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A cunning plan from Mike Ashley?

3 years ago

I once had a job in a big, well known, international company. One thing I learned was that the level of planning you did, was almost entirely related to your position.

Imagine a factory making tomato ketchup.

The guy on the bottling machine is interested in the next hour. He starts the machine when it stops, and he goes and gets reels of labels, boxes of bottle caps and so on before his current supply runs out. When his shift is over, he probably doesn’t think about what he needs to do tomorrow, because he’ll be doing much the same thing.

Those immediately above him need to look a bit further ahead. If the line is changing from big bottles to small bottles in 2 days, they need to make sure that everything they need is available, and that the skills are in place to do it smoothly.

And so it goes on, and – you’d hope – at the top of the organisation sits a person who is looking 3, 5, 10 years ahead. They need to know what the competition is doing, what the taxman has in store, how Brexit is likely to go (if you meet anyone who does, let me know) and how consumer tastes are changing. If next year’s Spanish tomato crop looks like it will fail, or Turkey starts a trade war, he or she needs to have a contingency supply. If they do their job well, the bloke on the bottling machine might get to keep his.

The man at the top of our organisation arrived at the club 10 years ago, seemingly without a plan, and he doesn’t seem to have stumbled upon one since. It’s as if Mike Ashley bought Newcastle United on a drunken flurry of late night internet shopping, and only remembered he’d done it 3 days later when it was delivered to his house and Mrs Ashley started shouting at him.

The thing is, I bet Sports Direct has a 3, 5, 10-year plan. I bet Mike has a plan for a bad Brexit, knows what his competitors are doing, and where he wants to open new stores and close others. Somewhere in the world an impoverished factory worker will be changing his T-shirt machine from printing pictures of Lionel Messi to printing pictures of Luka Modric. We might not like Sports Direct, but he seems to have made it work for the past 10 years.

It appears to me that there are two ways big football clubs are run these days. Either you have a whole bunch of directors of football, scouts and analysts who tell the coach which players are coming and what the style of football is going to be, or you have a manager who decides these things, and the owners put a team in place to support him. The system a fan favours may depend upon whether your manager is Rafael Benitez or Joe Kinnear!

For the life of me, I cannot work out what the plan is at Newcastle, or who is in charge. If it’s Mike Ashley, then he needs to spend more than 3 days a year on Tyneside. If it’s Lee Charnley, then he needs to tell us what his plan is, and if it’s Rafa, then he needs to be given what he needs to get on with it. All he seems to want is a couple of decent strikers and a better academy, and I don’t think that is too much to ask for. In fact, if Mike Ashley had put some proper investment into the academy 10 years ago – everyone could see it was failing – then he might have saved himself a few quid since.

There was, briefly, a plan in place a few years ago, which seem to have a single thread: sign a promising French footballer for a minimal fee, gamble on him doing well, and then sell him on at a profit. It was a destructive plan, which we hated, but at least it was a plan. We don’t even have that now. Ashley manages remotely and Charnley is the complete opposite of King Midas – everything he touches turns to crap. The only one of them that has any sense of purpose or direction is Rafa, and he is endlessly frustrated by his employers.

It’s a business that is designed to fail, and – if Premier League survival is the objective – it’s a business that has already failed twice. It is only through world class management and incredible commitment to the cause by the playing staff that we didn’t fail a third time last season.

I did hope that – having proved his worthiness – Rafa would have been given licence to pursue his vision. I credited Mike Ashley with the intelligence to see that he had someone with the credentials, the knowledge and the experience to make Newcastle a force again without leaving him skint; someone that can come up with a plan, articulate it to those within and without the club, and get on with achieving it.

I also thought Mike Ashley might see what we all see: this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity. We simply won’t get another Rafa. Another season of ‘let’s see if we can manage with what we have, and I might panic buy in January if that doesn’t work’ won’t be good enough. It could well see us retain Premier League status for another season, but there can’t be a soul who thinks Rafa would sign a new contract under those circumstances. And you don’t need to be Mystic Meg to envisage a player exodus following that; and if that did happen, what the hell has Mike achieved?

We have a bunch of senior politicians in this country who seriously believe a “No Deal” Brexit will work. Mike Ashley seems to have similar confidence in a “No Plan” Newcastle United.

They must all think we are mugs…


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