To Redeem Mike Ashley

Sunday, October 18, 2009 13:59 | Filed in Newcastle United

…in the eyes of Newcastle fans would be a big task, but not an insurmountable one.

Newcastle fans have a lot of problems with the Ashley regime, pretty much all of which have been documented here, there, and elsewhere, so I’m not going to go into them again. But one of those problems is the constant state of uncertainty which has surrounded the club since Mike has been seemingly trying to sell the club for quite some time.

Now reports suggest Ashley is getting fed up of waiting for someone to actually put up the money to buy the club (I don’t blame him, I’m fed up with it too) and is contemplating taking the club off the market. It appears from the outside that this would only be a short-term measure, but does it have to be?

When Ashley took over the club he was hailed as a hero by most fans from rescuing the club from the Shepherd/Hall regime which most fans were thoroughly fed up with. He seemed to enjoy mixing with the fans, and having fun meeting with them, discussing things with them, and being part of the Newcastle fanbase. It wouldn’t be easy, but he could get there again. If he wanted to.

Sure, it’s likely that some fans would never forgive him, but most fans would come around if they could see that, over a period of time, he was running the club as they wished it to be run. It appears patently obvious that there is no multi-billionaire potentially waiting in the wings to bankroll Newcastle the way Abramovich has bankrolled Chelsea, so what are our other options?

If we are to be bought out by someone who struggles to get the money to buy the club and ends up transferring that debt onto the club (in the way Manchester United and Liverpool were bought), does that really help our situation? Of course not.

Does Mike Ashley need to invest ridiculous sums of cash in order to turn around his pariah status in the eyes of fans? I don’t think so. What the fans want to see is a genuine acceptance of mistakes he has made and to put things in place to prevent this from happening again. If it can be demonstrated that the club is being run properly, then he’ll turn the public disapproval into neutrality and possibly back round to approval again.

So what does he actually have to do?

The first, and possibly the biggest thing is communication. Ashley and Llambias appear not to have understood the importance of talking to the fans, telling the fans what is happening at the club and so on. There was a second critical failure of this during the Kevin Keegan days (exposed by the tribunal) where Ashley and Llambias said that the club had deliberately misled the fans as a public relations exercise (which has now backfired in spectacular fashion).

So how to get round this? Firstly, talk directly to the fans. Let’s have an official Newcastle United blog, and possibly a twitter stream, posted directly either by someone in a senior position, or by someone who has access to these people. Ideally, let’s get an ordinary fan involved: give this fan the chance to sit in on meetings and report back to other fans. That would be a great way of winning back trust.

I am of course available to offer either my professional services or my personal ‘fan’ services for this, if they want to get in touch…

Secondly, let’s look at the issue of money. One of the greatest problems with Newcastle was the amount of debt they were carrying. I’m sure Mike Ashley would accept that the fact he did not conduct due diligence on the club prior to a takeover meant he received somewhat of a nasty surprise. But how do we fix this? Well, assuming that there isn’t a multi-billionaire around prepared to pour a limitless pot of cash into the club (and there isn’t), the club needs to be run on a sound financial footing.

Does this mean a wage cap? Almost certainly, for the time being. Does this mean an end to expensive imports? Yes. Does this mean scrapping around for cheaper players who might have potential, and bringing them through the youth ranks? Yes. Does this mean Newcastle fans will have to wait for success, and accept it won’t come overnight? Yes.

But all of this will help the club in the long-term. We have players on wages which are simply not sustainable for a Championship club. Should we be willing to let these go, if an appropriate offer comes in? Well, this is where it gets tricky.

Currently, the squad is paper thin and a few injuries or suspensions could seriously derail any possible chance of promotion. So how to solve this?

There are two options for solving this. The first is that you don’t; you gamble that the club will be promoted at the first attempt with a paper-thin squad, and we won’t be driven into administration by the wages of some players. The second requires someone — and here’s an opportunity for Ashley to redeem himself (to some extent) relatively quickly — to put some money into the club for transfers. But let’s make those transfers of people who are available at relatively low cost, for Championship-suitable salaries, and who are likely to have a reasonable resale value in a couple of years.

In other words, gamble on youth. It might not work, but as opposed to gambling on more established players on higher salaries with no appreciable resale two years down the line, at least this position is more sustainable.

We need a bigger squad; but at the same time we still need to try and reduce the overall wage bill.

But here’s the problem: if the fans see the club selling big-name players to buy cheap, they’ll see it as a further dismantling of the squad, crippling our chances of promotion. It would be a hard sell to convince the fans that is in the long-term best interests of the club. Which brings us back to communication: if a genuine fan was able to attend and report on meetings (as well as more public pronouncements and explanations from the hierarchy), we’d at least have some evidence that Ashley was trying to put right his mistakes. Back to communication again.

Thirdly, let’s look at ownership. Rather than looking to sell outright, why not look for additional investors as it appeared he was originally doing? If we assume the club is valued at £80 million, and someone has £40 million to put into it, that would give the club a value of £120 million — so for that stake they would get a 1/3 share of the club — and rather than going directly to Ashley, this money could be used to pay debts, buy players and so on: they might own a lesser share of the club, but the overall value of the club ought to have increased in comparison.

Allow the supporters trust to buy a share of the club in this manner, if they can put up the cash…

But, if there are no investors ready and willing to do that, let’s just have the club taken off the market and end the uncertainty. Let’s have Ashley undertake to say that he will not sell the club for x amount of time — say two years. Let the fans know what is actually going to happen beyond the next two months and end the uncertainty again. Back to communication. This actually allows people to start planning somewhat.

Finally, he needs to make sure that he has the right people. This is not about being nice; it’s about making the right decisions for the club (not the fans and not the owners), irrespective of how ruthless they may be. This comes back to the likes of Shepherd being the “man who shot Bambi” (showing that ruthlessness is sometimes the right thing to do, even if you demonstrate your lack of knowledge of kids films at the same time).

But this right people business is not just on the management and coaching side, but those involved in running the other aspects of the club. For example, Llambias might be a brilliant and astute businessman (I don’t really know) but he seems not to understand that someone at the club needs to be a bridge between the owners and the fans. If Llambias is appointed just to run the club, that’s fine, but someone else needs to be a public spokesperson for the board (and here we come back to communication again).

Ashley needs someone — an employee or otherwise — who is an active part of the club, and who is allowed to privately disagree with him and tell him he is wrong. There is a perception (whether true or not) that he is surrounded by people who will do what he wants (including stupid running-naked-on-the-pitch bets). This needs to stop. He needs an advisor who will tell him what he’s doing wrong, and what he should do.

He doesn’t actually need to be responsible for the day-to-day running of the club (and it’s obvious he doesn’t want to), but he needs to have the right people in place to do that job — and they need to be willing to argue with him, to tell him that the club needs more investment now, or that the fans need a public statement on such-and-such and issue, or whatever.

In short, run the club properly; run it for the fans as well as for himself, and he has the opportunity to redeem himself. If he can act as a trustee or guardian of the club for the fans; for the region, and not for himself, if he can demonstrate that he has learned from his mistakes then not only can he turn himself from a publicly vilified figure but, in time, he could turn himself into someone who actually is thought of with affection.

In short, he’s made mistakes, and big ones. But his best effort does not have to be “woefully short”. He can put it right.

If, of course, he wants to. But should he still want to, should he still have that spark of love for the club, then with the right actions — not all of which would be easy — this is all achievable.

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