Mike Ashley is reflecting on his 12 years at Newcastle. ‘I’m a negative to that football club,’ he says, without a hint of self-pity.
‘It’s not a secret. I don’t feel sorry for myself. It is down to me, not Newcastle. I give myself one out of five in some aspects because I made proper mistakes, and football isn’t a very forgiving place. I didn’t just shoot myself in the foot; I blew my own leg off.
‘People would look at me and think I’d gone temporarily insane. They didn’t know what I was doing. Will I be there, first game of the season? Maybe.
Mike Ashley (pictured) has revealed all about his ownership of Newcastle over the last 12 years
Ashley has come under intense scrutiny, with Newcastle fans protesting against his ownership
‘What I don’t want is for it to be negative. Why would I go if it causes the fans an issue? If I’m not there, maybe they can get behind Steve Bruce and get on with it. That’s probably better. I don’t want people to think I’m making it worse. I don’t want people to be asking how our players can perform in these conditions. I don’t want them booing every two minutes.’
The low point for Ashley was a game at St James’ Park when the fans chanted his name. The Sunderland fans, in the away end, raucously celebrating a win by singing “There’s only one Mike Ashley”.
He winces. ‘That was a really tough day,’ he adds. ‘I could hear it and I’m thinking, “Mike, this is bad. This is really, really bad”. I’ve got to admit, I was struggling with that.’
Despite this – despite the best part of a decade of it – Ashley still describes himself as an optimist, a dreamer, excitable when it comes to football. And many will scoff, not least those who would run him out of Tyneside on a rail, for mismanagement, for lack of investment, for a perceived charge sheet that could cross to Gateshead and back again.
Yet when he talks about football, the moment he moves away from the dry, pragmatic, financial responsibility of running Newcastle, a different man can be seen. The travelling England fan who floated his company and bought a Premier League football club for the fun, and the hell, of it. Who appointed Kevin Keegan because why on earth wouldn’t he? Ashley talks more like the average punter standing behind the goal than 90 per cent of the folk who populate boardrooms.
He is still capable of unimagined enthusiasms and leaps of faith – writing in a £20million bonus for the players if Newcastle won the FA Cup several seasons ago, giving Alan Pardew an eight-year contract – of being utterly enchanted by the passionate emotions of his new manager, or the potential in some bright young thing.
Newcastle just broke their club-record transfer deal on Joelinton, signing him for £40million
MIKE ASHLEY ON RAFA BENITEZ
EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW – MARTIN SAMUEL
Mike Ashley insisted on Friday night that it was ‘impossible’ for Newcastle to have kept Rafa Benitez – and that the former manager was determined to take a lucrative deal to China from the start.
Ashley revealed he even floated the idea of an eight-year contract with Benitez at a meeting on May 16, and that the manager’s refusal to commit could have cost the club record signing Joelinton.
Newcastle’s owner spoke out following criticism of the breakdown in talks with Benitez – who he admits did an ‘excellent’ job – and criticism from the former boss following his appointment at Dalian Yifang in a deal worth £12m-a-year.
And he said: ‘If you come out and say the things he did you would think it was football club first, Rafa second, money third. I’d say it was money first, Rafa, then the club last. He took the totally soft option, took the money and went to China. That disappoints me. If he’d gone back to Real Madrid, or a top six club in the Premier League, I get it. But it was about money and all he had to do was say that from the beginning.
‘My view always was we had to keep Rafa. For my own personal safety we had to keep Rafa. I thought he had us offside, he had us cornered, it wasn’t fair, it wasn’t right, I’ve been totally out-manoeuvred, I probably shouldn’t own a football club, it’s ridiculous, but I’m a big boy.
‘Yet every time with Rafa it was impossible – there was always another thing, and the next thing, and the next thing. He asked for a 50 per cent pay increase and I think he did that because he knew it couldn’t work. And if we had agreed to that, I think it would have been something else. And everyone thinks we lost him because we wouldn’t pay a couple of quid more. He had the microphone and we didn’t.
