The year is 2007, and a new dawn beckons in the white and black half of the North East. Newcastle United have had a takeover completed with a new business mogul taking over the helm. A man who has made his fortune through the ownership of a controversial sports clothing company, Sports Direct, has just taken control. £134 million is the investment, and there is renewed optimism as the owner has promised that all previous debts associated with the club will be taken care off. Newcastle United, please welcome your hero, Mike Ashley!
Fast forward 13 years into his tenure, and the events that have unfolded have helped set fire to all the belief and optimism Newcastle fans once had. Instead, one of the greatest community clubs in England has become a shell under its British owner, with fans regrettably having to stay away from the weekly pilgrimage route to their 123-year-old cathedral in the heart of Newcastle.
The Fans Cathedral is untouchable, that’s what generations of supporters presumed
As any great businessman would tell you that being able to advertise your business publicly to 50,000 fans congregated in once place, and millions of others through broadcasts, and not pay a single penny for it, deserves a standing ovation. Ask the Toon Army (self-proclaimed name adopted by supporters, dedicated to Manager Gordon Lee, who took Newcastle to the League Cup final in 1976) and they would express nothing but rage.
Why? Well because the advertising had everything to do with their beloved St James Park. In the year 2011, a new stadium name was introduced in the Premier League. The Sports Direct Arena came into existence, and the 123-year-old historical name of St James Park was removed. Within the supporter’s cathedral, excessive branding showcasing strips of the ‘Sports Direct’ logo was showcased all over. Eventually, one couldn’t be blamed to mistake the fortress as a Sports Direct factory. So much advertising efforts and Mike Ashley didn’t have to pay a single penny. A good business decision, wouldn’t you say?
Not when you will have infuriated passionate fans protesting for your imminent departure all across the city. The decision made to renovate the stadium left fans believing that their owner lacked absolutely any ambition when it came towards ownership of the club. They stated that the stadium’s significance was to merely act as an ‘advertising vehicle for Sports Direct.’ Left to be perceived as a giant billboard rather than the historical stadium, this was the start of many such decisions that eventually led to the fanbase walking away. The Toon Army was left depleted, with half powerful chants trying to create the atmosphere in an emptying stadium.
A Sponsorship deal like no other, unrecognisable and unbearable
2012 saw Ashley try and get into the good books of the Newcastle faithful. He agreed on a four-year sponsorship deal, which would generate £24 million. Furthermore, the business mogul secured investment into the club’s academy and foundation scheme and also changed the name of the stadium, reverting it back to St James’ Park.
As good as the deal may have sounded, the past had taught the Newcastle faithful not to get carried away, and in the light of this newfound optimism, maybe some knew that Ashley hadn’t played all his cards. When it was revealed that the sponsor was a payday loans company called Wonga, the entire North East fell into shock.
A deal believed to hold the capacity to do more harm than good, Wonga came into the lives of a North East region battling with the highest insolvency rate in the country. Many in the region had been battling with the dire consequences of getting into financial difficulties, after having been associated with legal loan sharks charging premium interest like Wonga.
The deal went through and gave the perception that the club, whose rich heritage and culture was considered priceless, had just had a number put on it; £24 million to be precise. With Wonga, the main shirt sponsor promoting payday loans, coupled with the stadium being branded with Sports Direct adverts, controversially known for its zero-hours culture, the club had moved into a direction that no one recognised.
The working-class society represented the identity of Newcastle. Their North East tradition was to work hard in order to simply be able to turn up for the games, week in week out, to support their club through thick and thin. They now felt cheated on after years of loyalty, as if they had now realized that they were locked up in a loveless marriage.
Protests began all throughout the North East, the community united in bringing back the identity of their beloved club. Boycotting games starting from the next game at that time against Spurs and warnings of season ticket cancellations showcased just how angered the faithful were. With the slogan “WE DEMAND A CLUB TO BE PROUD OF ONCE AGAIN”, hashtags such as “#Ashleyout” and “#BoycottSpurs” started trending on Social Media and a website called “ASHLEYOUT.COM” was created.
The demise had begun, with people witnessing a disinterested owner who failed to comment on the widespread criticism and outrage against him. The club had become soulless, with many recognising that the senior management didn’t have any engagement with the fans nor any engagement with the city either.
Amongst all this widespread anger, maybe transfers could save Mike Ashley’s ownership.
Is there no revenue or is there lack of ambition to invest?
