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Opinion

Mike Ashley will never forget 4 April 2014

4 months ago
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Remember the 4th April 2014…Mike Ashley probably does.

That glorious day when his Sports Direct shares hit an all-time high, an eye watering £9.22

At this point, he was winning the game. Granted, those shares have since taken a little bit of a tumble (stop laughing, please (ED: now currently £2.91 at 12 noon on Tuesday 11 June 2019)), but the reason for the success of Sports Direct, just part of Mike Ashley’s empire, can be put down to what he would say is his greatest loss-leader: Newcastle United.

If he is to be believed, his venture into the world of Premier League – and briefly Championship – football has cost him dear. “I have put my £250m in the football club, guys, that’s it, there is no more from me” he said in one of his (in)famous interviews to Sky Sports (Direct).

Frankly, that only told half the story, because the real question people would like to know is how much money has Newcastle United put into Mike Ashley, either directly through TV money and generated income, as well as raised profile his ownership brings? And that’s the crux of the problem throughout the years: by how much has Mike Ashley enriched himself to the detriment of the club?

This key, base issue is then compounded by a multitude of other nonsensical decisions. His apparent hard-line stance on issues related to control would make Jacob Rees-Mogg blush…but maybe that’s what makes him such a good businessman.

Why then, does Mike Ashley seem to take such unfathomable decisions? Often to the detriment of the team; decisions which, most likely, resulted in the two relegations which were entirely avoidable?

Perhaps it’s because the man is a gambler – addicted to the game of chance in the quest to maximise profit for minimal input; the adrenaline rush that comes with flying by seat of your pants and making high stakes decisions.

He’s well aware of the high risk/reward strategy he employs in relation to Benitez, transfers, advertising, Debenhams, and much of the high street pie he has, or had his digits in. Because he realises that if he can maintain his control over as much of the financial aspects of everything in his life, he can have all the cake and eat it. And if he loses, so what? He lost far more in Debenhams than he ever would with NUFC and history suggests he will win more than he loses.

The two key questions of whether Ashley will go and Benitez will stay are patently two of the most important dual-crossroads in years at the club. On one hand it is understandable nothing has been said on the former issue, on the latter the reason for silence is anyone’s guess – but no one should try.

So Newcastle fans are left to consume any scrap of information available; if they could read something into how Mike Ashley tied his shoelaces they would.

An example: Rafa Benitez is spotted at the training ground for the first time since the end of the season. This is pored over by fans and media alike.

What does it mean?

Is he saying his goodbyes?

Is he starting pre-season prep?

Is Sheikh Khaled waiting for him with a frosty Carlsberg, with the news that he is his new boss?

Has he forgotten to shut the window in his office and he’s just nipping back to check?

Or maybe, it’s because as manager of Newcastle United he’s simply doing his duty as a man who will be paid around £300,000 between now and the end of his contract on June 30.

In truth, no one knows.

The bottom line is this: there is a form of psychological torture being inflicted on fans of the club by a man who likes to toy with the idea of selling up. This will only happen, however, if the terms are right for him.

Parallels between Mike Ashley and Donald Trump putting the NHS on the table in a trade deal with the UK spring to mind; someone so utterly self-interested (and to be fair, why not?) that the ability to negotiate a compromise right for all is remote, and this is why ultimately, the club is unlikely to be sold this summer. Crucially, selling Newcastle United would significantly lower his profile and exposure; for all he likes to say he is a man who likes to keep to the shadows, the reality is never before has a man so media shy been so paradoxically front-and-centre – and he must love it. Which is why putting a price on this kind of vanity trip is so difficult for anyone looking to buy the club.

The dual agony of whether Benitez will stay must be unbearable. A man so revered on Tyneside not so much because of what he has achieved – in reality there are managers with much lower profiles and less stellar CVs who have been backed sufficiently to achieve more, but more because of what he has endured, represents, and significantly, promises. He’s like the top F1 driver who isn’t allowed to take the car out of second gear, but if he could, my word… at least that’s the theory.

And so Newcastle fans hop back on the hamster wheel of doom for another season of joy. As they’re being treated like the good old Sports Direct staple: massive mugs.

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