“If Big Sam sent a team out to play like this he’d get hammered. This isn’t Newcastle. Toon fans I know would rather lose 5-4 than win 1-0 like this.” For those of you playing along, that’s a full house for Lazy Outdated Stereotypes About Newcastle United Supporters. The author of that missive was, of course, Richard Keys. You might remember Dick as the anchor of TV-am on ITV in the 1980s, the decade in which the formerly hairy-handed presenter appears to have left any kind of awareness of the outside world. If that doesn’t ring a bell, then perhaps his outrage at the Premier League employing a female official on the grounds that “they don’t know the offside rule” and subsequently being sacked for misogyny might jog your memory. Failing that, you might have heard about his wife, fresh from a battle with cancer, filing for divorce last year after she discovered that old Keysy was having an affair with a friend of their daughter’s during his wife’s treatment. If all that has passed you by then you’ve undoubtedly come across Richard’s crusade against Rafa Benitez and the supporters of Newcastle United over the past few weeks alongside his broadcasting partner-in-crime Andy Gray.
Ah yes, Andy Gray. Formerly the iconic voice of Sky Sports and the Premier League, knocking on the door of National Treasure status, with his peerless enthusiasm for the game and his trademark line that followed every spectacular goal, “Take a bow, son. Take. A. Bow”. Gray had to take a bow of his own of course, after studio footage emerged of him making unsolicited and unwanted lewd comments to female colleagues in the Sky Sports studio, and so he fled hand-in-hairy-hand with Keys to Doha. Since 2013 they’ve been haunting the screens of English football fans in the Middle East, each year becoming more bloated, embittered and irrelevant, inviting a rotating cast of chancers, every one more insalubrious than the last, pitifully trading their dignity for the Qatari riyal as their bodies and minds decline in the most public way imaginable.
But what’s this? A chance to grasp the limelight! A grubby-handed grab at the zeitgeist! A last-gasp opportunity for those bittersweet clicks and views that their tattered careers now depend on. Yes, the hot take from the beIN Sport Studio is that Rafa Benitez (not Mike Ashley as we’d been led to believe) is the real villain at Newcastle United. Over the course of the past month, Keys and Gray have sung the praises of Ashley, constantly misquoting figures, persistently regurgitating myths about the “great job Mike’s done since he bought the club”, and repeatedly disparaging the fans and the manager of Newcastle United. Gray, appearing on-screen looking like a demented potato discarded in a harsh winter, tells viewers that Ashley has sanctioned transfers for Benitez to the tune of “a quarter of a billion pounds” – the actual figure is closer to £129m, almost half of the sum quoted by the Scotsman. Keys trumpets Ashley’s generosity by referencing the £144m ‘interest free loan’ that the owner has kindly taken out on the club’s behalf. An ‘interest free loan’ that has doubled the club’s debt and is no nearer to being repaid despite significant revenue from player trading, prize money and broadcast payments, along with eleven years of free advertising for Mike Ashley’s Sports Direct. With one hand the duo dismiss Benitez’s concerns over the quality of his squad – after all they finished tenth last season, crucially with a better goal difference than the sides beneath them – and with the other they disparage his pragmatic approach against teams that have spent hundreds of millions of pounds to improve their squads.
The pair are aided and abetted on air by a selection of some of the worst men in British football, all of whom seem to be champing at the bit to discredit Benitez and the Toon Army. Dennis Wise, not long ago seen feasting on an ostrich’s anus in a bid to stave off the bailiffs, perched on his tip-toes to see over the parapet and defend the man that inexplicably gave him a job as Director of Football at Newcastle. Aside from being a nasty little shit on the football pitch, Wise was previously imprisoned for assaulting a taxi driver and implicated in the constructive dismissal case brought by Kevin Keegan that cost the club £2m. Sam Allardyce, a manager whose record at ‘big’ clubs reads: Sacked by Mike Ashley (Newcastle), Sacked sixty seconds after the final game of the season (West Ham), Sacked for gross misconduct (England), Sacked because literally no-one liked him (Everton), was quick to jump on the Benitez bashing bandwagon, as was Paul Lambert, who claimed he would “never set up to defend like that against Chelsea”, conveniently forgetting that his Aston Villa side were beaten 8-0 at Stamford Bridge in 2012. The list goes on, but features such luminaries as failed football club owner Simon Jordan, and failed football manager Graeme Souness. All of whom are desperate to get the same message across: The expectations of Newcastle United fans are unrealistic (Tired Cliche Klaxon), and Mike Ashley is doing the best he can in the face of unwarranted criticism.
