Mike Ashley’s reign at Newcastle United is hitherto unforeseen in British Football.
It’s unconventional in many ways. In an age where an endless lake of money enlarges year on year, placating the terrible business decisions made by many clubs in a bath of hot cash, Ashley has done what many thought was impossible.
He has, through trial and error, imposed his vision of a football club ran like a business on the world stage. This is no mean feat, and his success in doing so reveals many truths of the game which hold true for time immemorial. The game itself may change, but at its very core it lives or dies in servitude to some tribal, mythical tenets:
1) The game transcends the rules of our everyday lives
2) The game itself is irrational
3) Football is tribal
4) Competition matters
Football at its heart is a profoundly irrational game. Football took root in global societies at a time when Religion was at the beginning of its western decline. Developed societies, industrialising societies, began to switch their communion from the church. They stumbled upon something equally as arbitrary, but far more grounded and verifiable. Football has, over the centuries, captured the imagination of an incredible number of people on the planet. It is its own religion, and it is as justifiable and ludicrous as any other religion. Your denomination is a core part of that experience
Money has long been a part of football. The sport’s popularity was one of the most immediately obvious opportunities of Edwardian England. Teams were visited by tens, hundreds of thousands, because there was simply nothing else to do that was so captivating, communal and inspiring. Before the English codified games, they had a rich history of equal attendance at executions. That St James’ Park is a ground built in the shadow of a Gallows is not an irony lost to history, and indeed the future.
The commercialisation of football has progressed to such a point that the average football fan is often priced out of supporting a club to his fullest desire. Football, like Religion, acts as a cash vacuum. Its inherent irrationality infects us and poisons many a decision. In what other walk of life would we be so blind to truths? In what other ideology, would we find such a willingness to stake claims to the ground and defend them with our very honour? The commentors who view the game as, at best, a sport, often snub and deride those who cannot help but feel that there is a depth to football that invites complex devotion. Other sports have similar scenarios, but globally football is an almost inexplicable success. Its simplicity is astonishing. It is a true meritocracy; war children can become of the richest men on the planet. No other walk of life allows for such equality of opportunity and financial reward.
So how is it, then, that so few Football clubs would survive under the conditions of any other business?
Make no mistake, many circles out of society outside of Footballers and Football Clubs benefit from the never ending merry-go-round. It provides enough intrigue, politics and gossip to consume the average human. We are inundated with reports of enormous, unthinkable sums of money being reported as revenue from the world’s biggest clubs. Manchester United, Real Madrid, Barcelona incomes are higher than that of the majority of the world’s countries. Despite this, there is very little hard profit reported outside of the top echelons. Of all the top clubs who are ran as a business interest rather than a collective of fans, Arsenal stand proudly as an example of how to modernise a truly ‘big’ football club. Arsene Wenger’s relative success over the years following the opening of their incredible new stadium has paid down the burden, and they are finally beginning to take advantage of the promise of a sustainable pool of money big enough to entice the world’s biggest stars. Arsenal, in their own way, still pursue a bargain.
However they now have the muscle necessary to beat away contenders for the deals which they deem worthy of sanction.
The usual situation in modern British football is that success is provided on gilded plates by obscene and gross benefactors. Each fan of a run of the mill club wishing for the resurrection of former glories secretly yearns that they, like Manchester City or Chelsea or indeed Blackburn may be chosen for arbitrary reasons by incalculably wealthy aliens to be used as a weapon that projects unspeakable greatness. That is the promise of football. It is an instrument to win the devotion of a ridiculous number of fellow humans, and perhaps that is why so many people, having experienced unparalleled success in business, find that owning a football club is anathema to their instincts and experience. The game’s irrationality is both seductive and insurmountable, unless the celestial dice gifts you that one part that can transcend the whole, or perhaps multiple; such things tend to happen in football.
