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The real acid test that faces Mike Ashley and Rafa Benitez at Newcastle United

5 years ago

A military general, warfaring admiral, or successful business person, each have three elements to their thinking at all times.

The first consideration is their fundamental, and overriding objective. This is to win a land battle or a battleship skirmish or a war, or to make a profit in order to maximise shareholder value, as UK company law makes obligatory.

It is amazing how many chief executives go to work every morning imagining they are actually at war, just like a military man, with profits and success meaning continued life, but defeat meaning instant death. Every day, forever. I don’t know how they do it, but they do.

The second consideration is an overall strategy. This would be how many soldiers you can afford to lose as the cost of beating the enemy, or how many aircraft carriers you need to have alongside a target country, or which commercial markets to fight in and whether to compete on price or quality.

The third consideration is tactics. This would be whether to encircle the enemy, whether to shoot aircraft down in the sky or destroy them on the ground, or when to give your expert staff their head and relinquish control for the time being.

When Rafa Benitez was appointed coach at Newcastle United, I said the real test would be whether or not Mike Ashley would relinquish control.

I also said this would be the acid test of his true current position, and would be a test needing to be faced and passed whether or not Newcastle stayed up.

Famously, and quite brilliantly, Benitez has seen an opportunity for massive improvement at a footballing basketcase, improvement that he alone could generate, and at a grand old club with marvellous support starved of not only success but hope.

First he backed a backpedalling and desperate Ashley into a corner, and then recorded the revealing outcome (Ashley on his knees, with hands clasped in supplication) in documents inscribed on vellum with indelible ink by scriveners instructed to erect a literary version of a fifty-foot electric fence around the club’s players, staff, cheque book, and training ground, penetrable by the only key-holder, Rafa Benitez himself.

This has been a great relief to those of us who have always known that, if it was possible for a business person to make all the decisions in a successful football club, even the football ones, then the Champions League would be littered with teams run in such a way. I am unaware of a single club in the world that has ever been run in such a way, but presumably Ashley thought Newcastle could be the first.

Mike Ashley is not stupid. I do believe this is by now a profound lesson that he has learned and taken to heart. He thought he could reinvent the wheel, and couldn’t. He now knows that Newcastle, to be successful, needs good football people running the team and making important decisions about the playing staff.

To this extent, at least, he has changed. It is a huge change, and shouldn’t be underestimated. But my view is that it is a tactical change. Instead of encircling the opposing infantry with the cavalry, he is using archers to drive a path through the opposing hordes. His strategy, however, is still to kill his opponents in hand to hand combat.

Which brings me to my point.

The overarching purpose of Ashley’s stewardship, which he has in the past tried to dress up as ‘having a little fun’, has always been to make money. This in my view remains his overarching objective. He is not, never has been, and will never be, a fan wanting a day out at Wembley in the royal box.

The strategy, too, remains the same in my humble opinion. He wants the club to live within its means, to spend less than it earns, and to respond profitably to investment. This in his view can be done without the club winning anything, although I have no doubt that Ashley would be delighted if the club won something. Indeed, he would probably love it. But his strategy has never been to win something. His strategy has always been to make money.

His tactics, as we have seen, have fundamentally changed, and probably changed forever. His tactics right now are to do what is necessary, to move heaven and earth to get promoted at the first attempt. Every minute spent in the Championship will be agony.

But if Benitez succeeds, and gets the team back up, what happens then? Benitez remains in charge of the football side of things in the Premiership, and continues to make all decisions about the team.

But what if Ashley and Benitez then find their aspirations for the club diverge? What if Ashley simply doesn’t make the necessary investment to move the club up to the next level – a major force in European football, for example?

We are all delighted that Ashley has made the changes that he has made. Nobody thinks Ashley will be doing the same things the same old way ever again. Ashley might even become a popular figure, hymned by the faithful. It’s possible.

But will he become the strategist fans would like him to be? Will he ever be an owner who is positively facilitating the strategy no doubt already being conceived by Rafa Benitez to win the Champions League, for example.

Or will he instead be falling back on the same old strategy of unadventurous investment decisions designed to keep us in the Premier League? Maybe going for a cup every so often, but nothing more? And upsetting the likes of Benitez in the process?

Perhaps Ashley can see that such a strategy will inevitably end in failure, and eventual relegation, just as it has always done.

Perhaps our owner has changed not only his tactics but also his strategy too. Perhaps he can see that winning the Champions League might be a very effective method of earning a lot of dosh.

Perhaps. We shall see.



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