This is always going to be a controversial issue for Newcastle fans. For years now Mike Ashley has come as close to winning a popularity contest on Tyneside as Lee Cattermole and his controversial choice to rename St James’ Park the Sports Direct Arena was understandably met with disdain. It is pretty much the worst stadium name I’ve ever heard (if there are worse out there please tell me in the comments section). However to dismiss this action as idiotic would be idiotic in itself. As Paul Wilson said in The Guardian:
“However depressing the Sports Direct Arena match-day atmosphere sounds, Newcastle do not have the global fan base of Manchester United or Arsenal, or the luxury of backers with deep pockets like Manchester City or Chelsea. They have to make money where they can, or think they can.”
And this is exactly the point. Ashley is trying to run a sustainable business and with the exception of Barton’s free transfer all of his actions have been with the interests of the club in mind. Ashley saw that Manchester City had made £400m for selling their naming rights just as Arsenal had done with The Emirates and that he could make some money even if it wasn’t nearly as much. The truth is he probably thought he would get more. When Ashley initially bought Newcastle he helped write off £130m debt by lending the money to the club interest free. Therefore he not only immediately stabilised the club financially but saved Newcastle millions of pounds in interest that they would have been paying had the debt been allowed to fester.
Therefore claims from some fans that Ashley greedily hoarded the club’s money when he sold Andy Carroll are wide of the mark to say the least. The money received for Carroll’s transfer may not have immediately gone back in to transfer fees but it has clearly been spent in other areas. Some on transfer fees, some on wages.
Former chairman Sir John Hall had nothing but praise for the current Newcastle owner when speaking to Goal:
“Ashley runs his business by keeping a very tight rein on things and he is doing very, very well. Sports Direct has done exceptionally well since he founded the company and he has brought his business principles to St James’ Park. I don’t have as much money as Mike but I would probably be doing the same thing as him. In my day we were local millionaires such as Jack Walker at Blackburn, Dave Whelan at Wigan and Bill Kenwright at Everton and we put our money in to the clubs because we were fans. But now the game is being rub by billionaires and for me it is wrong and stupid if any English businessman tries to compete with these billionaires…Ashley has a formula that is working and long may it continue.”
In fact Ashley’s attitude towards transfers seems to have been spot on. Not only has he heavily invested in Newcastle’s scouting network (Newcastle now have twenty scouts who are active every week looking for future talent) but that scout network has paid dividends. The signings of Demba Ba, Yohan Cabaye, Sylvain Marveaux and Mehdi Abeid were all brought in for the same price as Nolan was sold for. Admittedly three of them were free transfers but then again their wages still had to be paid and offloading the diminishing Nolan was the perfect way to do that. Newcastle now have a young talented team with an exciting French core to it. Moreover players like Cheik Tiote who were signed for less than £5m are now rumoured to be worth almost four times that amount.
Some people will argue that the well calculated transfer forays were down to Alan Pardew but even if they were who was it that brought Pardew in? There was outrage when Chris Hughton was sacked and whilst it did seem unfair on the former Spurs man Pardew has done an excellent job. Ashley was ridiculed for his choice but Pardew has repaid the owner’s faith with an unbelievable start to the season.
For many Newcastle fans the stadium rights fiasco was an unforgivable act but if you were to summarise the club’s journey since Ashley arrived you would have to say that they are performing better on the pitch and are much more financially stable off it. To add to that the scouting network set up by Ashley and his policy of investing in young players is as sustainable as any other club, and more sustainable than most. The sale of Andy Carroll was lamented by many but now appears a masterstroke and the departures of Barton and Nolan now seem to have been a wise move in order for younger continental talents to develop at the club. The departure of the excellent José Enrique is the only disappointing transfer for Newcastle fans but that can hardly be blamed on Ashley. After a slow start to life at the club, which saw them relegated, Ashley loaned Newcastle the money to keep their star players whilst in the Championship, ensuring immediate promotion, and has built on that success ever since. However much pride swallowing may be involved it seems that it is time for Newcastle fans to admit that Newcastle are much better off as a result of Ashley’s tenure.
Follow Hamish on Twitter @H_Mackay