Being the owner of a football club can be something of a poisoned chalice, a fact Mike Ashley was quick to learn following his purchase of the club for £134m in 2007. Having failed to comply with due diligence in the sale, Ashley needed to add around a further £100m investment into the club to cover existing debts and prevent the collapse of his newly-acquired prize. But rather than being viewed as the saviour of the Toon, Ashley quickly found himself cast as the villain of the piece.
Showing his True Colours
After trying to ingratiate himself with the local fans, turning up at a nightclub in the city centre and putting money behind the bar to buy everyone a drink, a divide between owner and fans soon developed. It wasn’t long before his claims of being a fan were quickly quashed as it transpired he’s actually a lifelong Tottenham supporter.
In the boardroom, things proved no less thorny as his decisions were also met with confusion and simmering apprehension. After publicly falling out with first Kevin Keegan and then Chris Hughton – the latter allegedly refusing to force his players into signing a rearranged bonus payment scheme prior to the season beginning – Ashley’s erratic footballing decisions slowly eroded any credibility he still had.
A lack of integrity and decorum has continued to unfold throughout the last decade, each time seeing Ashley’s stock plummet to a new low even when it appeared that the bottom had already been hit.
On Her Majesty’s Not So Secret Service
There is currently a huge axe hanging over the club in terms of the HMRC investigation which is refusing to disappear. Lee Charnley, the Managing Director of Newcastle, looks to be the main rogue in the lineup or, at least, he looks to be the most likely character to carry the can due to his position overseeing operations.
More worryingly, any prosecutions by the tax officials could see the FA become embroiled. Potential sanctions could include a transfer ban, a future points deduction or even a potential demotion of the team. While this is an unlikely turn of events, neither is it entirely out of the current picture and it will surely be a major concern for any interested parties.
As Things Stand
While Newcastle have enjoyed a reasonably bright start to life back in the Premiership, life off the pitch has remained erratic enough to put off any potential suitor. Having become a castigated figure across the country due to his business conduct (or lack thereof), Mike Ashley’s sportswear business Sports Direct was recently exposed in a number of court cases.
His disdain for the club and its fans has also been exposed by his admission that he had no qualms in regularly telling lies to the fans as it was all just part of a public relations exercise. Whether this type of PR will help him convince an ongoing government enquiry into his working practices remains to be seen.
The club itself has been stripped and readied for a sale for some time now: the arrival of Justin Barnes in the Club hierarchy this summer being the most significant step in preparing Ashley’s pig for market.
With only two official board members in Bob Moncur and Lee Charnley, a stadium devoid of any sponsorship deals and a squad that’s been trimmed recently to reduce the wage bill, Barnes has streamlined the business side of the club into a very healthy position. Along with a first team who look like they should maintain their Premier League status this season, Barnes has primed the club in lieu of a sale.
What of the New Owners?
This is now the 400 million pound question on Tyneside. For a club who have frequently generated enough income to enter the top 20 rich-list of European clubs despite a lack of success on the pitch, Newcastle are a proverbial sleeping giant.
With two Asian consortia alleged to have already signed non-disclosure statements, much of their hopes will rest on the outcome of political decisions announced during the coming Chinese Communist Party Congress which is due to start this Wednesday.
Another highly-rumoured investor comes in the shape of Amanda Staveley, a businesswoman originally from North Yorkshire. It still remains unclear whether her business interests in buying a football club are part of a personal venture or if she’s simply brokering a deal for an interested but as yet anonymous party.
For every Roman Abramovich, though, there’s also a Venkys and, with Ashley’s only concern being to receive a wad of cash, there’s unlikely to be any screening of potential investors other than the FA’s flimsy fit and proper person test.
This leaves the type of owner who could step in hanging on the winds of fate and while the hope is for something similar to the divisive figure of Silvio Berlusconi being replaced by Li Yonghong at AC Milan six months ago, many Geordies would be content for the club to go to someone who neither endangers the existence of their club or drags their name through the mud.
Hints of the Future
What could be closer to the truth, however, is that Mike Ashley may once again be posturing with little substance behind his claims. There’s a very real fear that this could be little more than another attempt to tease a buyer out of the woodwork or force an interested parties hand into making a move.
To this end, Newcastle manager Rafael Benitez’s wry smile during the press conference which came after a meeting with Amanda Staveley may well be cause for optimism on Tyneside. While many will say that better the devil you know, few people want to see Mike Ashley still sitting in the director’s box in the new year.
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