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Mike Ashley’s Activity Suggests Sale Of Newcastle United Is Imminent

8 years ago
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I have been tremendously heartened by the way Joe Kinnear spent the whole transfer window clinging to a branch, upside down and asleep.

I am not in the least upset at the club’s relative inactivity in the international market for player purchases.

In my view, and I have no special knowledge but do have an obsessive fascination in the bizarre mental make-up of the Toon’s glorious owner, as well as being impervious to wishful thinking, I believe Mike Ashley is already waving us goodbye.

The most interesting fact about this boring yet unpredictable billionaire, and this story has been in several newspapers, is that, after his parents mortgaged their house to borrow money which they then provided to young Mike to get going as a sports retailer, the ungrateful upstart fell out with them so badly he stopped speaking to them. They still live in the same house they mortgaged for him, while he has at least one very large house in a plutocratic corner of north London, a larger pile of money, and, as we know, a yacht moored in the Med. Having been beholden to close relatives and not having liked it, he has decided, I believe, not to take orders from anyone ever again.

The structure of his highly successful business is very unusual. As is well known, he took Newcastle United private when it had suited Sir John to operate through a public company. Sports Direct is a PLC, but Ashley’s own shares in Sports Direct are held by a private company, MASH Holdings. It is rare for a large chunk of a public company to be owned by a private one.

The payment of dividends, the valuation of debt, and, crucially, the shuffling of cash become opaque if certain accounting techniques peculiar to private companies are used. It would be much harder, for example, to use profits on player sales (which technically are capital gains, and therefore not taxable as trading profits) to pay wages if the company were public. Mike Ashley, I believe, does not like people second-guessing him, and does not regard himself as being accountable to anyone – he sees no reason to give interviews, for example.

Yet this man who knows best, takes no orders, and refuses to be accountable, appoints a loose cannon with a dicky heart to be his executive for incoming transfers, putting the nose of Derek Llambias thoroughly out of joint and prompting his resignation. We have no evidence that Pardew was upset about Kinnear, but he will have been, I have no doubt. At the same time we know that Ashley regards outgoing transfers as so important that he does them himself. He asked Arsenal which part of Cabaye they wanted to buy when they didn’t offer what Ashley thought he was worth. Nobody else thought Cabaye was worth that much, but Ashley did, and as a result he wasn’t sold. Indeed he allowed, or forced, Cabaye to listen to a phone conversation in which Cabaye was humiliated.

In relation to Cabaye, the easy and logical thing for Ashley to have done would have been to sell him for £10m. It would have produced a profit, and he could have blamed the sale on the player, as he did with Andy Carroll. He could then have used half the money for a couple of incoming transfers. This was exactly what I believe was discussed on the yacht – who to buy if Cabaye were sold. But he didn’t do that. Why not? Was it just because he had dreams of repeating the Carroll coup? Not if he had been listening to the lukewarm reaction of the Arsenal executive. No. He kept hold of Cabaye in order to keep Pardew, and indeed Graham Carr, on board.

Not everyone will agree with this. And I share the view of many that Kinnear was appointed precisely in order to destabilise Pardew, and to call off the many transfers lined up by Carr and Pardew (Gomis, Thauvin, Aubameyang) which Ashley did not want to conclude. Ashley, correctly in my view, distrusts Pardew’s judgement of players. He also trusts Carr’s judgement, but doesn’t see Pardew as manager for much longer. His next manager, who will not be Kinnear, will be someone whose judgement Ashley trusts, and who will be allowed to make his own decisions.

But some time in the last few weeks a buyer – I would bet a lot of money on this – has hoved into view. I don’t know who it is. It might be this Ukrainian chap who looks like a skittle. It might be one of those Americans we were all talking about a few months back.

But someone is talking to Ashley about a sale. And Ashley might not understand much about football club management, but he understands the value of stability. After all, he rewarded Pardew, and virtually everyone else, with an eight-year contract.

I’m guessing. I might be wrong. But wouldn’t it make sense for Ashley to steady the ship pending the sale of our club to an unknown billionaire who could then do something popular early doors and sack Pardew? Wouldn’t it make sense for the next manager to be the appointee of a dashing new owner? Sacking Pardew and appointing George Graham or Glenn Hoddle or Lee Clark or someone, frankly, dun- coloured and disappointing would simply bind the hands of the new owner. This would jeopardise the sale. And Ashley will know the next owner will want to appoint a top-rank manager who will cost a lot of money and will want to spend a lot of money. A Ukrainian oil billionaire of Newcastle United would want to compete with Sheikh Mansour and Roman Abramovich, I would have thought.

And Ashley is desperate to sell. He’s not in this for the long haul. He wants a quick route into the Champions’ League with Rangers. Can’t you just smell it?

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