‘I’m not disappointed in him as a manager – he did an excellent job. It puzzles me why any fan thinks I wouldn’t want him. I’m not the thickest person on the planet. Why wouldn’t I want excellence? Why wouldn’t I want this manager? Accuse me or many things, but not that. We couldn’t have done any more.
‘At one stage they were talking about a one-year extension and I said my preference would be for an eight-year contract. That’s what I have to do in business when I invest. I have to take a medium to long-term view. I don’t worry about my takings on a Saturday. And we are now talking planning and strategy. So if you really want me involved, I need time from you, too. And that was the idea. I did it before with Alan Pardew.
‘Looking back, though, it doesn’t really matter what Rafa asked for because I think the Chinese thing was done. He had talked about what he could earn in China previously. We were not even slightly surprised by that move.’
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He made a two-hour stop-off at the training ground this week and came back talking of breaking some of his stricter rules of engagement to see if he can light a spark in the club this season. Ashley broke the club’s transfer record for Joelinton in July, having already done so for Miguel Almiron in January.
‘I go to the training ground, hot day, all lovely – you can’t help getting carried away,’ he says. ‘I’m like, ‘What can I do to help? Can we get another one in? What’s he like, is he fast?’ It’s one of the amazing things about owning a football club, the way you get caught up. It’s like someone has put something in your coffee. You look around, you want to lift the place, hit the ground running. I hope we’re not finished at Joelinton.’
With Ashley’s circumstances at Newcastle, however, there is always a deeper reasoning to consider.
‘What I fear, from the club’s point of view, is to make a promise and then something goes wrong,’ he adds. ‘It’s a big issue of reputation for the club because of my ownership. If that happens, people think we were never serious, that it’s a stunt. If we get something wrong, or it doesn’t happen for whatever reason, it becomes worse than not doing anything at all.’
Plainly, Ashley is torn. He hasn’t got the fortune required to make Newcastle competitive at the top of the table, but he does dream of delivering more than a decent balance sheet.
On the day of our conversation, Tottenham had signed a shirt deal worth £45m each season, across eight years. ‘Er, OK,’ says Ashley. ‘That is many, many times what Newcastle can get. We’re not anywhere near that – nobody is, outside the top six. And I’m being told Liverpool could get £100m for the same deal.
Ashley labelled himself a ‘negative to that football club’ in an interview with Martin Samuel
Newcastle supporters protest against Ashley ahead of the 2019-20 Premier League campaign
MIKE ASHLEY’S KEY QUOTES
If you’re a fan, and you can have Kevin as manager, it’s very exciting. And I’m an excitable bloke
Fans don’t believe the accounts and ask: ‘Where’s the money?’ What are they talking about? How do I fiddle it?
The reality is I’m not wealthy enough to own the club. I genuinely believe you need £1 billion
ON HIS WEALTH
‘So just on technical kit sponsor alone, we could start more than £90m behind them, in one year, on one sponsorship. Now add the rest of it up and you’re starting £300m behind Liverpool, or £400m behind Manchester United. To keep up with that? It would wipe me out. I’d be gone. I wouldn’t even be able to afford a season ticket – and it wouldn’t take long.
‘It is so much bigger than when I got involved. I thought at the time I could put in £10m, £20m and it would make a big difference. And it would have done. Now – it’s nothing.
‘Put in £10m and it’s a joke. OK, that’s how the market is. But it’s not something I can afford, and it’s not something Newcastle can afford while I own it. The over-riding reality is that I am just not wealthy enough to own Newcastle. I genuinely believe you need £1billion. People say £500m but I’d bet anyone that these days you can’t do it for that. Not to compete at the very top.
‘Manchester City can afford to have an ageing team; they can afford to just write players off. How can we do that? It’s not possible. Therefore you have to go for the best young players and hope they develop that little bit and become world-beaters.
