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Opinion

For Mike Ashley, success at Newcastle United isn’t part of the plan

6 months ago
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After Newcastle United beat Leicester City last month, Rafa Benitez was interviewed pitchside by Sky Sports.

Benitez is currently engaged in stuttering negotiations on an extension to his contract, which runs out at the end of the season. During the interview, he set out his requirements clearly: more investment, not only in the transfer market, but in Newcastle’s run-down training ground and neglected academy.

Subsequent reports have suggested that these conditions won’t be met. That Benitez compared the negotiations to Brexit is telling – Newcastle’s owner Mike Ashley has set his red lines, and is willing to throw away an incredibly fruitful relationship rather than bend to the will of the people.

Benitez is a Champions League-winning manager whose CV reads like a who’s who of the European elite. Surely, Ashley should tie him down immediately, whatever his demands?

Well, yes, he should. But that doesn’t seem to be Mike Ashley’s thinking. Benitez has become an irritant to an owner who has long since gone past the point of caring about his club as a sporting venture. Were Ashley to lock down Benitez and secure Newcastle’s long-term future, there’s always the danger that this might lead to a bit too much success on the pitch. And for Ashley, success at Newcastle isn’t part of the plan.

Some might say this is a conspiracy theory of the type that pervades modern football fandom and makes Twitter an absolute cesspit. Others may accuse me of downright cynicism (and they’d be right). But the facts of Ashley’s ownership paint a picture of a man who doesn’t simply lack the appetite for success, he actively wants to avoid it.

Newcastle United has been ‘up for sale’ for 18 months, but seems to be vastly over-valued. Consortia led by Amanda Staveley and Peter Kenyon have balked at the £400m fee Ashley appears to be holding out for. This is his quoted price for a club that has been relegated twice in ten years, whose training ground and academy require upgrade and whose stadium is in dire need of remedial work. In 2017, when British-Iranian businessman Farhad Moshiri bought a 49.9% stake in Everton, the club was valued at a total of £175m. £400m for the Toon seems laughable.

For Mike Ashley though, the value in owning a Premier League club has nothing to do with football. In his eyes, what he owns isn’t a community institution with 125 years of history, nor a sporting icon and member of the ‘Greatest League in the World.’ He owns the world’s biggest – and most lucrative – billboard. St James’ Park is festooned from tip to toe in Sport Direct branding, for which the club receives no remuneration. Although the ground is no longer officially named the ‘Sports Direct Arena,’ it might as well be for the amount of red-and-blue insignia in everyone’s eye-line as they watch a match. This has had a major impact on Newcastle’s commercial revenue, but who cares, when the boss’s ‘real’ business is doing so well?

While most Premier League clubs have seen the new TV deals as an opportunity for more and more investment, Mike Ashley has seen them as a chance for his Sports Direct brand to gain more and more exposure. Sports Direct is a pariah – Ashley himself was hauled in front of a Parliamentary select committee to defend the Dickensian treatment of his warehouse staff. Many advertisers shun the company, but using St James Park, Ashley can beam his brand’s logo into the homes of millions of football fans around the world, every week, free of charge (in fact, he’s paid to do so). For a man whose fortune is built on bargains, that’s too good to give up lightly.

Perversely, the worse Newcastle get on while remaining in the Premier League, the better for Ashley’s marketing efforts. This season alone, Newcastle games have been scheduled for live TV coverage 19 times, behind only the obvious half dozen clubs. In a relegation fight, every game is a big game. Contrast this with mid-table Watford, who have been shown ten times. Before Christmas, Burnley were shown only four times on Sky or BT Sport, presumably because the TV execs felt that after their strong showing last season, another mid-table finish beckoned. As they fell into the mire post-December, their TV exposure doubled.

It suits Ashley for Newcastle to remain perennially locked in relegation battles without ever going down. It’s a gamble, sure, but Ashley loves the casinos. Both times the club has slipped into the Championship on his watch, Ashley has ensured its return at the first time of asking. In Benitez’ first full season, Newcastle’s wage bill was more than twice that of their nearest Championship rival. But once the club gets back up, that’s the limit of its ambitions, thankyouverymuch.

To lift Newcastle to a position where it could compete year-on-year with established Premier League teams would require at least some investment in a Premier League quality playing squad.

In the first decade of his tenure, the club made a net investment of £6.4m per season in the transfer market – peanuts by today’s standards. There are other forms of investment that could be made, but Ashley is loathe to plough money into an academy which could be used to produce the players to hoist the team into mid-table. Why bother, when marketing value for his main concern would diminish?

Before Benitez came on the scene, this model was safeguarded by leaving the club in the hands of charlatans (Alan Pardew, Dennis Wise, Tony Jimenez), and incompetents (Joe Kinnear, Steve McClaren, Lee Charnley). Men of integrity (Kevin Keegan, Chris Hughton) were sidelined and undermined. Now that Newcastle has a top manager in charge, that pattern is repeating once again. Ashley’s approach is to strangle any ambition through lack of funds and broken promises. When Benitez does decide enough is enough, you’d put good money on Tim Sherwood being installed as the next Toon boss.

Mike Ashley isn’t ‘killing’ Newcastle United in the same way that other owners are (dishonourable mentions for the shysters at Charlton, Bolton and formerly Blackpool). But he does seem very happy to leave his club in a vegetative state on life support. As long as the TV deals keep rolling in, Ashley won’t want Newcastle to fail. But he certainly won’t want it succeeding all that much, either.

(Graeme also has his own website which you can visit here.)

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