There’s a brilliant Eddie Izzard joke about the Church of England being put in charge of the Spanish Inquisition. “Cake or death?” the namby-pamby inquisitor asks.
“Err... cake please.”
“Very well... we’re gonna run out of cake at this rate.”
The question many Reading fans have been debating since the weekend is whether Mike Ashley is the cake or the death. The spotting of a longtime associate and PR man Keith Bishop and, naturally, a helicopter at the SCL on the morning after the Portsmouth game, backed up reports that the former Newcastle United owner is interested in joining the race for the Royals.
It was both a sign of the times and, personally, a little surprising to see so many Reading fans willing to roll out the red carpet for the 59-year-old. Ashley became a figure of contempt at St James’ Park for perceived on-field and off-field neglect of the Magpies. My straw poll on Twitter found the prospect of his takeover far, far more excitable to fans than the now-defunct William Storey bid and the looming prospect of death.
Ashley is estimated to be worth over £2bn, his company has £500mn of cash in the bank (more than enough for a couple of strikers) and he has a history of buying up British brands at their lowest with the general objective of turning them around. We also know who he is and where his money comes from, and this would not be his first rodeo in the sport. So far, so cake.
Funds of this magnitude are unfortunately around the minimum requirement to owning a serious EFL club, and it’s a bit of a weird one that Ashley not being a faceless consortium or unheard-of foreign billionaire makes him the exception, but they still nonetheless count in his favour. Others have pointed out his vague local-ness (he grew up in Burnham, which is just the right side of Slough) although he is/was a Chelsea fan, so Sir John Madejski he ain’t.
SJM also employed very good football people such as Nicky Hammond to make the bulk of the actual decisions for him. Ashley would do likewise but he has a reputation for picking trusted confidantes over people who we might not necessarily consider the best picks. At Newcastle, Dennis Wise and Joe Kinnear were two horrendously unpopular appointments parachuted into the boardroom, with the former helping spark the ‘cockney mafia’ fury on Tyneside. Reading have seen a useless, unaccountable mouthpiece for the owner hold the post of CEO under Dai Yongge, in Dayong Pang, and while Ashley might be an improvement here, it’s an area of his reputation that falls down to quite a staggering degree.
Newcastle fans also accused Ashley of selling off pieces of club land around the stadium to himself for a quick, personal profit and, while a separate entity, the lucrative ‘Royal Elm Park’ scheme is ripe for the plucking by an interested party willing to turn it into a reality. He will not be the only potential owner aware of the advantages of getting involved in Royal Elm Park, and there is a fear that every one of them will have more than one eye on how they can manoeuvre the situation to their own gains ahead of that of the club.
On the pitch, Ashley’s reputation is also terrible on Tyneside and Reading fans should heed the terrible reports on their academy. But non-Newcastle fans have more mixed views generally. It’s true that he, particularly in later years, wanted to keep the team in a small box labelled ‘mid-table’ with relatively low investment in the transfer market.
But not having the ambition to create a trophy-winning force in the Champions League is not overly relevant to Reading’s situation. Some would argue that being too ambitious was exactly Dai’s immediate problem and any prospective owner using the words ‘Premier League’ may as well be barred upon entry.
With the pressure rising on Reading’s takeover situation due to a fresh winding-up order from HMRC, something has to happen soon. Dai may well be forced to accept a lowball offer or he could be happy putting the club in administration before negotiating a more lucrative sale of the stadium. Ashley could be the biggest name who’s entered the running but the rumours still say several parties are keen, with a cheaper purchase of a club in administration (albeit one probably doomed for League Two) likely generating even more interest.
Unfortunately the takeover and Ashley potentially being the person to complete it is the biggest of the multitude of unknowns hanging over Reading right now. What’s become clearer by the day however is that it will not be “cake” on offer as the alternative to “death”.