‘That is our principle and it hasn’t changed for many years. But to compete, I need someone to take Newcastle off me who literally wants to put in £1billion.’
For the Ashley Out campaign and his many detractors, here comes the bad news. ‘So I have to assume I will stay running this football club. There are no offers. Define an offer. I’m not a believer any more. Peter Kenyon convinced me last Christmas that it was going to get done. I’m never doing that again. I think I could own this football club for ever. That is my new mental state. The reality is with these deals that once it gets out, if it’s not done, it’s probably not going to get done.
‘The day someone buys Newcastle, they’ll do their due diligence – and finished. It will happen like Manchester City. By the time the media find out, it’s already complete. There’s no need for a delay with Newcastle. It is, honestly, a very well-run football club.
Newcastle fans have protested against Ashley after Rafa Benitez (R) walked away from the club
‘The last bid, the one from UAE, he’s a prince and he’s got £38bn or £100bn, all these numbers — well, why would you even care what you’re paying then? What difference would £10m either way make? You would want speed, you would want certainty, you would want the keys and to get on with it.
‘I will not stand in the way of Newcastle United. I will not stop that, if it happens. If such a person comes along I will think I’ve done quite a good job and I will want to keep going to watch them. I’ll keep a box, because my parents will demand it. Every time there’s a story that I’ve sold, I get the phone call. “You haven’t included our box in the sale?” When you own a football club, the whole family are in.’
That was the original plan. Fun. Family. Friends.
Ashley was a home and away England fan who was in the Azteca Stadium for the Hand of God and Turin for Gazza’s Tears, who floated Sports Direct in 2007 and heard Newcastle United was on the market. Nobody thought he could get it and he was so keen to prove them wrong that, famously, he didn’t even bother with due diligence and missed some Tyne Bridge-sized holes in the accounts.
He started off as the archetypal owner-fan, all replica shirts and pints in the local, and made Geordie hero Keegan his manager before reality set in. Keegan was scathing about Ashley, his stewardship, and his recruitment team, Tony Jimenez and Dennis Wise, in his autobiography. Ashley concedes he had a point.
‘I started off from the wrong premise,’ Ashley explains. ‘I wanted to enjoy myself and I should have gone with a different concept from the opening gate. But if you’re a football fan, and you can have Kevin Keegan as your manager – well, it’s very exciting, isn’t it? And I’m a bit of an excitable bloke and I loved it, I found it amazing that he was ours.
‘But you very quickly learn that you have to be realistic. Kevin had nothing but good intentions for the football club. He would never do anything wrong, you’d never find some nasty agent lurking in the background on a deal.
‘But this was modern Newcastle, building for the future, and he wanted these older players that he knew. That wasn’t what we needed. But do I regret how it ended? Why wouldn’t I? I don’t have a bad word to say about Kevin. I didn’t have the right people around the football club at the time and that wasn’t fair on him.
The under-fire Magpies owner admitted he could own the club ‘forever’ despite the scrutiny
Kevin Keegan (right) was scathing about Ashley and his stewardship in his autobiography
ASHLEY ON AYOZE PEREZ DEAL
EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW – MARTIN SAMUEL
Newcastle will put punitive buy-out clauses in all future player contracts – after being caught out by Leicester over Ayoze Perez.
The attacking midfielder, one of Newcastle’s stand-out players under Rafa Benitez last season, was bought for £30m this summer, after Leicester triggered his release clause.
And Newcastle owner Mike Ashley admits it was an error to only set Perez’s fee at £30m, having paid one tenth of that to get him from Tenerife in 2014.
‘We didn’t want to sell Perez, but had no option once Leicester reached that figure,’ he explained.
‘These clauses are the highest you think the player will accept, so he can’t batter your door down and demand to be sold for £10m. I don’t care what people say, it’s very difficult to keep a player when they want to go. The age of slavery is dead. But we’ve learned our lesson on release clauses from here.’
