From my seat at St James’ Park, I can see 78 signs for Mike Ashley’s sporting goods empire SportsDirect.com.
Every now and then, another 30 or so flash onto the electronic advertising boards, just in case I have missed the message that Newcastle United now exists essentially to flog low-end leisurewear.
Someone else will be on the receiving end of that message next season because, after 20 years, I’ve had enough. The season ticket I first took up at the start of Keegan-mania has been cancelled. I will feel a little sad when I take my seat for the last time on Sunday but, more than anything else, what I mostly feel is relief.
Full disclosure is necessary here: my decision to cancel was motivated by a range of factors. I have young kids and a reasonably busy job and could no longer justify spending every other weekend getting frustrated (and being charged £30 for the privilege).
But the growing sense that giving Mike Ashley my money is something I really shouldn’t be doing was a factor too, a feeling which I’m sure is shared by many Newcastle fans.
Events since my decision to quit haven’t exactly given me pause for thought. Eight straight defeats, a fifth derby loss to Sunderland and the genuine prospect of relegation have only confirmed that I don’t want to do this any more.
The atmosphere at St James’ Park has become poisonous. We don’t chant footballer’s names or how we’re going to Wem-ber-ley. Instead we sing songs about empty seats and how rubbish we are and fall out with fellow supporters about whether or not we should be boycotting the whole thing.
Who’s to blame for this mess? Take your pick. A playing squad in which five senior members contrived to get suspended when they were needed most? A manager who turned on fans and then players as the pressure started to tell? Or a management and owner who left £30m in the bank while injuries and suspensions left the club struggling to put out a full team?
I have been going to St James’ Park, off and on, since 1980. My first game was an FA Cup defeat to Chester City, so I was pre-conditioned to disappointment from the word go.
But I have been going to the match for most of my adult life because, for the most part, it has been fun. There is still nothing like the roar of 50,000 people when the teams take to the pitch to get you excited. I still jump out of my seat with unbridled joy when we score (“like a leaping salmon,” according to my mate) and I still want to idolise the blokes in the black-and-white shirts.
I had a brief reminder of that giddy excitement earlier this year when a friend of mine asked if I could get tickets for her and her eight-year-old son. He came to the Aston Villa match and it was pretty awful but at least he got to see us win and we got him a scarf that he showed off with pride when he returned to school on Monday.
Does Mike Ashley ever feel that excitement, I wonder. For the brief period when he signed up Kevin Keegan as manager and stood on the terraces in his replica shirt, perhaps. Now you suspect the appeal of owning St James’ Park extends only to the profit it can bring and the exposure for his main business.
Let me be clear about this: I am not one of those people who believe Mr Ashley is the devil. I entirely agree that the club needed to change from the way it was run under its previous owners, and the fact that it makes a profit is a good thing. Newcastle United fans have a lot to moan about but there are supporters of other clubs – Leeds, Portsmouth, Blackburn (and I could go on) – who would take what we’ve got in a heartbeat.
I also have a long enough memory that I know we’ve been here before. I spent much of the 1980s singing “sack the board” from the Gallowgate end so it’s not like he’s the first owner/chairman who hasn’t delivered our dreams.
But what perhaps makes this different is that no-one can see things changing. A new manager and some decent players brought in over the summer and we might not be fighting relegation next season. What’s for certain, though, is that we won’t be trying to win any cups and we’ll be desperate not to get into the god-awful Europa League, so even the best case scenario is mid-table obscurity. “Let’s finish ninth!” is hardly likely to become a terrace chant any time soon.
Mike Ashley bought Newcastle United for around £134m and has since loaned it £129m. Factor in the fact that TV deals have made the club much more valuable in the meantime and you would guess that it would take at least £300m to wrest the club from Mr Ashley’s mitts.
According to the Sunday Times Rich List, only five people in the North East have such wealth, none of them actually have that sort of money as ready cash (and two of them are Middlesbrough fans anyway).
Mr Ashley might one day sell the club, but who we’d get in return is anyone’s guess.
And therein lies the ultimate problem. Premiership football has become the plaything of the ultra-rich. Mike Ashley has an estimated fortune of £3.5bn but his loot is dwarved by owners of some of the other clubs in the league.
Football clubs are owned by oil barons and oligarchs, and staffed by multi-millionaires, all of them bankrolled through ordinary fans who buy the tickets or replica kits or TV subscriptions (though increasingly all of those activities are beyond the reach of many).
A cursory examination of Mr Ashley’s Mash Holdings reveal how good he is at making money. In the last year revenues from Sports Direct, Newcastle United and the other sporting brands he owns saw its revenues rise from £2.2bn to £2.8bn, while profits after tax leapt from £200m in 2013 to £520m.
But for another view, instructive viewing came in seeing Sports Direct’s chairman Keith Hellawall before the Commons’ Scottish Affairs Select Committee in March. Two hours of questioning shone a light on the company’s widespread use of zero hours contracts, not to mention supply chain bullying and redundancies issued with almost no notice. Footage of the session is still online: it is well worth watching, if only to see that Newcastle United fans aren’t those who are suffering most at Mr Ashley’s hands.
Consider this too: Mike Ashley is clearly a very successful businessman yet he and his senior staff have managed to put Newcastle United at risk of relegation at the very point when a highly lucrative TV deal has made the club more profitable than any time in its history. To say that it is idiotic would be to invite howls of protest from halfwits everywhere.
On Sunday I will rock up to my seat in the Gallowgate for the last time, cheer on the team and hope we can stay up. I’ll probably go to a few games next season too – no matter what goes on at St James’ Park Newcastle United are still my team and always will be.
Even after my decision to quit, two moments each game have reminded me why I bother: the ovation given on 17 minutes for the two fans killed in the Ukrainian air disaster, and the support given to Jonas Gutierrez after he came back from cancer to play again.
Those moments alone show that whatever Messrs Ashley, Charnley and Carver do, Newcastle United is worth fighting for. How that fight plays out, however, is anyone’s guess.