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Opinion

Comparing 13 years of Mike Ashley with Sir John Hall and Freddy Shepherd regime

5 months ago
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There is often a lot of discussion about the merits of the previous regime that owned and ran the club prior to the Mike Ashley Newcastle United takeover, in fact some are anti the Sir John Hall and Freddy Shepherd ownership.

So, I thought I’d spend a bit of time and look at the two regimes in a bit more detail.

Not just the financial aspect of them but how the club was when they took over, how they interacted with the media, both locally and nationally, how they interacted with the area off the field and of course the style of play on the pitch.

The first thing I will say is that both regimes were run by businessmen, the Sir John Hall and Freddy Shepherd era and the Mike Ashley regime were there to make a profit for their owners, how they went about this is vastly different though.

How they ran things and how they got paid by the club were vastly different, as were the management styles. Nevertheless, they were all there to earn money for themselves. With all businessmen, everything is saleable and for sale at any time, it just depends on the right buyer with the right money, when the owner wants to sell. One thing I will say at this point, is that if there had been no Hall/Shepherd then there would have been no Ashley.

Within the laws, how the owners set the club up and got paid was so vastly different, that said, if you say that you believe one set of accounts then you have to take it that the other set are also above board. We cannot say we believe one regime set of accounts that has been given to Companies House and not the other regime’s set of accounts.

For the purpose of this article I have used figures taken from respected sources as Swiss Ramble and The Price of Football as well as the companies accounts prior to 2007 for the Hall/Shepherd time and post 2007 for the Ashley time. I have also sought advice from a marketing executive with regards to advertising and a Chartered accountant friend to explain one or two things, he’s a Leeds fan but I won’t hold that against him.

We also must take into consideration that the regimes operated in vastly different times and had access to very different financial backing.

THE STARTING POINTS

Sir John Hall and Freddy Shepherd

Casting our minds back to the dark days of 1991 and the McKeag regime, United had been relegated from the old Division 1 and were perilously close to the trap door of Division 2. At that time in the 1991/2 season they were in 20th position and in the relegation zone, having gone out of both clubs in the third round (we know that feeling). This would have been the lowest point in the club’s history since being elevated to the Football League in 1893.

On field the football was as you would expect, poor, in that they had a relatively untried manager in Osvaldo Ardiles and were mostly playing the kids as there was no money for transfers. Unfortunately, as the year turned the shortcomings were laid bare in a relegation fight that would go to the last day of the season.

The club was also in peril off the field with finances at an all time low, it wasn’t far from going to the wall. The accounts posted for the 1990/1 financial year showed the club had a turnover of £3.9m but with that came a loss of £1.3m. In the following year the turnover did increase to £4.1m but also the loss increased to £2.5m which is unsustainable. It is not unreasonable to say that in the first few months of the Hall/Shepherd era the club were within a whisker of going out of business, some say it was as near as two hours away from collapse, it is however difficult to substantiate this.

The actual takeover was completed from the McKeag regime in early 1992. The takeover was estimated at £3m for 76%.

Mike Ashley

It was a very different starting point for the Ashley regime both on the field and off the field. The actual takeover, whilst being bitter at the end, was not as drawn out or as bitter as the Hall/Shepherd takeover in 1991. To start with, he had a willing seller in Sir John Hall, after also then securing Freddy Shepherd’s shares, it was only time before owing to the takeover rules the other shareholders had to sell their shares to him, finally taking over in July 2007.

On the field the team had finished a respectable 12th in the Premiership at the end of the 2006/7 season, with manager Sam Allardyce at the helm, having taken over from Glenn Roeder in the very final stages of the campaign.

The playing staff was in okay fettle but in need of reinforcements, but true to as when the Hall/Shepherd regime had started, the side went out of the cups at the 3rd and 4th round stages. It would also be a guide to the future attitude to the cups.

michael owen

Off the field it was also a better start than the Hall/Shepherd starting point. In the previous two years the club had made a small profit of £0.6m in 2005 and a loss of £12m in 2006, this was set against a turnover of £87.1m in 2005 and £82.8m in 2006. Indeed, in the next two years of the Ashley reign the club would make a loss, with a loss of £32.2m posted in 2008 and a loss of £20.3m in 2009.

This only tells part of the story; behind the façade of the accounts the club was mortgaged to the hilt. Unfortunately, Ashley had to repay one of the heaviest loans not long after he took over, a figure of £45m, this was due to a clause in the agreement for the loan obtained by Freddie Shepherd. It was allegedly missed by Ashley and his people when they bought the club because they supposedly didn’t do due diligence.

Conclusion

Whilst there is no denying that the state of the club after the takeover of Ashley made the running of the club for the next three years difficult. As all the loans were long term and secured against St James Park and future ticket sales. The player payments were also spread out with the length of their contract, this was normal for all clubs at this time. It does not compare to the state that the Hall/Shepherd regime inherited from the McKeag regime. They had to literally put money in to secure the future of the club as the bank (Barclays) had pulled the overdraft, something that didn’t happen in 2007 and it is hypothetical to assume if it would or wouldn’t happen.

HOW THE CLUB IS SET UP UNDER OWNERSHIP

This area is concerned with the general set up of the club during the ownership of each regime, mainly concerned with the board and structure of the club and not the finance aspect of them. The finances will be dealt with in a separate section.

Sir John Hall and Freddy Shepherd

During the takeover period of 1991/2 there was several director changes with the old guard resigning and the new ones taking their place. The number peaked at nine but also had a general manager, but by the full takeover the directors numbered four with only one, Russell Cushing, left from the old regime, this would appear to be a prudent move as he knew the workings of the club, having served as general manager. Cushing would stay on the board for the whole of the Hall/Shepherd tenure, the same as Freddie Shepherd and Douglas Hall who stayed for the entire duration.

These positions were paid positions and that would be considered normal in any company. Whilst the numbers on the board are small in comparison to other clubs either then or now, it was still a normal structure to have paid board members and then general managers and financial officers underneath. The year after the takeover the highest paid director earned £40,000, in 2006 at the end of the reign the highest paid director earned £171,000, not an insignificant sum at the time but again in line with other clubs.

At the time of the takeover the club had 96 full time and 50 part time staff, a total of 146 employees. At the end of the tenure this had grown to 95 on the playing staff and management, 852 in the staff in the commercial department and 407 in administration a total of 1354 staff, it isn’t clear that at the end what the split between full time and part time positions. The important thing at this point is that is a local company, and these were local jobs.

Effectively there were two regimes in the Hall/Shepherd time, the Hall time, where Sir John Hall was chairman and lasted from 1991 to 1997 and the Shepherd era lasting from 1997 until the Ashley takeover. Both parts in some ways were very different, Sir John brought in Freddie Shepherd and Freddie Fletcher. The latter, often called the Jockweiler, was instrumental in the financial good work in the early part of the Hall/Shepherd time.

After the Hall/Shepherd takeover the club was in private ownership (a private limited company). This would be changed later when the club was floated on the stock market in 1997, meaning at this time the shares or at least some of them would be available to the public and institutions. At about this time Sir John Hall stepped down and Freddie Fletcher retired, after this time the financial stability of the club was less secure, and this possibly had a bearing when Sir John decided to sell his shares to Ashley.

One of the main points is the operation in different times. The Hall/Shepherd regime needed the fans on board from the very start, not only with the takeover but in what was the revenue they generated. This amounted to a good portion of the club’s turnover.

Mike Ashley

Immediately after the Ashley takeover there was only one listed director, Chris Mort, being supported by John Irving as Secretary, but who was also in charge of financial matters. A year after the takeover there is five directors including Lee Charnley, Derek Llambias and Dennis Wise. This matches the previous regime in that these directorships where paid positions.

mike ashley and dennis wise

During Ashley’s tenure the numbers and names of most of the directors have changed, with the number peaking at four during the managerial reign of Steve McClaren. By the last accounts I have available there is only one director, Lee Charnley, and no general manager.

After the regime had been running a full year it is worth noting at this point that the highest paid director not named in the accounts was earning £415,218, there was also £1.3m paid to Freshfields for the services of Chris Mort. The last accounts indicate that the director’s salaries were £334,000, as the only director listed is Lee Charnley, we can only take it that is his salary.

At the first full year’s accounts after the takeover the staff was as follows, playing and coaching staff 118, commercial dept 168, administration 139 this meant that there was 425 staff, again it is unclear as to the split of full/part time employees. It is noticeable that this is down by 929 staff. This is a notable reduction in only a year and prior to the reduction in numbers after the 2009 relegation. In 2018 the last accounts available, the staff employment figure was playing and coaching staff 152, Business operations (Commercial % Administration) 119, a total of 271 employed at NUFC. There was an addition of 460 matchday stewards.

Newcastle United under Ashley is a wholly owned subsidiary of MASH Holdings, who also own 60% of the shares in Fraser Group (formerly Sports Direct). This means that Newcastle United as a club reports to MASH Holdings. It also means that any profits the club may have are to be paid to the holding company.

This means in simple terms that the money does not technically belong to Ashley himself, it does belong to a company that he wholly owns. The money only becomes his personal property once it is taken out of the holding company. Whilst it sounds as if he doesn’t get the money, that is not true either as he has total control of MASH Holdings and therefore can use the funds available to him within the company to buy other companies or invest elsewhere as he deems necessary.

We then come to the subject of interest free loans, which are often indicated that they come directly from Ashley’s personal vault. They don’t, they come from MASH Holdings and are used to offset taxes due to the holding company and indirectly to Ashley. This is one of the most likely reasons that most of the loans have never been paid back, only the latter ones.

Conclusion

With the Hall/Shepherd regime, it was set up in a more traditional and democratic way in that the board of directors would discuss the direction of the club. The addition of another layer of management who were employed assisted this.

The democratic model can have disadvantages in that it can fail to go forwards if the directors disagree. As a rule, this doesn’t appear to have happened during the regime. With the club being floated on the stock exchange fans could if possible, get their hands on shares in their own club when they became available.

sir john hall

There were problems with the running of the club in the second part of the regime, where it was run from what can be described as fans perspective and not a business perspective.

With the Ashley regime there is no question that he neither values nor likes the fans, nor does he need their revenue to run the club as the television deals far outweigh the money generated from the terraces.

Ashley’s set up is a sole trader within a limited company, no external sources can buy shares in the club.

This means that the club is set up as a dictatorship with one person running the club, even if staff run the club on a day to day basis it is only one person that decides the direction of the club and its finances. To a large extent the club have been more financially secure under the Ashley regime than the last ten years of the Hall/Shepherd regime, but it hasn’t grown in the same rate as the Hall/Shepherd regime, something I will cover later.

(Two further instalments of this monster article to come, as Brian Dingle examines other areas of running Newcastle United, comparing and contrasting the Mike Ashley regime, with that of Sir John Hall and Freddy Shepherd)

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