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Opinion

Globalisation, Sports Direct shareholders and trying to remove Mike Ashley from Newcastle United

2 years ago
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It’s not been the most propitious start to the new football season for at least one North Eastern football clubs.  Sunderland have made a promising start to life in the old Third Division and look comfortably on track to bounce back to the Championship at the first time of asking.

But for Tyneside’s other great club, life since the summer has been distinctly less pleasant.  At the heart of the problem appears to lie the owners’ attitudes.

Other Premier League clubs were bought as marque brands by hyper-rich bosses, often serving as an expensive playground rather than a profit-making business.  By contrast, Newcastle United in the last ten years has been the model of business sobriety.

The ubiquitous Sports Direct branding at St James Park reminds fans constantly that the Shareholders only care about the bottom line, and are devoid of any passion or sporting ambition.

Previously fans were humiliated by being sponsored by several unsavoury brands and the tacky naming the ground after the boss’s sports shop. This summer saw the revered manager also starved of cash to buy suitable players, and Rafael Benitez was forced to lead an understrength club into the new season with the dark cloud of relegation looming large.

United fans are not a militant lot and never quick to man the barricades.  They endured two relegations in near silence and there’s never been a serious movement to challenge the regime despite the open hostility to long-suffering fans.

But this time, angry fans had had enough.  Rather than walking out of games or booing the team, they targeted what they perceived to be the problem’s source.

They started targeting the owner’s main interest, his branded sport shops chain, protesting working conditions in those shops before home games.  With an annual general meeting coming, a few enterprising fans bought shares in the shops and announced they would be coming to the meeting to ask him a few hard questions.

The company has been under pressure since an expose of distasteful work practices in Sports Direct’s warehouses. Until recently, its directors had deflected these hard questions by simply refusing to respond to allegations.

But the Fan protests seemed to act as a trigger for shareholder discontent as the share price began a post-summer slump. Already concerned about unclear corporate governance, the Chairman stood down before the AGM amid rumours that the big corporate investors had voted against his reappointment.

Mike Ashley poured petrol on the flames by initially refusing to attend the AGM, an uncharacteristic misstep that led to further criticism of arrogance by shareholders.

And rumours emerged about this time that Ashley was looking to sell the club, dropping the price tag to a more realistic £300m.  So it’s not unreasonable to link this fan action and at least a chance to get the club back under a more generous owner.

If Ashley sells, then it will be an increasingly uncommon David and Goliath story of modern times.  Global capitalism has removed people’s sense of control, that they can challenge powerful outside forces that spoil their lives.

That feeling of powerlessness is what drove in part the Brexit vote, people blaming the EU for the gamut of problems thirty years of globalisation brought.  And the NUFC Fans revolt is a stirring reminder of how we can challenge those powerful players that don’t have our best interests at heart.

Things have stopped bettering better in the North East for a decade, on and off the football pitches, and we need to come together to demand that things change.  It’s the only certain way to ensure we can all prosper as we move into an increasingly uncertain future.

This column originally appeared in The Journal newspaper, 22nd September 2018, with the headline “On and off the pitch, we have to demand change”, and is reproduced with the permission of NCJ Media.

You can follow Paul on Twitter @heravalue
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