It was known for some time that a big football club chasing after glory was a money sink. Those teams of English football that had always traditionally hovered around success were kept away from the top table, reserved for those teams who finished high enough to play European football the next season. To compete, it was long thought, to really entice the top players in other teams in other countries to enjoy you, you had to offer them a place on the world stage. If you couldn’t give them the opportunity to prove their merit, and be reimbursed proficiently, on the biggest stage of all then what hope had you to supplant the teams above you? Experiments in developing more English footballers began to reach diminishing returns towards the turn of the century. Now we are left with no world class footballers, and the generation coming through next do not look to be able to plug the gap between us and the rest of the world.
Then, there is the inescapable reality of football, for most of the clubs, being financial poison.
The gamble is this; there are untold riches, success and unbuyable folkore to be won by investing, yet the inherent irrationality of the game outweighs any attempt to successfully predict success. In the late 90’s and early 2000’s famous football clubs, like Leeds United, succumbed to the inevitable financial castration that has not, as of yet, been repaired. The promise of incredulous money drove men to make incredulous decisions based on hunches, guesswork and lucky feelings, and so very many English football clubs are now Zombies, fighting constant wars against impending financial foreclosure.
Newcastle United was such a club. English Football’s sleeping giant, Newcastle were the best team in the country in the 1900’s. Before europe was entertained seriously, Newcastle and their rivals Sunderland were two of the very biggest clubs in English football. Financial mismanagement severely gimped their opportunities in the decades following the second world war, but both clubs had enormous, irrationally big fanbases. The attachment to the two clubs, to their very communities, was closer than in most clubs of the country. People in the North East took football very seriously. More England international footballers have been born in County Durham than in any other part of the country.
Newcastle in particular, was something of an opportunity. Newcastle had a resurgence in the 90’s, rising up from near financial doom and relegation certainty to challenging for titles in the new Premiership. Newcastle became famous for playing attacking football, and became the nation’s second favourite side in two ill-fated title attempts that ended in misery, resignations and the floating of the club as a public company.
Newcastle had been plucked from relative obscurity by Margaret Thatcher’s favourite businessman, John Hall. Hall was a proud native of the North-East, and saw opportunities for commercial gain and a restoration of regional pride with Newcastle United. He took resources given thanks to his pre-eminence in industrial affairs and put them to work in buying success for Newcastle United, rightly believing that the region would be economically and spiritually enriched in the aftermath. Close ties with the local media further cemented the myth of Newcastle United as the people’s pastime; the problem being, these things were not strictly a myth, and were deeply rooted in reality.
During a time of economic improvement and the beginnings of the end of decades of degradation on the banks of the Tyne, John Hall provided the people of the area with a reason for genuine optimism. The difference it made was startling, and resonates sadly in the current time as an echo of an opportunity. The near success eventually gave way to incomprehensible decline. Newcastle floated as a public business, shares primarily held by John Hall’s family and the Sheperds. In time John Hall would step down as chairman, and would bequeath a frittersome financial strategy to two far more incompetent inheritors. Freddy Sheperd rose as the foremost voice of the controlling mechanics of Newcastle United, and tried to spend his way through mismanagement, poor decision making and incompetence, driven by the dream of being adopted as a local hero and being handsomely recompensed as he lived it.
During this time Blackburn had spent their way to success, Leeds tried to buy their way to European and domestic glory and Chelsea, at the end, were bought by a very serious and determined man. Roman Abramovich commanded the mineral wealth of Russia, and took the example of Jack Walker to the next stage, turning a decent Premier League side into the talk of the world. The billionaire buy-up had begun.
Newcastle had never really progressed following the blunders when going public. They began to flirt with relegation, appointed Bobby Robson, saw relative success and a return to europe. The return to europe happened too soon. The money, at the time, was not enough to sustain repeat attempts at spending your way back once knocked out. The repeated gambles and needless spending eventually led to imposing debts. Newcastle had saw Leeds United fall into the abyss, and now it was tip-toeing up to the edge itself.
