Sir John Madejski used to say “millionaires need not apply” when it came to buying Reading Football Club. Given our current plight, I think we’d take anyone who could pay the bills, but what about billionaire Mike Ashley?
For starters, he’s one of the UK’s most successful businessmen with shops far and wide. Habitually in The Sunday Times Rich List while also getting summons to Westminster discussing the future of the high street, to scrutiny over draconian conditions at his workplaces.
Ashley’s empire isn’t all milk and honey. Sportswear and large mugs aside, his success has come at a price for workers. He famously had a PR disaster touring journalists around one of his depots, only for a wad of £50 notes to fall from his pocket which he’d “forgotten about”. Attempts to appear affable and relatable bombed. But those stories are long ago, and staff were reportedly treated well during the pandemic.
Given the scenes in Newcastle when Ashley’s 14-year tenure came to an end in 2021, you’d think the football club had really suffered. So, what happened?
There’s a lot to cover, but let’s dive in.
It’s difficult to dissect Mike Ashley the football club owner without analysing Newcastle United too, especially in comparison to Reading FC. The Toon army are in the millions, whereas Loyal Royals selling out allocations at Wembley feels hard work. The only thing comparable about the two clubs is the sport they play. If the Frasers Group chief were to take the plunge here, Reading presents a totally different opportunity, even if it is consigned to League Two in the meantime.
The Magpies have 12 major trophies to their name, the last being 1969’s Fairs Cup: a forerunner to what is now UEFA’s Europa League. Since the Premier League’s inception, Newcastle were the long-term challengers to Manchester United until Arsene Wenger arrived. Remember Kevin Keegan’s “I will love it if we beat them” moment?
Arsenal’s move from Highbury in 2006 ended St James’ Park being head and shoulders with Old Trafford as one of the biggest stadiums in the league for many years. Alan Shearer became the world’s most expensive player when Newcastle United bought him from Blackburn Rovers in 1996.
Yet, the Toon were always the bridesmaid to Manchester United’s bride, as other challengers surpassed them. There’s no doubting their clout, thus vociferous Magpies were desperate for a sugar-daddy to turn their potential into success. Come 2007, Mike Ashley arrived.
The Sports Direct CEO turned his honeymoon period into a rush for an annulment attempting to marry his vision with Geordie heritage. In January 2008, Toon messiah Keegan was invited back to Newcastle United by Ashley. It was sensational given his lamented departure 10 years before. On paper it was PR gold, but Ashley had failed to anticipate the likely blowback if things went wrong. Which they did, spectacularly. So much for best intentions…
Newcastle were ignominiously relegated to the Championship, but en route Keegan aired frustrations at the people Ashley had hired to run the club. In hindsight, Newcastle weren’t being run any differently to what we see around football today, but clearly parties weren’t on the same page. Keegan was either an unknowing stooge or naïve.
But more importantly, his outburst stoked what we’d now call “identity politics.” He and his later successor Shearer were untouchable prophets with the fans. Ashley and his acolytes were dubbed “cockney mafia”, blamed for the relegation, and from then on club/fan relations were irreversibly hostile.
Just 14 months after he arrived, fans protested he sell the club - a measure of how quickly toxicity grew. Yet Ashley agreed, but that meant finding someone who could afford his circa £100mn sale price, despite him investing £250mn already. No buyer was found, thus an unhappy union remained for years.
This wasn’t helped by the ongoing “credit crunch” in the economy. The rich were castigated and the Ashley-led downfall of traditionally working-class Toon was a huge metaphor. A wealthy southerner, out of touch with the impoverished northeast. It’s a perception which has clung ever since to the retail magnet, whose next moves would never be right in the eyes of fans.
Changing sponsors and kit manufacturers: “wrong”. Advertising Sports Direct around St James’ Park was also “wrong”. Find me a club where the owner’s company isn’t advertised. It was fine before Ashley arrived; Auto Trader is iconic with Reading for example.
Ashley was even criticised for not expanding the stadium - by, yes, the very fanbase who wanted him gone. His predecessors tried and were thwarted by fans again protesting; thus, St James’ Park looks so “unfinished” today. Renaming the ground to Sports Direct @ St James’ Park was probably a step too far. Yet where do Arsenal and Manchester City play?
Attempts to grow Newcastle’s commercial revenue were all seen by fans as the owner exploiting the club. While these are brief overviews it does feel that, on the Toon’s part, it was more to do with who was doing it than what they were doing. Dammed either way.
In comparison, if Reading FC’s megastore became a Sports Direct outlet, I can’t imagine they’d be any worse than Fanatics.
Despite Newcastle’s relegation and failure to find a buyer, their hated owner didn’t sit back. He financed their 2009/10 Championship campaign, sealing an instant Premier League return with 102 points (not everyone’s perfect.) He’d do this again seven years later. In all they’d only have two out of 14 seasons in the Championship, hardly breaking a sweat winning promotion each time. As for the 12 Premier League seasons under Ashley, their average finishing place was thirteenth.
Considering he had serious buyer’s remorse, along with a fanbase wanting him gone, anyone not seeing this as an achievement needs a reality check in my view. Given our present situation it sounds like heaven! Plus, it would have been easier to let things slide at Tyneside, yet he didn’t.
Protests were vicious enough Ashley expressed fears for his and his family’s safety. Yet Newcastle fans complained they “never heard from him”. What did they expect given all the above? Secondly: statements were regularly issued confirming the status on attempts to sell Newcastle over the years. They’re easily found online, including a face-to-face with Sky Sports. That’s a fair bit more than we get from Dai Yongge here at Reading...
Ultimately his ownership didn’t put Newcastle in a better place from a football sense. But when fans describe him as presiding over a zombie club, it was one which largely stayed in the Premier League. Some feat when the very people whose support you need hate you and actively attempt to boycott your initiatives.
Initially Ashley cleared Newcastle United’s debts, but following his bust-up with fans he didn’t dig so deeply in his pockets again. Some Reading fans may remember Sir John was often accused of being tight before he bought Leroy Lita for £1mn. Generally, fans just want success and when you’re instead served failure, of course emotions run high. For me, Toon fans were too quick to call for change and took it too far because they felt the owner had sullied their heroes. This story encapsulates the fickleness of football: from harmonious fan-and-owner bonding “stag do” away days to banners telling him to go in a matter of months...
Financially, Newcastle United’s cumulative balance sheet was left £30mn in the black under Mike Ashley. A far cry from where Reading now finds itself and even a few Premier League clubs to boot. I’d say the Toon didn’t realise how well they had it! Clearly it was unhappy, but other than relegation worries, Newcastle United never feared for its actual future.
The Frasers Group head clearly wants back in on football. Previously he bought a stake in Rangers (before selling it to a supporters’ group), attempted to buy Derby County last year, and currently owns Coventry City’s stadium. Being a stakeholder elsewhere could prove sticky with the EFL should he take the plunge in RG2.
Maybe I’m trying to convince myself. We’ve clearly seen how bad ownership can trickle down into a football club and the negativity it brews. At Newcastle, Mike Ashley was simply just unwanted. If one entity buys the SCL, training ground and even the land once earmarked for Royal Elm Park, Reading Football Club could emulate its days under Sir John Madejski.
It just needs the right person or group, and it’s safe to say Mike Ashley has experience.
So, you’ve got to look past his name. Show me a virtuous billionaire looking for a football club and I’ll show you a flying pig…
Show us your hand Mike.