But since Newcastle United are no longer a significant player in the top tier of English football, at least according to these luminaries of the game, why are they getting so much air-time? After all, the first four of the Magpies fixtures this season were chosen for live broadcast by Sky and BT Sport, each one punctuated with the same pro-Ashley rhetoric during analysis from cherry-picked former Newcastle players in the studio. What’s in it for the broadcasters, the pundits, or the media at large to jump to the defence of a self-made billionaire? And why now?
For the supporters of Newcastle United, along with the majority of clued up neutral supporters and some of the most respected members of the British press and media, mystery no longer surrounds the pro-Ashley bias presented by the likes of Sky and beIN Sports. Where once the loyal fanbase in the North East would be targeted for ridicule by all and sundry, sympathy, empathy and support for the fight against their neglectful owner has begun to gather pace. Finally, after eleven years of tarnishing the name of a once great football club, disrespecting club legends, and treating supporters with utter contempt, Mike Ashley’s mask has begun to slip, and the ugly truth beneath is clear for all to see. The tide has turned in the PR war between Ashley and the Toon Army.
It can no longer be considered a coincidence that in the month following the formation of fan initiative The Magpie Group, a network comprising the club’s most prominent supporter groups including the True Faith Fanzine, Wor Flags, and the Ashley Out Campaign and possessing the kind of momentum and support that could finally encourage change in the upper echelons of the club, publicly known associates of Ashley including Wise and Allardyce have crawled out from under their rocks to defend the disgraced businessman. The informed football fan is no longer fooled when Souness, a close ally of Ashley’s PR machine Keith Bishop, vehemently criticises Benitez’s management style despite failing throughout his own management career. Viewers of Match of the Day and Sky Sports are discerning enough to realise that when lifelong Newcastle United supporter Alan Shearer is rallying against the state of his beloved football club, it comes from a better informed place than the ignorant platitudes trotted out by Wise et al, or that Jamie Carragher, who has quickly carved out a reputation as one of the most respected pundits in the country, knows enough about the game to know that the party-line being regurgitated by Craig Bellamy is nonsense, and is right to challenge him on it. Anyone familiar with the fantastic writing of Daniel Storey, George Caulkin or Luke Edwards will know the truth behind the fiction.
The casual observer doesn’t need a degree in mathematics to add two and two together and work out that, in the same week advisory company Glass Lewis recommended that Sports Direct’s shareholders voted against re-electing Ashley to the company’s board, due in part to the owners “constant presence in negative news stories”, the release of Andy Gray’s ‘exclusive’ on how Benitez has ‘played the fans’ was used as a means of distraction. Devised as a chance to take the heat off of Ashley and Sport Direct; exposed as a piteous, transparent diversion. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that a man most famous for flogging oversized drinkware is attempting to make massive mugs of his customers.
Those that watched the Sky Sports ‘interview’ with Ashley at the beginning of last season, a piece so light on journalistic integrity that it made Piers Morgan’s meeting with Donald Trump look like Frost/Nixon, won’t have been shocked to hear Keith Bishop informing David Craig – the ‘reporter’ that carried out Ashley’s interview – that he expected the current fan revolt ‘to blow over in a month’. Mike Ashley, Keith Bishop, Justin Barnes and Lee Charnley hold the Newcastle United supporters and the decent British media in such low regard that they’re convinced this will all just go away.
It might, of course. It has before. When Ashley forced Kevin Keegan out of the club by installing Dennis Wise and Tony Jiminez, the backlash was so severe that the billionaire was forced to put the club up for sale. Three months later, with Joe Kinnear installed as manager and apathy setting into the stands, he took the club off the market. Following the predictable yet preventable relegation that season, Ashley announced the club was up for sale again, but once more failed to find a suitable buyer. Fans protested at the sacking of popular manager Chris Hughton, but were eventually placated by a good run under Alan Pardew as the club finished fifth, largely down to the astute signings recommended by chief scout Graham Carr. The following season Ashley failed to back his manager, and the Magpies found themselves in a relegation scrap. Indifference gave way to anger, as Pardew’s touchline antics and schmoozing of the owner began to grate on the supporters, and further protests followed to get both the manager and owner out of the club. Another lucky escape from relegation followed, change in the dugout arrived, and Ashley finally released the funds to aid the new man in charge. Except the man was Steve McClaren and, by the time the club had ummed and ahhed about replacing him, the damage was done. Despite leading the side to a six-game unbeaten run at the end of the season, Rafa Benitez was unable to save Newcastle from relegation.
But that’s where this latest, and many hope final, chapter of Ashley’s reign at Newcastle begins. Having witnessed ten years of largely turgid football at St James Park, the acquisition of Benitez was beyond the wildest dreams of most supporters. A world-class manager with serious pedigree, a multiple trophy winner in three countries, a master tactician. A step up from John Carver. