Mike Ashley – Sinner to Saint?

by Sam Wheatley

Tuesday, November 2nd, 2010

Newcastle’s triumphant return to the Premier League was underlined on Sunday with a 5-1 thumping of rivals Sunderland. Back to work yesterday, Hughton still wasn’t summoned to the board room to put pen to paper on a new contract, and the reason is that Mike Ashley and Derek Llambias have decided to use the relegation and subsequent return to the Premier League as means of finding a new way to run the club…and not a moment too soon.

The era that Keegan established when he brought them into the Premier League was laden with lavish, often bad value purchases. This continued through until their 2008/09 season, to lesser degrees each season, until the impossible happened and Newcastle went down in turmoil. The fans have always had a big say in the running of Newcastle United, and Ashley has been on the receiving end of a lot of negative attention from them.

Ashley is trying to apply the same business acumen to Newcastle that he has to his sportswear brand, which I’ve noticed have stayed open throughout these times of economic climate (including their almost constant huge sales). They’re accounting for every penny at St. James’ Park, which is a better approach than levering the club up on a mountain of debt, or taking out loans to cover loans to cover loans. Newcastle aren’t a small club, but Liverpool are huge and look what almost happened to them. Under the current conditions, it’s best to show some frugality and establish a future than going for broke trying to appease the die-hards.

The rumour was that he did try to sell the club, but nobody met his (or presumably the fans’) high valuation of the Tyne outfit. Nowadays every penny is scrutinised severely, and this is the reason Hughton doesn’t have a new contract. They’re waiting to see how the season pans out, hoping for a mid-table finish, before handing Hughton a reported £1 million deal. The only irony is that Hughton’s ‘team’ approach may seem undermined by the board’s reluctance to offer him a deal.

The argument is that by not giving Hughton the opportunity to commit himself, there is a lack of support and a level of instability. But if Hughton knows this, surely there is an added incentive for him to continue to achieve? The former Spurs man gained promotion with ease, has more or less kept the squad in-tact, and has achieved some outstanding results this season, including the drubbings of Sunderland and Aston Villa.

Ashley and Llambias’ new approach may also mean that prized assets such as Andy Carroll may not be forced to leave the club. Certainly, if Carroll continues to improve then he may seek opportunities elsewhere if Newcastle do not travel on an upward-trajectory in-line with his ambitions, but if the books are balancing then the club will have no need to cash in on a prized asset so early in his career.

Steven Taylor slapped in a late transfer request during the last transfer window, supposedly due to the board offering £20,000 less per week than what the Greenwich-born defender was asking. Still, Hughton has not frozen him out, choosing to understand the player’s frustration and including him in his 25-man Premier League squad. Currently injured, it will be interesting to see how much of a difference Taylor’s return makes. Hughton is still confident of some resolution for Taylor – the two are in a fairly similar position.

These are not symptoms of crisis (at a club that is no stranger to it) – they are instead a step in the right direction for a football club that has been so profligate in the past. That approach finally had them relegated, and the fans will not want that to happen again. Football has changed, and Ashley is using his business acumen to solidify the foundations of Newcastle United. Where they go from there is another matter, but should they finish in mid-table this season the negotiations can begin.

It may be too late for Taylor by then, but some casualties are expected. I should think that Hughton will be around until the end of the season, and beyond. His presence at Newcastle United will coincide with their continued presence in the Premier League. The value-for-money approach might seem unsettling to some, but at least Graeme Souness or Sam Allardyce aren’t tied to the club on big contracts. Under the current regime, it won’t happen again which is good news for Newcastle and football alike.

It is too early to tell how well this approach works for the club, but it’s certainly a much-improved mindset that will serve them well. It’s not a lack of ambition – it’s a sensible and realistic approach to running a club in the modern climate. Maybe in a few years, Ashley’s regime will begin to reap dividends, as other clubs around them crumble into the sea.

Obviously, it could all go wrong, but the business-minded approach to the day-to-day running will mean that as others incur debt around them, Newcastle United will be better placed to buy and improve than those around them paying back loans.

