we’ve walked the length of Northumberland street trying to find kids football boots the wife has muttered the words “I’m sure we could find some in Sports Direct”; words I typically chose to ignore for risk of fisticuffs outside Primark.
I wondered whether Mike Ashley was a conspiracy, a superhero villain raised in a deserted warehouse on the banks of the Wear, created with the sole purpose of destroying NUFC from the inside. In May 2015, when Mike Ashley finally came to our screens and proclaimed we were not for sale and that he would not leave until we won a trophy, my head was in my hands. We were doomed.
But then 10 months later came Rafa.
This mild mannered gentleman with the sultry tones of a foreign waiter at a Spanish holiday resort and the pot belly and goatee beard of a foreign waiter at a Spanish holiday resort. Much like Shirley Valentine, we’ve been swept off our feet.
It’s too early to say whether this is a holiday romance that will end in tears, or a marriage made in heaven, but the early signs are good – this one’s a keeper. So is it time to be thankful to Ashley and the board for having the foresight and genius in appointing Rafa? Not likely….
It was make or break for Ashley in March 2016 Does he continue to hire puppet coaches who will happily report to a leadership team made up of an accountant and a chief scout, or does he find a real leader? Is Ashley willing to hand control over to a true football manager, one who picks the players, picks the team and runs the team as it should be run? He had to.
Rafa made his mark early on in his tenure. Before he was even appointed as permanent manager he walked through Newcastle’s Benton training facility and forced them to replace the indoor playing service. If you’d not seen it, the 3G astro turf resembled your Nanna’s kitchen lino. It was soon replaced by a 4G surface that most high schools in the country have had for the past two years.
Ashley was starting to listen; listen to a manager with trophies, a reputation and balls. Rafa was telling Ashley that he wanted full control of Newcastle United. Ashley had to bow down.
Picture the alternative, had Ashley appointed Neil Warnock or Ian Holloway and purchased another squad of 19 year old French midfielders, St James Park would have imploded or raised to the ground. There’d be riots on the streets of Newcastle whilst Sky Sports pundits continued to make cheap headlines about our unrealistic expectations, whilst other fans tirelessly mocked our so called “big club” status.
It’s too early to say whether Rafa will reach the Messiah status of Keegan but he’s already cementing himself in Geordie folklore. As much as I’m delighted with Rafa’s appointment, there is a more important message here. Mike Ashley is now running the club in the proper way.
We have a proper manager and a functioning reporting structure that takes power away from a team of businessmen to a footballing mind. This should not be ignored, this historical event is up there with other events in history, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall and the French Revolution.
So Mike, thanks for finally seeing sense. I think your hand was forced and you would have had a riot on your hands if you hadn’t, but thanks anyway.
I’m still not setting foot in Sports Direct though.