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Tyne Talk

Comment: Newcastle United – Is There Anybody There?

7 years ago

The English Premier League is very good at generating money but has decent claims on being probably the maddest major league in the world.

Newcastle may well be the maddest club within that…very mad league, especially now that Queens Park Rangers have crashed and burned after their particularly mad experiment.

‘Surprise, Surprise’

While QPR’s extreme strategy/plan was based around spending as much money as possible on mainly ageing Premier League players with questionable attitudes, Newcastle’s/Mike Ashley’s plan/experiment appears to centre on exactly how few staff can you ‘run’ a Premier League club with?

While the vast majority of fans would agree that both in terms of players and coaching strength, Newcastle are definitely in need of extra numbers/quality, on the non-football (business) side of things at St.James’ Park it is becoming almost like a ‘Ghost Town’.

The relegation in 2009 led to a reported 150 full-time and part-time staff being laid off, including most of those with any kind of seniority, amongst those who were pushed out of the door was David Williamson, who was headhunted by then Chairman Chris Mort.

Williamson was credited with being the main person behind the transformation and success of Newcastle Racecourse, having spent six years on that project Williamson was tempted away by Mort in April 2008 and given the job of Executive Director (Operations). The following season seeing him part of a senior management team comprised of Derek Llambias (appointed Managing Director after Mort returned to his ‘normal’ job), Dennis Wise (Executive Director Of Football) and Williamson himself.

On the arrival of Alan Shearer as manager for the final eight matches to try and avoid relegation, Wise left amid rumours that Shearer had (rightfully!) made it a condition of his taking the job.

As mentioned above, the eventual relegation saw Williamson and approximately 149 other employees follow Dennis Wise out of the door.

The rest as they say is history, at least on the pitch, despite  an ever so convincing promotion as champions, Mike Ashley didn’t see it as a priority to bring the workforce back up to Premier League strength and little has changed since that day.

While there was much speculation as to how much time Derek Llambias actually spent at St.James’ Park, he was clearly the main man there on behalf of Ashley and no doubt where any senior staff (the few that were left) went to when in need of direction. Obviously it would have been a far better situation if Llambias had committed more time and energy on the ground in Newcastle as Chris Mort did – but no doubt some would suggest  that with modern technology he could be just as effective working/contactable from distance.

So, whatever you thought of the individuals in that senior management team assembled in 2008, we now no longer have an Executive Officer (Operations), the Managing Director/Chief Executive’s seat is now gathering dust, while we do have…Joe Kinnear. In Mike Ashley’s stripped back set-up, we aren’t entirely clear as to what his (Kinnear’s) role is, having had to wait 48 hours before the club even confirmed they had appointed him after his self-proclamation on Sky Sports. With each hour that passed with no confirmation, a growing number of fans became increasingly convinced that Joe could have now totally lost the plot and had imagined/invented the whole thing.

Those 48 hours are arguably not looking half as ominous as the now nine day gap since Derek Llambias jumped ship, rumours abounding that he was on a plane waiting to go on holiday when he first heard about Joe Kinnear’s appointment. The fact that Llambias chose to tell the world of his departure via his mate David Craig of Sky, live from Ascot Races, rather than through official channels, tells you an awful lot.

So with no replacement mooted so far, the question must be; exactly who is going to run the show if nobody appears out of the ether..

Mike Ashley obviously has the final say on everything but surely he needs somebody to run the club on his behalf, doesn’t he?

The most/only senior figures at the club would appear to be Finance Director John Irving and Secretary Lee Charnley. The last published accounts that were signed off on February 6 2013 by Ernst & Young, name only three Directors on the board of Newcastle United Football Company Limited; John Irving, Lee Charnley and Derek Llambias.

You can only assume that Llambias must be stepping down from the board, so that leaves Irving and Charnley as ‘The Board’, AS WELL as being the two most senior figures on the day to day running side of the business, even though both roles would appear to be mainly/solely administrative and/or number crunching etc. In most normal clubs there would be a team of people at Board level making strategic long-term plans , policy and decisions, then a large senior management team to put those strategic plans and policies into practice.

Apart from those two people, you have Wendy Taylor who is head of media and Lee Marshall who works on PR and Supporters Liaison, both important jobs but very much specific roles doing specific jobs, not making policy or developing major strategy, or even putting together another ‘five year plan’. Likewise there are obviously a number of other staff on similar or slightly lower levels who perform other specific roles such as running the shops and the ticket office etc.

So is Mike Ashley’s way the right way? I worry that he could even take what would be a really mad leap into the dark and have nobody brought in to replace Derek Llambias, with some cobbled together reasoning/justification/flannel put out by friendly media that other staff would take on bigger roles or whatever to cover for the Managing Director’s departure. Bringing to me a mental picture of the old fashioned warfare of Napoleon/Wellington’s day when rows of soldiers would stand shoulder to shoulder in disciplined lines shooting each other, with any fatalities covered by ordering the survivors to shuffle closer together to hide/cover the gaps.

Many of you may say ‘well so what, I’m just bothered about what happens on the pitch’ and of course we’d all rather be watching Newcastle roar to the top of the league on the pitch than be sitting here discussing if it is possible to run a Premier League football club with one man and his dog.

However, when you have Mike Ashley saying the club has to live within its means, you have to see the generating of money by both those on and off the pitch as vital to the long-term  success and security of our football club. Freddie Fletcher wound the ‘odd’ fan up in his time but the way he transformed the commercial side of the club was hugely impressive, yet now we have Newcastle with next to no commercial arm to speak of and to have commercial income actually fall in the season we finished fifth top takes some doing!

The tenth best supported team in Europe and despite everything, still managing to return to the top twenty biggest turnovers in World Football. However, tellingly Newcastle’s commercial income was embarrassingly low at under £14m for that 2011/12 season, miles behind any of the other nineteen clubs in that top twenty. On the other hand, match day income was very healthy at almost £24m and bore comparison with most clubs outside the elite. The money Newcastle United are missing out on commercially must surely equate to at the very least an amount equivalent to financing an extra first team player every season.

The  point being that Mike Ashley appears to have made some kind of conscious decision to keep costs and staff at an absolute (ridiculous?) minimum with the reliance almost exclusively on the ever increasing broadcasting revenue – providing you stay in the Premier League of course, plus to a lesser extent the money he sees as all but guaranteed from fans paying to watch their team, especially with the vast numbers now signed up on the long-term tempting deals. The ‘plan’/strategy then topped up with whatever bits and pieces, such as Wonga, that come his way without having to pay a team of staff to go out hunting for them.

So we watch and wait. Is Mike Ashley really going to make another quantum leap and not even, at the very least, have somebody brought in to steer the good ship Newcastle United?

Could Ashley be really going to say to the likes of Lee Charnley and John Irving (and the other members of the remaining skeleton staff) to shuffle even closer together to cover the gaps left by the increasing fatalities?

This could be a much less visible example to the naked eye of the extremes Mike Ashley has brought to Newcastle United, in comparison to those that directly have happened on the football side of things. However, if we end up with some kind of botched up ‘organisation’ then the long-term repercussions for the club could be far more reaching than any single act or omission by Ashley on the playing side.

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