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  • http://www.larnaca-links.com/ Cyprus-Toon

    That was a very well informed, researched, non-bias, non-critical post I must say, very well done, not very often we see many of these around, especially with regards to the Toon, it’s normally someone having a pop or wanting to make headlines by trying to stir up trouble, so I must admit to being impressed with what you’ve written here, well done… 🙂

  • DA

    ‘The rumour was that he did try to sell the club, but nobody met his (or presumably the fans’) high valuation of the Tyne outfit. ‘ ???

    RUMOUR!!! It was a fact and the valuation had nothing to do with ‘presumably the fans’ as you put it but was solely down to the owner – whether you call the high price greed or an attempt to recoup as much money as possible is irrelevant, but please don’t blame the fans who mostly thought he was asking too much. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for the club being run sensibly, but don’t forget the owner has to take a large amount of responsibility for relegation and the mess the club were in – something he (finally) admitted after the Keegan court case, where Ashley et al were shown to be persistent liars to the manager and the fans alike.

  • Stardust

    Now then Cyprus – funny the places you find folk lol.

    Just echoing Cyprus’s view – very well written article fella. Bravo.

  • tom

    steven taylor is/was not club captain.

  • rokkudan

    I’m still not convinced by Ashley, he will take any offer for the club that will give him a profit. Does betting on 17 on roulette now mean you have good business acumen?
    he was poorly advised when he bought the club and didn’t know of the debt, how is that good business acumen?
    he realised he made a huge mistake couldn’t sell and is now running the club like scrooge 9until a profit comes along)

  • Pablo1610

    i think you will find that steven taylor was told he was on the transfer list, rather than handing in a transfer request. otherwise an informed article. some facts need straightening out

  • Sam Wheatley

    @tom: Oversight on my part there…amended. I’m not sure why I wrote that…

    @rokkudan: He might have made initial mistakes, but Ashley was new to the world of football club ownership. Unlike many investors, he has realised his mistakes and is making conscious efforts to stabilise Newcastle United. Due to the fan base (which at no point have I taken any shots at, I might add) Newcastle have always had the potential to be a very big club indeed, but have always jumped in too deep, too soon. Remember that with debt, owners can sell the club for a pound and lose all of the debt hanging over their heads. Ashley didn’t do this and some time soon, Newcastle will be one of the few clubs to break even. Once this happens, there might be a bit more spending. In the meantime, the squad on paper is good enough to finish mid-table (higher if they maintain the spirit in the camp) and augmentations such as the loan signing of the Hatem Ben Arfa are always exciting possibilities.

  • 5-1

    who on earth is going to buy the toon so ashley makes a profit?

  • Sam Wheatley

    @5-1: Good point. I don’t think Ashley is trying to sell the club. I think he’s trying to be the best owner he can be, and he’s clearly learning some important lessons.

    The transfer listing of Taylor (a factual error for which I apologise) will probably be resolved if he performs when he makes his comeback, and will become a slight aberration. If he does leave, it may not make much difference – the team seems to be performing without him at the moment.

  • ellisethan

    I think most of this is tosh.

    No mention of Keegan’s inspired buys (Lee, Ginola etc) and as every manager currently and in the past has done, he only bought what he thought would improve the team (a la Mancini, Mourhino, Hughes, Ancelotti, Ferguson, O’leary (at leeds) etc), with the money available. Not his fault if the Chairman allowed the money to be available.

    Essentially, the club is being run in the way it is more to chance than good management. Ashley didn’t have a clue. He brought in Kinnear, Hughton, Shearer and when we went down it was a case of ‘Chris we’re paying you knack all, do you fancy the job?’

    Fortunatley it has worked out well and in CH we have a dignified leader who seems to motivate the team.

    IMO Ashely has been dead lucky and if at anytime the season looks to be derailed we’ll be up for sale again. Any money!!

  • Danny Goodwin

    5-1, I think that if Newcastle was up for sale there would definitely be more than a few interested parties. I think that Ashley will have gone by June, sold up and got a good return.

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