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Opinion

Starting to wonder if Mike Ashley really wants or intends to sell Newcastle

4 years ago
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I always knew Mike Ashley would not be in for the long haul. I’ve often said so…and I’ve always been wrong.

I always knew Mike Ashley would sell in the short-term. I’ve often said so…and I’ve always been wrong.

Ten long years of brooding, truculent ownership is longer than has ever seemed likely, but there again it’s not long since he was indicating that 2016 was the earliest he would put the club on the market. And here we are in 2017, and the club is on the market. So, in the end, errm, I was right. Wasn’t I?

Of course it’s even less time since the glorious day he appointed Rafa Benitez to be our manager. And it’s just a few months since he persuaded Rafa to stay after relegation when he made promises to our manager he failed to keep. And don’t forget there was that interview on Sky when he said he wouldn’t sell until the club had won a trophy.

But we still haven’t won a trophy, he’s reneged on his promises, and now Amanda Staveley is coming to our games, and her investment fund is entering into confidentiality agreements, and hopeful meetings are apparently being conducted.

One fact is becoming clear. Ashley, who has taken no dividends and no salary from Newcastle during his entire period of ownership, and given us the benefit of zero interest loan facilities, wants a big pay day before he leaves forever.

It would seem £380m will be enough to secure the club. That would mean a net profit of £117m for Ashley, which is not a bad return for a club currently performing well beyond its apparent potential, and a proven two-time success at getting promoted immediately after getting stupidly relegated.

And it is being quietly acknowledged that Ashley wants to sell to a buyer who is going to give Benitez a few quid to spend. I have seen the figure of £500m mentioned. That is pushing the price of our club up towards a billion. That would seem to be affordable for Ms Staveley, who is thought to have offered more than that in an unsuccessful bid to buy Liverpool.

The thing about Newcastle, though, is something that makes the club different from similar Premier League outfits. Our players aren’t worth much, our ground is not owned, there is one substantial debt owed to a single creditor, Ashley himself, which will have to be cleared, and pretty much the entire value of Newcastle United is simply what Ashley thinks it’s worth. That would be what is technically known as the goodwill of historic, grand old Newcastle United.

On that basis, I think it’s a bit of a high valuation. And almost for the first time, I am wondering if Mike Ashley really wants or intends to sell.

Sure, the fall in the value of the pound has made his business a bit less profitable. So much of his expenditure is in dollars, and most of his income is in pounds.

The collapse in profits of Sports Direct revealed in the summer means, more than ever, that Ashley has to wheel and deal and buy in neglected brands and buy existing businesses to try and generate profits. This means he needs cash. Selling Newcastle would be very useful. And famously he has said he will sell on hire purchase terms, and will not require a big chunk of money upfront. All these things suggest he really wants to sell up.

But he has said that he would want to buy another club, perhaps in the lower leagues, and bring them profits and success. And I find myself thinking of something I have often thought about Ashley.

The fundamental thing about the man is that he is a ghastly gambler. He loves nothing better than investing less money than anyone else and getting better results. This sounds to a lot of us like being a cheapskate but to him it’s a gamble.

It’s gone wrong more often than it’s gone right. And, as I’ve said, when the chips are down he DOES invest. Because he knows investing brings success.

But Ashley, in the end, wants to do things differently. Doing well in the league, doing a Leicester, would be his idea of heaven. And, frankly, I wonder if he thinks the age of the unicorn can still dawn at St James Park.

Putting the club on the market takes the heat off. The fans are no longer calling on him to sell, because he is trying to sell.

And Benitez is suddenly saying things like the better the team does the easier it will be for Ashley to sell the club. Already we are no longer looking at Ashley. We are looking at the league table. We are ahead of Liverpool. We could qualify for Europe.

Ashley will sell on his own terms. He wants a price that is too high. I wouldn’t bet on him being offered it. He is bloody-minded enough to stick to his guns. And obstinate enough not to sell after all.

He might decide that the wheel, at Newcastle, even at this stage, so soon after relegation and with a mediocre squad, is actually in the process of being reinvented.

As the author of this particular new wheel, he might want to hang around to see it revolve.
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