Since becoming the chairman in 2007, Mike Ashley never believed in making big marque singings. The record transfer fee lingered on from 2005, when Michael Owen signed for £18 million from Real Madrid. It was only after 12 years into his reign, with the Toon Army having gone through two separate relegations before their 2017 promotion, that the business mogul decided to break the transfer record fee by signing Miguel Almiron for £21 million.
A part of this decision can be narrowed down to the ideology that Mike Ashley possessed. For a club with a rich winning history, in pursuit of a revival and having European football ambitions, stating survival as a priority over winning cup competitions didn’t necessarily make Mike Ashley the most loved man on Tyneside.
Being a wealthy businessman that he was, maybe the Premier League and the finances associated with broadcasting and sponsorship revenue over the Championship left him bewildered. Mike Ashley was never on the same page as the Newcastle faithful, which is just why his tenure was always driven with criticism and negativity.
In the 2018-2019 season, Newcastle finished in the top half of the Premier League. This achievement guaranteed them £125 million in television money, yet they finished the following summer transfer window with a net spend of -£21 million. No investment across one season gave Tottenham Hotspur and their chairman incredible backlash, then what about the Toon Army, when they are informed that across eleven years of Ashley’s reign, net spend was a mere £32 million, a paltry amount for such a length of time.
Selling best players and not hiring replacements is one explanation on how Mike Ashley’s business plan would have been driven. 2014 is a case study, which saw the emergence of Frenchman Yohan Cabaye. An influential midfielder, who dictated the game from the heart of the midfield. Newcastle fans loved him, but the wealth of PSG came calling. £18.5 million was the fee that was agreed upon in January and the Frenchman traded his white black stripes with the stripes representing colours of the French flag carved over a blue background.
Replacement? Well, that’s the question the fans asked all season. Maybe Yohan Cabaye was irreplaceable, and Mike Ashley took that thought too seriously. Newcastle finished 15th that season, four points above the relegation zone. Fans were disappointed, but Ashley was over the moon with his ‘survival’ goal accomplished for at least another season. Alan Pardew, the then manager was moved on, ending up at Crystal Palace, a much smaller English club at the time.
Mike Ashley may well be a wealthy businessman, with his fortunes worth $4.5 billion. But as far as running a football club goes, I think Newcastle fans can vouch for the fact that he is probably one of the worst. Some say, Ashley has always shown a blind eye towards the constant outrage, but he has put the club up for sale a couple of times across his tenure.
So why haven’t the fans been put out of their misery with a new dawn beckoning over Tyneside? Well, nothing is ever going to be straight forward with Ashley at the helm, is it? With regards to the potential sale of the club, Ashley states that not only does he want to recoup the money he paid, but also the money he invested in the club. That makes the asking price go up astronomically, making people doubt whether he actually wants to sell the club. This is exactly the reason why, despite all the negativity and criticism, Mike Ashley remains the chairman of Newcastle United.
The Final Nail in the Coffin: Ashley never fails to amaze
The world has recently been deeply affected by the brutal consequences of the Corona Virus pandemic. Across the last couple of months, many people across the world have lost their jobs, been put on furlough and had to bear with the loss of their loved ones.
In such a situation, everything was suspended, including the Premier League. Communities are trying to do their best to help people who are in need of support during this time. Football clubs have acted accordingly by trying to get their staff volunteer for different social works.
In these unprecedented times, where entire communities face financial difficulties, Newcastle United’s senior management has clearly not read the script. They believe it’s perfectly acceptable to charge all current season ticket holders for next seasons renewal. As a result, up to £620 were deducted from supporter’s bank accounts, with the transaction message leaving many “increasingly disturbed.”
When addressed to the club by the Newcastle United Supporters Trust (NUST), who called on the club to suspend payments, “The Club stated it had no intention to freeze or delay payments for either those who paid annually or monthly.”
Maybe the club could have taken a leaf out of Brighton’s book, who offered “payment holidays” for season ticket holders in order to try and ease the financial burden.
In the case of Newcastle, many season ticket holders may have to painfully cancel their season tickets, in order to be able to survive financial problems caused by payments towards the club during these unprecedented times.
With a reported $380 million deal agreed to a consortium led by Saudi Arabia’s government investment fund, Mike Ashley might just finally agree and see through the selling of Newcastle United. If the villain wants to have a final act of heroism within the climax, there is no better scenario than the one presented now. Newcastle fans need to find a reason to start loving the club they have been following religiously all their life. They need to have a chance to be joyful and passionate again, even more so in the given pandemic situation. This deal could finally give back Newcastle what rightfully belongs to them, their identity.