Another frustrating transfer window, another poor start, another season-long battle to reach the “coveted” 17th place, after which Mike Ashley pockets the TV money and the cycle begins again.
Eventually the gamble will fail and we will be relegated with no guarantee of returning next time. This cannot go on, yet seemingly there is no alternative. Somehow we have to get rid of this owner. The biggest problems for Newcastle United fans to take their club forward and get rid of the obnoxious Mike Ashley, are the imbalance of resources, and the imbalance of needs.
The imbalance of resources is that Mike Ashley is a billionaire, whereas very few true Newcastle fans are even millionaires, and for many the prospect of being an investor in NUFC seems very remote (shares are not publicly traded).
The imbalance of needs is that we need NUFC more than Ashley does. On the one hand, in financial terms the club is a minor property of MASH Holdings, and liquidation is an option which would be painful but not terminal in the scheme of things. Ashley has also been clever enough to saddle the club with £140 million of “interest-free-loan” which will be recovered from any liquidation or sale. On the other it is the loss of 126 years of local history, regional pride and community.
When we look at Rangers, Hereford or Darlington, we realise just how difficult it is to rebuild a football club once the original club has been effectively (and in the eyes of the law) destroyed.
Another aspect of the imbalance is that I believe that Mike Ashley to be a misanthropic individual who measures their personal worth and self-esteem, not by the good they can do, but by the extent that they can damage other people’s lives and make them miserable. To that extent, the more we protest and express our anger while lining his pockets, the happier he is. If he worries about people’s opinion of him he would have gone years ago.
What then is Mike Ashley’s interest in Newcastle United?
Clearly he believes that investing in players, ground, training ground and academy to create a first team capable of competing in the Champions League and challenging for the Premier League Championship, would not achieve the return on investment that he is seeking. He is clearly obtaining other benefits from his ownership.
As well as the traditional revenues accruing to football club owners such as gate receipts, sponsorship, and commercial revenues, we can add the Premier League TV deal and other PL revenues. Bizarrely for a top club, we can also add player trading due to the infamous “blueprint” which prioritises the resale value of the player ahead of any contribution he may make to on-field success.
Added to all this is the contribution NUFC makes to Sports Direct. NUFC shops have been eliminated as competition to SD; the adverts all around the ground and in the “mixed zone” seen by millions on TV are given free by the club; the players are roped in to promote SD stores. These hidden revenues and benefits clearly have substantial value to Sports Direct.
The campaign to liberate NUFC depends on changing the two imbalances outlines above. Despite all the angry fans calling for a boycott of the home games, attacking the club revenues is unlikely to be successful as it will only damage the club without hurting Ashley in any significant way. The imbalance of need means that the fans will have difficulty mobilising a real effort to financially damage their club. Meanwhile Ashley can afford to sit back and do nothing. There is therefore a need to address the imbalances in the present situation and level up the playing field.
If Ashley were to offer the club to the fans tomorrow we would have an incredible task to raise the asking, even if it was a fair price. The Supporters Trust therefore needs to build up a considerable asset base. This will best be in businesses which complement eventual ownership of the club. At one time it seemed like investing in a brewery and a chain of pubs would be ideal but that whole industry is struggling at the moment. Investing in local sports goods shops and leisure retailers may also serve to attack SD directly (see below). With continuing investment by fans in the Trust, and profits ploughed back into further expansion, the capacity to buy out any owner of the club will steadily increase. It may even be strategically wise to build up a holding in Sports Direct itself as a bargaining chip.
The second imbalance to address is that we need the club more than Ashley does. Damaging the club through boycotts is not a long-term option for us and he knows it. As long as his wealth is outside the club he is beyond reach. We therefore need to reduce the wealth represented by Sports Direct. The threat of a sustained campaign against SD is something Ashley is afraid of; note how quickly the KBA propaganda machine has been rolled out into action as our attention has shifted to SD. Ashley is apparently fond of the phrase “parking his tanks on the lawn.” Well, by targeting Sports Direct we are parking our tanks on his lawn. Hitting Sports Direct to the point where the benefits of NUFC ownership are less than the damage to the rest of the empire and NUFC is sold off to save the rest, is I believe a viable strategy. If the only willing buyer is NUST then it is win-win.
The potential is there. Sports Direct has stores nationwide and further but we have fans in many places too. There is a Sports Direct store in Dundalk where I live – there is also a group of fans who meet in a local pub to watch matches on TV and arrange trips to SJP. There is an SD and a House of Fraser in Dublin: there are Mags there too. Just about every store in the UK will have its own little group judging by those I have met on away trips. It is this breadth of approach which will lead to be success. Two thousand people outside the Northumberland Street store is impressive and gets headlines: four people outside every SD store will be far more effective, especially if they peacefully dissuade customers from entering the SD stores and to take their custom elsewhere, and get local media coverage while doing so. We can also take the fight to anyone associated with him: his PR people, auditors and solicitors.
Don’t forget, we have allies. Unite the Union campaigns against the poor terms and conditions at the Shirebrook Depot. There are also concerns about zero hours contracts among shop staff. Going on past history House of Fraser staff are facing a massive attack on their wages and conditions. Fair-trade campaigners are unhappy about the working conditions in SD overseas suppliers. Customers are unhappy about the contempt with which they are treated. Even fans of other clubs are often sympathetic to our cause, particularly Rangers, who were infected by him too. To borrow a current phrase, “we are many.”
What is needed is an effective campaign network to focus on Sports Direct.
This would cover:
Organisers: every SD store to have a designated contact to organise against it;
Material: leaflets, contact cards, “five reasons not to shop at Sports Direct” cards etc;
Publicity, photos, tweets of activity.
The aim is not to destroy Ashley, but to make his continued ownership of NUFC a liability to the point where it is in his long-term interests to sell at a fair price. Either he goes or the club dies, it’s that simple. It’s us or him.