The two things that drive Mike Ashley at Newcastle United
Until the poor woman sells her story, we can only guess whether the toilet break she took at Sports Direct’s warehouse, during which she gave birth, resulted in a formal warning for an over-lengthy absence.
But we know from a BBC investigation that the man who went off to his job at Sports Direct’s Dickensian HQ one morning feeling ill, and who then had a series of strokes, was one of dozens of workers needing emergency medical attention in a matter of weeks earlier this year.
The suggestion is that they were worried about the sack if they took time off work. People who are on zero hours contracts must think like that. And they must surely be easy to control.
This is what we mean when we say, as I have been known to do, that Mike Ashley is a ‘retailing genius’. He does things that are within the law that I could never do, and for that I admire him, as I would admire an Olympic swimmer, for example, who swims miles before going to college every morning.
Mike Ashley can stomach stuff I could never stomach. He can treat people ruthlessly in a way I could never treat anyone. And he does it all to make huge amounts of money, which I could never do, and certainly have never done.
This is the way the man has learned to behave. It is, for him, a successful way of behaving. He will not listen to anyone who tells him that it is not the way to behave when running a football club.
So let me go through the futile exercise of telling him, through these columns, that the behaviour that serves him so well at Sports Direct is utterly wrong and counter-productive at St James’ Park.
Newcastle United have just had the worst start they have ever had in the Premier League.
And they have just spent £52m in the transfer market.
And they have just been flicked aside by Manchester City.
And they are already out of the League Cup.
And they are bottom of the table.
Mike Ashley has recently displayed a couple of signs of mortality as a football club owner. Fear and greed are the things that drive him, and Newcastle United are profitable, so we’re told, so he must have been feeling a bit of anxiety, the poor, wretched chap.
A brush with relegation last year and a grimly determined campaign by supporters to boycott home games forced our glorious owner into the spotlight, turning up on Sky Television to deliver a pre-scripted utterance, and giving several hostages to fortune.
And then, to the astonishment of some, he delivered on those promises, spending a lot of cash last summer, after years of not spending anything.
Ashley’s fear and greed cycle will always put greed first, and he will abandon greedy behaviour only when the fear kicks in. Clearly, at Sports Direct the greed is going full tilt, and the figures are there for all to see that the profits are rolling in. No fear from the Sports Direct stable, then. No need to tone down the greed at Sports Direct.
But at Newcastle it is different. His greedy behaviour is not producing the results he says he desires. And when he says he wants Newcastle to win things, I believe him.
So now we have fearful Mike spending money. And he will demand results. But what he won’t do is understand why results are terrible. Because he doesn’t understand football, or football club stewardship, or football fans.
The faultline behind the Sports Direct approach in football club ownership has always been that building profits sustainably can only be done by building a successful football team.
Ashley thinks this can be done by spending money when success on the field becomes a priority, which, for him, it does not all the time. It is the Colonel Gaddafi approach to nation-building. Mike Ashley wants permanent revolution at Gallowgate, good players being shipped out, bargains being shipped in, and a coach that can build a new team every year.
But fans were deserting him because his team is a misery and his club are a joke, and all of a sudden Mike realised he would have to come up with a much better team that was challenging for Europe.
So he went on telly and told fans that he was not going to get the cart before the horse any more. A good team was becoming essential for Mike.
The problem is that, in football, a stop-go, new-team-every-year, permanent-revolution approach does not work. Look at how Manchester United and Arsenal have stuck with their managers to gain success on the field. Look at the problems Chelsea are having because they tend not to stick with their managers. Or Liverpool. Or Sunderland.
But it goes beyond the manager. At Newcastle we have stuck with quite bad managers for too long, on occasion. It is buying players on immensely long contracts who cannot be sold when they turn out to be duds, and who clog up the team for years and years, that are the problem. And the other side of this is that good players are invariably sold and a punt is taken on replacements who are often not as good.
The result of this policy is that players who inevitably have to be picked, because they are immovably useless, are indeed selected by managers who have little say over recruitment.
And the players know that the only purpose of playing for a club like ours is that they might get a move to a bigger, more sensible club. If they are still at the club for more than a year they know they are rubbish, and so does everyone else. This must be demoralising, and getting them to take any notice of a coach must be difficult.
But still we have the Sports Direct philosophy in full operation at St James’ Park. Investment is made when it is needed for better results. And it is not made when revenues are not in danger, because that is the time for profit-making and profit-taking.
Mike Ashley is not stupid, and he can see that being a genius at retail is not much use in football. He hates investing, and he hates not getting results, and he hates owning Newcastle United.
Why not throw in the towel, Mike? It’s high time you did.
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