Enter Mike Ashley. A self-made sportswear entrepreneur, Ashley had become a billionaire during the public flotation of his sports empire, Sports Direct. Ashley’s competitors had failed to fully cope with the new realities of retailing in an internet age, and he went about picking his way to the top of the pile brand by brand. Divorced, unthinkably rich and fearless, Ashely decided to buy a football club.
After a brief period of shopping around, Mike Ashley approached Sir John Hall about selling his shares in Newcastle United. Not believing his luck in being able to shed the toxic asset of Newcastle, Hall cashed in before consulting with his hospitalised colleague, Freddy Sheperd. Sheperd’s profile and finances were dependant on Newcastle United, and Ashley believed that a quick sale would ultimately become a cheap sale. Incapacitated though he was, the sums offered made Sheperd see sense. He sold his shares to Ashley, and Ashley became the sole owner and benefactor of Newcastle United. Ashley would come to regret his haste; a failure to do due diligence severely compromised his ability to make decisions further down the line.
In the beginning Ashley decided to spend. He had inherited the newly hired Sam Allardyce, a man with a strong reputation in football and the kind of gentleman Ashley approved of. He had a reputation as a no-nonsense, rugged and modern coach. Ashley backed his man, and in the process spent a great deal of money furnishing Allardyce with players including Alan Smith, Geremi and Claudio Cacapa.
It didn’t take long for Ashley to realise he had made mistakes. Allardyce’s expensive purchases were burned into the conscience of the Newcastle owner, and the under performing Allardyce came under the spotlight. Ashley had bought a club as a plaything, and this man had spent his money and came back to him with dross. Allardyce would not last long, and would be sacked around christmas, having spent 6 months of at the helm of Newcastle. Allardyce would later take Ashley to court, and purchased a house in Spain with his winnings, christening it ‘Casa De St James’’.
Ashley sacked Allardyce, and appointed Keegan for a brief but successful second spell. The worm turned when Ashley began to try and control the costs associated with his club. He went behind Keegan’s back and sold James Milner, then sat on the funds and provided Keegan with obscure players thrust upon him by South American agents on the promise of better deals down the line. Keegan quit, Ashley was sent into a tumble of errors and one Joe Kinnear later Newcastle were relegated.
In many ways the relegation was a blessing for Ashley. He cleared a lot of the deadwood and romped to promotion the next season, his gamble in appointing Chris Hughton paying dividends. His low investment-high reward plan began to cement itself. In little over 3 years since relegation Ashley had, through considered procurement and alliances with football people he thought he could genuinely trust, began to produce results unthinkable in modern football. He managed a fifth placed finish too, in spite of his frugality.
Ashley’s history off the field is one dogged by decisions taken in full knowledge of the antagonism towards them. He chose to buy one of English football’s immutably passionate clubs, the ultimate sphere of irrationality, a place where hope and success could be no further apart. Gambling on the fan’s compulsion and emotional slavery towards the edifice on the site of the hangman’s brutal justice, Ashley has set a template which in future others will almost certainly follow. He has proved that it is possible to take a British football club and control the immediate world through sheer politics and unflinching fiscal oversight. In doing so, he has poisoned the well that the faithful drink from. Before Ashley, it was probable that Newcastle would die a death of administration. He has spared the club of that fate, and in doing so condemned it to a future of apathy, underinvestment, alienation and the queerest, most unsettling atmosphere in any ground in English football.
Newcastle United is bubbling over. The froth and jetsam are pouring out of the ground and trickling down the Westgate Road, washing away enthusiasm and localism. Newcastle was a special club, irrational and unsuccessful though it is. Ashley’s impossible success in financial terms should serve as a stark warning to those who wish for billionaire benevolence and financial security. So long as football becomes rational and scientific, it loses the unspeakable magic that draws in and enraptures otherwise well-minded individuals. Once that spell is broken, it cannot be cast again.