Mark Douglas: United will always be bigger than you, Mike Ashley

Chief Sports writer Mark Douglas gives his take on Mike Ashley and his recent actions at Newcastle United

Mike Ashley
Mike Ashley’s illogical actions suggest he doesn’t recognise Newcastle is more than just another of his businesses

Apparently, Mike Ashley is entirely unconcerned about the latest monsoon of negative publicity his bone-headed actions have heaped on Newcastle United.

Banning myself and the rest of the NCJ Media stable a week ago for reporting on a march in a way that he didn’t like felt to us like an excessive, arrogant and grotesque attempt to censor the free press. But we were always likely to see it that way: less so others who are not directly affected by the clumsy, ham-fisted attempt to bend the black-and-white narrative.

Therefore it has been humbling and uplifting to see so many, a few of whom have no great love for the local press or even Newcastle United, it must be acknowledged, offer their support. That show of unity is, in my opinion, something of a mandate for us to start exploring just how deep the discontent lies with Ashley’s Newcastle.

Not that the club’s absent owner, who was not at the derby and skipped the midweek game against Manchester City in the “non-priority” League Cup, has taken the blind bit of notice according to those taking the temperature among the small band of individuals who sit on the board.

In fact, it appears as if he and his compliant cronies are in the mood for some cheeky one-upmanship given their obsequious decision to allow Premier League paymasters Sky Sports access to the St James’ Park dressing rooms and manager’s suite before the game. How predictable – and how utterly tiresome that Ashley would yet again completely miss the point that has been sketched out for him this week.

Once again, he appears to view this latest dispute as another attempt to flex his metaphorical muscles. While his position towards a free press – he’s banned ten journalists now – becomes more entrenched and his relationship with Sky becomes ever cosier he continues to miss the bigger picture: Newcastle United is not a bargaining tool, a weapon to be used against your enemies or a vehicle to further his business.

It is a living, breathing entity that merely has his name above the door for a limited period. That someone acting on his behalf had the gall to actually try and stop an independent observer even asking a question sums it up: we control Newcastle, you don’t get a say in the matter.

Ashley really doesn’t get that for all the eye-watering wealth and success he has accrued, the club is bigger than him. He can double the number of Sports Direct outlets, create another shoddy news website and carry a Newcastle United story on it every day if he wishes. It won’t change a thing: United will always be about much more than him or his businesses.

It goes without saying that it is bigger than any journalist, newspaper group or TV company too. The Journal’s editor Brian Aitken pointed out in a measured editorial that Ashley might do well to read that we don’t want to be the news and I share that feeling all the way. It gets boring writing about a ban and no matter how long the suspension of “privileges” goes on, it will only be mentioned when it is any way relevant from now on.

For Ashley, though, I wonder whether he realises what resides in the hearts and minds of the people he is desperately (and laudably, it must be said) trying to persuade back into St James’ Park. If he did, he might stop trying to apply the same business model that made Sports Direct a success and come up with something that actually makes a strength of the feeling that has been expressed this week. In short, he’d realise that Newcastle is the most important business in his portfolio.

Derek Llambias once told a group of assembled journalists that Ashley got that he was just the custodian of the club. But every time he makes an autocratic and illogical decision that suits him rather than the club or region (renaming the stadium, striking a deal with Wonga, appointing Joe Kinnear) he is showing that statement to be completely false. Nothing I have heard about him suggests that for all the years he has been here and all the pints he’s supped with supporters, he gets Newcastle United in the slightest.

He might view that as an incendiary statement but it’s actually intended as a piece of advice for him. Because as soon as he realises it, he can make huge gains (both financial and emotional).

Some people in football view Newcastle as a sort of damned United: unmanageable and a Premier League basket case. Even the current manager seems to err towards that feeling, judging by his recent appearance on Goals on Sunday. Returning to a theme he has spoken of many times in the last 12 months Pardew told Sky’s presenters: “If we lose, we’re going to go down, so it’s those extremes you have to manage.

“The expectation is such that it’s very difficult at times, I find it difficult to manage Newcastle, and I think most managers who have been at Newcastle find it difficult.”

When he said that, I was tearing my hair out. The simple fact is that there is a way to channel the passion, the enthusiasm and the devotion of the city for its football club into real, tangible, money-in-the-bank success.

But Ashley, with his media bans, his clueless director of football, his online Newcastle merchandise operation that sells Rangers coats, his free ads for Sports Direct and his logos plastered across the stadium and his whopping great loan, hasn’t even tried to do it. His continued presence at St James’ Park is hurting United.

Journalists

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