Despite his quite heinous actions, Mike Ashley’s detachment from the real world can be relatively humorous. Like that time when he, as a gesture of goodwill to rebuild a bridge between him and Rafa Benitez which was almost broken beyond repair, invited the manager and the Newcastle players to a Ponteland restaurant where they were told that – should they plug away and avoid relegation – he would reward each player (some on £80,000 a week) with a free summer holiday.
Later that night, a group of around 20-or-so disgruntled Newcastle fans turned up in protest at the eatery, each at breaking point following the collapse of the £250million sale to Amanda Staveley and her consortium. Ashley was quickly bundled into his car before being sped away by his chauffeur, but not before giving the crowd two fingers through a semi-blackened window.
Although the whole incident was obscene and Ashley obviously enraged the already red-faced supporters, it was also possibly the closest he had ever come to making an effort with Newcastle, the club he’s presided over for 13 years.
Indeed, he’s built quite the catalogue of peculiar antics over the past decade. From what was a positive short honeymoon period, some two or so months after he bought Newcastle, when he frequently appeared at games wearing a slightly-too-small replica top, necking pints and chatting with supporters – to Newcastle reaching their nadir through his disastrous decisions and total lack of regard for the club which he owns.
It has led to mass walkouts, street protests, anti-Ashley campaigns and groups; though Newcastle fans would hate to admit it, it has now got to the point for some that they are completely apathetic to their club. Some normally staunch supporters now refuse to attend games, something normally anathema to the fervent footballing city.
Last season alone, Ashley billed the new Puma home shirt at £65 (the most expensive in English football), he raised season ticket prices by 5% despite finding the money to revamp the directors’ box, and he was also unable to keep Benitez at the club, making the unpopular choice of replacing him with former Sunderland boss Steve Bruce.
Even this year, Ashley was roundly criticised for his initial refusal to close Sports Direct stores amid the coronavirus outbreak – a truly jaw-dropping move to most – and yet there was not much shock in the north east. This type of behaviour – putting profit over absolutely everything – is something those associated with Newcastle had long endured.
When Liverpool, Tottenham and Bournemouth furloughed non-playing staff earlier this month, the outrage was such that they both announced they had reversed the decision, seeing sense and, perhaps, common decency.
Newcastle, meanwhile, still have their staff furloughed; the backlash wasn’t so great – in fact, there was not much controversy whatsoever, as again, this what Newcastle fans have grown to expect of Ashley.
If anything Newcastle might furlough more staff just to get more attention.
Or wait until the final week of the scheme to do their big u-turn.
— NUFCThreatLevel (@NUFCThreatLevel) April 13, 2020
But now, after what must be five years of back and forth, failed takeovers, false rumours and contradicting reports, official public documents show that he has finally decided to sell up to the consortium led by Amanda Staveley, the woman he had previously branded a ‘time-waster’ despite her showing a local journalist in an exclusive interview the paperwork for three failed bids.
If he does leave and sell to PCP Capital for £340million – a move looking increasingly likely – Newcastle will become one of the richest clubs in Europe. They’ll have assets beyond when they were able to break the world record transfer with their purchase of Alan Shearer.
Of course, there will be question marks over the ethics of a Saudi-led consortium. The club are arguably replacing one ‘evil’ with another. Middle East investment in Premier League clubs has always raised eyebrows, owing to the country’s unspeakable human rights atrocities, but you cannot blame Newcastle supporters for their excitement during these times.
Even under Benitez, the recent glory years consisting of a couple of mid-table finishes and promotion from the second tier, Ashley was always the anchor pinning them down, giving them only enough room to bobble around without ever really reaching the surface.
But they have finally cut loose and their future is boundless, especially where investment is concerned, something which has already been touted as an important avenue for Staveley and her consortium, if the takeover goes ahead.
And if any club was to deserve a takeover from a morally dubious source, Newcastle are probably it – surely owed some reward for what they have endured over the past decade.
The cleaning process may take some time, the stench of Ashley has etched itself into the fabric of Newcastle’s core; the gigantic Sports Direct logo lodged deliberately high up on the East Stand, in the shot of TV cameras at each game, is emblematic of the commercialisation of a club which prides itself on community, unity and togetherness.
They will look back at the Ashley era as some of the club’s darkest days while Ashley himself may eventually look back with some regret when he realises what him and Newcastle could have won.
Jacque Talbot – find and follow him on Twitter