Ahh, the power of words. Capable of inspiring a range of emotions—pride, outrage, anger, support.
To that list, Mike Ashley hopes to now add another—compassion.
The embattled Newcastle chairman, who has been the subject of a torrent of abuse from the Toon Army in recent days, has released a 1,644 word statement announcing his intention to sell the club, if a suitable buyer can be found.
After reading it, it is hard not to feel some sympathy for the English billionaire.
In the statement, Ashley attempts set the record straight on a number of subjects, including the financial situation of the club when he bought it, his long-term outlook for the club, and even some of the circumstances surrounding Kevin Keegan’s acrimonious departure.
It is an illuminating read. For Newcastle fans, the true state of the club’s finances under Freddie Shepherd will not come as a surprise. For outsiders though, it might:
“I paid £134 million out of my own pocket for the club. I then poured another £110 million into the club not to pay off the debt but just to reduce it. The club is still in debt. Even worse than that, the club still owes millions of pounds in transfer fees.
“I shall be paying out many more millions over the coming year to pay for players bought by the club before I arrived.
“But there was a double whammy. Commercial deals such as sponsorships and advertising had been front-loaded. The money had been paid upfront and spent. I was left with a club that owed millions and part of whose future had been mortgaged.
“Unless I had come into the club then it might not have survived. It could have shared the fate of other clubs who have borrowed too heavily against their future. Before I had spent a penny on wages or buying players Newcastle United had cost me more than a quarter of a billion pounds."
Obviously, such a financial package is not ideal. But Ashley cannot plead innocence. It is well-documented that the Sports Direct tycoon bought the club over the course of a whirlwind weekend, and opted to forego the traditional financial examinations.
For a successful businessman, it was a singularly stupid move. If he had made his accountants take even the most cursory glances at the books, he would at least have a clearer understanding of what he was getting himself into.
Would it have made him change his mind? Perhaps, perhaps not. But it would certainly have changed his mentality. As it was, he begun his reign nervous—fearful of any further surprises that might await him.
Arguably, that could be seen as the key reason behind the controversial appointments of Dennis Wise and Tony Jimenez (amongst others) to the executive side of the football club.
Acutely aware that he knew little about football’s nuances (the financial surprise had already shown that), it is more than understandable that he would look to surround himself with men who did know what they were doing.
And, together, it seems that they came up with a more than reasonable blueprint for the future of the club. As Ashley noted, in light of the “Big Four” spending, the club needed to function prudently:
“My plan and my strategy for Newcastle is different. It has to be. Arsenal is the shining example in England of a sustainable business model. It takes time. It can't be done overnight.
“Newcastle has therefore set up an extensive scouting system. We look for young players, for players in foreign leagues who everyone does not know about. We try and stay ahead of the competition. We search high and low looking for value, for potential that we can bring on and for players who will allow Newcastle to compete at the very highest level but who don't cost the earth.
“I am prepared to back large signings for millions of pounds but for a player who is young and has their career in front of them and not for established players at the other end of their careers. There is no other workable way forward for Newcastle.
“It is in this regard that Dennis [Wise] and his team have done a first class job in scouting for talent to secure the future of the club.”
It is hard to argue with this notion. Newcastle simply cannot compete financially with the likes of Manchester United, and so pursuing an Arsenal-style youth policy is ultimately the only viable option.
Has the policy come to fruition yet? The answer is extremely debatable, even though Ashley points to the likes of Jonas Guttierrez, Sebastian Bassong, and Danny Guthrie as positive examples—yet after barely five games the jury must still be out on all three.
The policy—and his praise for Dennis Wise—also serves to illuminate some of the reasoning behind the controversial resignation of Kevin Keegan. Even as his treatment of the “Geordie Messiah” threatens to force him out of the club, Ashley has nothing but kind words for his former manager:
“I don't want anyone to read my words and think that any of this is an attack on Kevin Keegan. It is not. Kevin and I always got on. Everyone at the club, and I mean everyone, thinks that he has few equals in getting the best out of the players. He is a legend at the club and rightly so. Clearly there are disagreements between Kevin and the Board and we have both put that in the hands of our lawyers.“
This is extremely diplomatic from Ashley, but ultimately both men contributed to their falling out. It has been widely reported that Keegan came in with a list of players he wanted signed, which included the likes of Thierry Henry and Ronaldinho.
As Ashley mentioned, this just did not fit in with the Newcastle’s already agreed upon investment policy.
Keegan all but admitted he knew nothing about up-and-coming footballers, having been away from the game for so long. He wanted established names, and couldn’t understand why they weren’t being pursued.
Ashley, on the other hand, wanted youngsters scouted and signed. He couldn’t understand why Keegan could not offer any input, and so took transfer dealings out of his hands completely—giving responsibility to someone who did, Dennis Wise.
This is not to say that Ashley was blame-free in the ensuing drama, in fact it is quite the contrary.
It was Ashley’s responsibility to interview Keegan, and he should have discussed transfer policy in the meeting. It would have become clear in such a discussion that each man had wildly differing views, and a working relationship would have been hard it attain.
As a result, both men would have probably agreed that a business arrangement was not in the best interests of either man.
As it is, it must be assumed such a conversation never occurred. There are two possible reasons for this—either Ashley was ignorant of what he needed to ask, demonstrating further footballing incompetence, or Keegan’s appointment was intended as a PR move, so his answers did not mean anything.
Neither option excuses Ashley. Indeed, they should only damn him.
Ultimately, it was all well and good appointing Keegan, and it offered the immediate morale boost that the club needed. But forcing Keegan out undermined all that, and more.
That is what has done for Ashley, and it was inevitable from the minute Keegan walked back into St. James’ Park. As Ashley’s second major mistake, few would argue he deserves the chance to make a third.
For Newcastle fans, the best that can be hoped is that the new owners—an Indian consortium is rumoured to have a strong interest—re-hire Keegan and provide the money required to follow his plan, or opt to continue Ashley’s preferred blueprint and keep the former England manager away from the scene.
As Ashley will attest, trying to mix both options will simply not work.
The North-East club is one of the biggest in England and, whatever people say, its fans deserve the success that has been so conspicuous by its absence in recent years. If the next owners can bring in some much-desired silverware, then some good will have come from this whole disaster.
It might be the best Ashley can hope for, too. He has pledged to continue as manager if no suitable buyer is found, but a change now might be for the best, especially in terms of his legacy.
If his successor brings trophies, Ashley will be remembered, if not fondly, as the man who laid the groundwork for the Magpies' success. The club were going nowhere under Freddie Shepherd's administration, but Ashley pulled the club up by the bootlaces, made them financially sustainable, and ensured they were attractive to a purchaser—even when in turmoil.
Right now, whatever his statement might suggest, Ashley should be regarded as a chairman who made too many mistakes, and is rightfully suffering the consequences of them.
But it should be remembered that, in reality, Newcastle have lost little from Ashley’s tenure—indeed they may have gained far more than can currently be gauged.
Ashley should be hounded out of his owner’s seat now, but, in five or ten years time, there should be a seat waiting for him amongst the stands at St. James’ Park, should he want it.
Even Kevin Keegan wouldn’t begrudge him that.