Ashley was equally adamant promising young midfielder Sean Longstaff will not be sold to Manchester United.
Echoing the words of manager Steve Bruce, Ashley added: ‘The message we want to put out is that he is not for sale. If you’ve got one like Sean – keep him.’
‘So I accept I’ve managed it badly at times. It’s my fault. Certain things aren’t, but some are. And the fans are very unforgiving about the mistakes in the early years.
‘Building it again, they don’t give me much leeway. People say it’s only a business now, but I don’t think I run it solely as a business, because a business has to make money. I’m accused of having no ambition, but if that was so I could just take money out of the football club.
‘I could say to Lee Charnley, our managing director, I’ll have £10m, £12m. But a good custodian will make every penny count. No interest, no repayments. So in that way I’m a good custodian. Being there when disaster strikes and we go into the Championship and we need someone to write a cheque to put into the football club, I’m good – no question. If we’re talking PR, it’s the exact opposite. So on financial stability, producing a professionally run football club, proper accounts, proper cash flows, proper accountability – five out of five, very good. On PR – very bad.
‘You know, some of the fans don’t even believe the accounts. “Where’s the money? You’ve got it somewhere.” What are you talking about? How do I fiddle this? It’s like asking if I’m on drugs. Don’t be bloody idiotic. I don’t do drugs. Everything else I might be guilty of. Were you out drinking the other night? More than likely.
‘But you can put any accountant on our books and it’s whiter than white. I’ve felt like challenging the fans on that sometimes. I’ll pay and you can have an independent auditor come in and review us. But will you please stop saying these things? I’m guilty of a lot, but not that.’
If Ashley appears more bullish right now, readier to assume the role of Newcastle’s custodian – like it or not – it is most probably because he is again thinking of fun. Bruce may have arrived to a shrug, or a raspberry, with the thankless task of succeeding Rafa Benitez and having Arsenal, Tottenham, Liverpool, Manchester United and Chelsea to play in his first nine Premier League games, but he has revitalised one figure at Newcastle.
Ashley recently appointed Bruce as Newcastle manager, insisting he wasn’t 11th choice
‘Someone with a lot of passion for the club counts a lot in my book,’ Ashley insists.
‘For me, Steve is an amazing choice because, England aside, there is no other job for him. This is his dream. What I want the fans to understand is that, in him, they have someone who absolutely cares. He’s not worried about his expenses, all that crap. He wants to talk about Newcastle. I get excited by that.
‘I expected the negative reaction to Rafa leaving, I thought it would be very bad. But I was shocked by the reaction to Steve. He doesn’t deserve it. He’s one of their own. I don’t think the fans quite realise what they’ve got because I’m hoping he’s the one.
‘There’s been some hurtful stuff, that he was our 11th choice. Actually, we had a short-list of three and Steve was one of them. His only worry was how soon he could start. I’m not a football expert, I don’t get involved, I’ve got a car but I’m not the driver. And now I’ve got a manager saying, “Let me get on with it. Just let me get on with it – I won’t let you down”. I’m thinking, “I’m definitely having that”. He gets it. He comes in: “The cups? Yeah, we go for them”.
‘Certain things I haven’t got right. I used to think our Premier League finish was more important. But where can we realistically go with this top six? The cups are the best of it. And it’s great to have a conversation with someone who is so passionate for Newcastle United. I know I’m an eternal optimist but with what we’ve got now at the football club, something might be possible.
‘And you can’t believe how that would make me feel. I divide life into snowballs and dominoes. Snowballs are very positive, rolling down the hill, getting bigger, gathering momentum. Dominoes are like – oh my God, when is this going to stop? And I’m hoping this is a snowball.’
It was the hottest day since records began outside. If Ashley thinks Bruce’s snowball can survive in that, he truly is an optimist.
Ashley has heavily defended Bruce, claiming he is ‘an amazing choice’ as Newcastle manager