By Joe Donnohue
Mike Ashley has been wildly successful in the world of business, creating a sportswear empire from a tiny market stall, acquiring brands and blowing competitors out of the water. He has become the owner of the U.K.’s largest sportswear retailer, but it seems his skills in business have not transferred over when making key footballing decisions at Newcastle United.
Some would go as far to say that Mike Ashley is not the shrewd businessman that he is portrayed as being. Instead, a divisive, lying juggernaut with little consideration for anything but his own money-making enterprises.
Starting at the very beginning; it is well publicised that Mike Ashley – before purchasing Newcastle United – failed to enter a due diligence period which would have alerted him to the crippling debt burden that the club was harbouring at that moment in time. I doubt many people would make an off-the-cuff purchase of £134m without doing at least some background checks. After all, it was a football club he was buying, and they are not known to be particularly profitable investments.
Not only is that a huge oversight on his part and on the shoulders of the people he entrusted to oversee the takeover, it also calls into question the level of decision-making the man possesses. It also begs the question; who did Ashley trust to conduct his dealings and how could they be so inept?
The well-documented appointments of Dennis Wise, Tony Jimenez and co were ill-advised and poor judgement calls by the supposed tycoon. Wise had extensive experience in the game, but at boardroom and scouting level was a relative novice. To be handed the role of Executive Director was one that perplexed many. Jimenez – a former Chelsea steward – was known as a man who knew people within the game, but his position in an advisory role to the board at Newcastle United proved to be another early stain on Mike Ashley’s judgement. The appointment of the pair who ultimately undermined Kevin Keegan which led to the former manager winning £2m in damages for constructive dismissal, was a blot on the name of Newcastle United.
Of course, Mike Ashley was known for his ability in negotiating high stakes business dealings with his tenacious and imposing presence. As the purported business tycoon he was perceived to be, it is astounding the level of incompetence that falls at his door when Newcastle’s transfer dealings during the Ashley era come into question.
Xisco and Ignacio ‘Nacho’ González for example; two names that strike fear into Newcastle United supporters. Signed by the boardroom melee that was headed by Dennis Wise for a sum of £5.11m, Xisco epitomised everything that was wrong about the way Ashley conducted footballing operations during the early days of his ownership. The signing resulted in Wise and Keegan coming to loggerheads. The only saving grace would be if the
Spanish striker was a prolific 20-goal-a-season machine. Of course he was not. One goal in 13 appearances in Black and White makes for poor reading. His only goal coming as a consolation in a 2-1 home defeat to newly promoted Hull City in September 2008.
If Xisco was a car-crash of a signing, González was a full-blown catastrophe. The Uruguayan was signed at the recommendation of Wise following his extensive ‘scouting’ of the player based on YouTube clips. Ashley signed off on this cheap loan deal ahead of signing up-and-coming Croatian star Luka Modrić and Bayern Munich’s Bastian Schweinsteiger. I wonder where they are now?
González mustered 39 minutes in a Newcastle shirt before rupturing his achilles tendon and never making the matchday squad ever again. Following his season in the Premier League, the midfielder was then loaned out to Greek side APO Levadiakos.
These signings not only set the tone for Newcastle’s transfer dealings across the next ten years, but clearly earmarked Ashley’s policy of buying cheap in order to maintain Premier League revenues without aiming or spending too highly. Xisco’s transfer fee still to this day represents 7.5% of Mike Ashley’s entire expenditure on strikers.
The departure of Wise should have signalled a turning point for the club, but the appointment of and subsequent Joe Kinnear saga can only be defined as a calamity. A man who had been out of football for four years after resigning from Championship club Nottingham Forest in 2004 getting the top job at a Premier League club battling relegation was a risky selection. It was beginning to look like Ashley’s judgement in appointing people to high-profile jobs was severely flawed. Either that, or he was entirely apathetic towards the task of running a football club that anyone would suffice, so long as the money kept rolling in.
Not only did Kinnear tarnish his own reputation by swearing 52 times in his opening press conference as manager, but he dragged the club’s name through the mud. Newcastle United had begun to look like a soap opera; fan protests, court cases and managers hurling insults at local journalists. The regime was rotten to the core and it was only one year into Ashley’s ownership.
Kinnear would go on to misspeak when referring to Charles N’Zogbia, calling him Charles ‘Insomnia’. Whether the mistake was simply a mistake, a Freudian slip or intentional we will never know, but it led to one of the club’s better players at that time demanding a move elsewhere – which he duly received.
His subsequent re-appointment as Director of Football in 2013 was equally infuriating for Newcastle fans as he was badly underqualified for the managers’ post five years earlier, but that did not prevent him being bumped up to boardroom level. Mike Ashley’s appointments became a farce; it was almost as if the least qualified candidate was handed the job.
The former India and Nepal manager was up to his old tricks, referring to star player Yohan Cabaye as ‘Yohan Kebab’ and declaring that Shola Ameobi as a promising young player.
Ameobi was 31 at the time of Kinnear’s quip during a radio interview in which he declared his appointment before any club statement had been released.
Whilst on Director of Football duties at Birmingham City’s St Andrew’s Stadium, Kinnear expressed that he was impressed by the tricky winger the Blues had and enquired about signing him. That player was Shane Ferguson, who was on loan at Birmingham City from Newcastle United. The ineptitude was staggering.
This was the man Mike Ashley had entrusted with the management of his multi-million-pound investment not once, but twice.
In 2012 however, things were looking up, Newcastle had just finished fifth in the Premier League following a remarkable season. The summer transfer window would be huge as the calibre of player Newcastle would be able to attract to participate in European competition would have increased greatly.
Mike Ashley sanctioned the purchases of Romain Amalfitano, Gaël Bigirimana, Curtis Good and Vurnon Anita for a grand total of £9.24m. Why would Mike Ashley not spend big in order to strengthen the squad and to push for honours? That would be because the squad who had achieved fifth had been bought on the cheap.
Demba Ba, the star striker of the 2011/12 campaign was signed on a free transfer. Yohan Cabaye and Cheick Tioté, the two central midfield lynchpins were acquired for a combined sum of £8.35m meanwhile goalkeeper Tim Krul had come through Newcastle’s youth ranks having joined from ADO Den Haag as a seventeen-year-old. Key player Hatem Ben Arfa was also signed at a cut-price £5.4m.
Newcastle’s stars were bargains and Ashley believed this was sustainable, of course it was not. The policy of buying players for cheap fees before selling them on for a profit was well and truly underway, and would eventually lead to the relegation of the team in 2016 once again.
Part 2 coming up later today..