With Mike Ashley and Newcastle United, it always seems to come back to Aston Villa.
Villa Park was the backdrop on that fateful day when the Magpies were roughly disabused of their false sense of superiority and dumped into the Championship back in 2009. On Saturday it will be the setting for the metaphorical morning after the night before: Newcastle re-emerging from an international week slumber that saw everyone associated with the club cop heavy flak for a woeful summer.
What supporters might not recall so readily is that four years ago, Aston Villa were held up as the “model” for Ashley’s Newcastle. “We hope to be like Aston Villa,” then managing director Derek Llambias said – referencing Villa’s three-year flirtation with the Champions League under Martin O’Neill.
It was a comparison that bristled at the time. O’Neill’s Aston Villa were doing well, but Newcastle were only four years on from Champions League campaigns and Ashley might still have been in generous mood: shouldn’t they have been aiming higher?
Plenty of water has flown under the Tyne Bridge since then and Aston Villa have downgraded significantly, but in a funny way, the comparison still tallies. Randy Lerner’s ownership of the Second City club appears to have stagnated in the past four years and Ashley’s model seems to be following a similar path. Cheap buys from untapped foreign markets, easing out experienced players on big money, promoting through the Academy and a reliance on the manager to squeeze the very best out of the group he’s got: does any of that sound familiar?
Lerner is also propping up Villa with personal loans. It is £107million in his case, and he also waived around £20million of interest that was due to him by Villa last season. Ashley does something similar. The loan he brokered was around £111million.
Bound together in a sort of pact of disinterest, Newcastle and Aston Villa are suffering the worst of both worlds. Billionaire owners are good fun when they use their wealth to play the Premier League as if it is the biggest and most expensive board game you could possibly find but they don’t provide quite so many larks when they start to rail against the hemmorhaging of money.
The next couple of years of accounts should make for interesting reading given that there appears to have been a conscious decision for the club to take a different financial direction since Newcastle’s fifth-placed finish.
A personal theory – backed up by a bit of anectdotal evidence at the time – was that Ashley’s mindset started to change after the purchase of Papiss Cisse. As terrific as he was after his January signing, the owner saw it wasted cash after his purchase failed to give United the impetus they needed to break into the top four.
Instead Newcastle found themselves in the Europa League – not exactly lucrative – and they had a player gaining in years and on a long contract that couldn’t be broken. It didn’t seem like that when he was arrowing in banana shots at Stamford Bridge, but Ashley’s mind works in different ways.
The following summer only one senior player arrived despite efforts to improve the squad (the pursuit of Luuk de Jong and Mathieu Debuchy ultimately failed). Not exactly a smoking gun for the above theory but interesting nonetheless.
This summer we’re left scratching our heads again. The sums are interesting ones to get your teeth into.
Last year’s financials were trumpeted by Llambias as some of the best to come out of the club. There was an overall profit of £1.4million (following player amortisation, that is the real value of Newcastle’s squad balanced against the length of their contracts) and Newcastle made much about how “boring” the figures appeared.
Since then United have signed their biggest ever sponsorship deal with Wonga and banked their share of the biggest TV deal in professional football. This is balanced against the signings of Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa (£6.7m), Moussa Sissoko (fee negligible), Yoan Gouffran (undisclosed, but close to £1.5million), Massaido Haidara (undisclosed but around £1million), Debuchy (£5million) and Loic Remy (loan fee of around £2million).
Out went James Perch and Demba Ba at the same time. Steve Harper’s contract was not renewed; ditto Danny Simpson. The outgoing outweighs the incoming, but not by a huge amount. Yet Newcastle staff were told to cut costs.
At least two members of staff were made redundant (the creation of a role and a long-term contract for Joe Kinnear negates this).
United continue to insist that Ashley has not taken back any of the loan he’s entitled to and indeed the bids for Bafetimbi Gomis – as well as Ashley giving the green light to buy three players after the infamous yacht meeting with Kinnear – hints that there is a sizeable pot of money sloshing about.
There would be even more if the Sports Direct advertising was monetised. The kind of branding Ashley’s leisurewear company gets would be worth millions, which jars given the club’s stated desire to improve commercial revenue.
There are more questions than answers about the financial parameters the club is operating within at the moment. Pardew once said Ashley wanted the club to “wipe its nose”. At the very least it is doing that now. Will the extra money be put to use in January? Or will it go to other uses?
Incidentally, Llambias went on to say in 2009 that Newcastle wanted to be “challenging for everything” in five years time. Four years down, I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusion.