Mark Douglas: Unanswered North East football questions need to be addressed

Ellis Short and Mike Ashley made catastrophic errors this season, so why should we have faith in them now ponders Mark Douglas

Owen Humphreys/PA Wire Mike Ashley
Mike Ashley

Last week, Mike Ashley sold Sports Direct shares worth some £200m.

The city proclaimed itself puzzled. “Perhaps it is a way of telling the City that he needs the money,” an independent retail analyst told The Guardian on Wednesday. It came just a few days after Ashley had tried to push through a bonus scheme that would have landed him a cool £70m for his part in the ongoing Sports Direct success story.

Another report last week reminded readers that Ashley’s MASH Holdings had issued a statement on October 23 promising not to sell any more of his stake in the company for 180 days. Some 166 days later he had done just that.

These are big decisions. Bold calls; the type that Ashley makes on a monthly basis. Given the way Sports Direct has ballooned in value over the past decade, they are decisions that he usually gets right.

Ellis Short’s personal fortunes is measured in billions, but the American owner of Sunderland continues to risk it all.

Last month he raised an eye-watering $1.5billion to buy “distressed” EU property debt. That is a lot of money for an investment that carries humongous risk: essentially he could be buying up something that could be rendered worthless if the companies in question do end up going bankrupt.

Yet the city believes in Short. A report in the Financial Times quoted a rival investor as saying: “This is an extraordinary amount of money to be raised in a very short period of time, which underscores how successful Ellis was at Lone Star.”

In short, these are two heavyweight investors, sharp as tacks and with bank accounts to prove it. So how were they suckered into making the two of the most catastrophic decisions of any North East owner in the Premier League era?

Short was drawn in by Roberto De Fanti. Quite how this happened, we are yet to really find out. De Fanti has never been explained, accounted for or really expanded on by Short, but it was at this point that the wheels for Sunderland’s relegation were set in motion.

Bethany Clarke/Getty Images Chairman of Sunderland AFC, Ellis Short
Chairman of Sunderland AFC, Ellis Short
 

Joe Kinnear was Ashley’s kryptonite. A man who had spent almost six years on the sidelines, slowing pickling in his own misguided self-belief, was plucked out of retirement to lead Newcastle in a close season that was the most lucrative in Premier League history.

He was counselled against it by Derek Llambias, the man who had run his football club at a profit the previous year, but that insubordination resulted in the former managing director leaving the club.

They were two decisions so misguided that at the time, some developed the theory that there was something Short and Ashley might not be telling us. Maybe they had an inside track on something: perhaps there were hidden depths to the two oddballs in positions of power.

As it panned out, there wasn’t. They were both hopelessly misguided mistakes that have brought the two clubs to this deeply dissatisfying denouement to the seasons.

Sunderland’s was more catastrophic, admittedly, but Newcastle find themselves with work to do to make up for lost ground.

The sheer folly of the Kinnear decision was highlighted this week as Lee Charnley was appointed as managing director. Why didn’t Ashley just do that 12 months before and save us all the hassle?

Sometimes, there is logic in crowds – as much as the game sometimes likes to deny it.

Supporters might be many things, but our passion is often underscored by knowledge.

In football, it sometimes feels like supporters are seen by those who are paid to play, manage or administrate as an unwelcome complication of their world. Think back to Sam Allardyce cupping his ear to the boos that rained down from the stands at Upton Park after their defeat of Hull City the other week.

His reaction was predictably incredulous and never considered that, maybe, the supporters had a point. They might be on course to stay up, but at what cost?

This is all relevant because both Sunderland and Newcastle are once again asking us to trust them. The Black Cats’ season ticket renewal deadline is today and at the moment, anyone renewing must have faith in the decisions of the key men.

Perhaps it is time they started listening to those who feel so aggreived at the way this horrendous season has gone.

Perhaps it is time they started sharing the reasons for these decisions they made. It is the only way that either club will ever move on from their summer of madness.

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer