Sports Direct founder Mike Ashley is known for his penchant for... quirky investments. Foremost among them is his decade-long ownership of Newcastle FC. It’s hardly been smooth sailing, and now it looks like Ashley might be about to jump ship.
Yesterday, he met with investment manager Amanda Staveley to discuss a potential buyout. It’s not the first time that Ashley has said he wants to sell, but here it really seems like there is traction - with its supporters, ex-players and even the current manager, Rafa Benitez welcoming the potential of a new face in charge.
Here are some of the highlights of his often eventful reign:
An opportunist gamble
To the surprise of just about everyone, Ashley purchased Sir John Hall’s 41.7% share in Newcastle FC in May 2007, buying the rest of it that July at a final price of £134m. According to a former manager of the club, Ashley admitted during a meeting that he actually had no idea why he did it.
It wasn’t exactly an attractive investment. In October 2006, the club had announced losses of £12m and fans were frustrated with a rut of form that seen three managers take the helm in three years. ‘I paid £140m for the club with the expectation that there was a debt of £70m,’ said Ashley in a rare 2007 interview. ‘Actually it was around £100m so there was suddenly an extra £30m to find. But I just thought: "Shut up about it". I'm a big boy and I didn't cry.’
It seems strange to say now, but Ashley was initially popular with the fans. You could bank on him in the stadium stands in full club gear, even in pubs interacting with supporters. There was also a time when he was given ‘words of advice’ from the police after downing a beer in the away end at Arsenal. Happy days, indeed.
When Ashley brought club legend Kevin Keegan on board as manager in January 2008, fans were ecstatic. Yet when it got to the end of the transfer window that year, the attitude had reversed. Keegan, after growing frustrated with the Ashley-appointed chairman Dennis Wise’s interference, resigned. Just over a week afterwards, Ashley announced he was going to put the club on sale amid fan protests.
Keegan’s resignation and the relegation to the championship that followed epitomised a phenomenon that has been all too clear throughout the Ashley era: football clubs aren’t like ‘normal businesses’, and their fans do not behave like ‘normal customers’...
Many of them feel Ashley is more concerned with the club’s financial return than its performance on the pitch – and indeed its financial position has been consistently strong after Ashley took over. The club’s latest accounts from the 2015/16 season show profits of £900,000 and turnover of £126m, doubly impressive given the fact that the club was relegated that season.
Supporters were also particularly unhappy at Ashley’s attempts to intertwine Sports Direct’s brand with the club’s. He had to backtrack in 2012 after renaming St. James’ park to Sports Direct Arena, but the company’s branding is still everywhere to be seen around the ground.
The poor publicity Sports Direct has faced in recent years, over zero hour contracts and ‘Victorian workhouse’ factory conditions, has hardly helped, and Newcastle fans have used it to pressure Ashley to leave.
‘We feel a sustained combination of [boycotts and protests] will force Ashley out of our club,’ says the website Ashleyout. ‘Ashley bought, and continues to own, our club for one simple reason: to promote Sports Direct. An empty stadium and constant protests against Sports Direct, a company which has been widely criticised for its unethical practices, will make Ashley’s position as owner untenable.’
So, after numerous announcements since 2008 that he intends to sell the club, there is a feeling that this could be finally be the end of Ashley’s adventure up north. Staveley is certainly a convincing buyer. She’s perhaps best known for steering the £7.3bn investment in Barclay’s by the ruling families of Abu Dhabi and Qatar, and the Qatari sovereign wealth fund. The ex-athlete and model also has experience in the football world: Staveley’s company, investment vehicle PCP Capital Partners, has worked on the takeovers of Manchester City and Liverpool.
If indeed it is over, would Ashley say it was all worth it? It’s been an almighty headache for a notoriously publicity-shy person, that’s for sure, but on the other hand the rumoured sale price - £300m – would represent a tidy profit. You wouldn’t expect any less of one of Britain’s most shrewd – if controversial - businessmen.
Image Credit: Chris Morgan/ Wikimedia commons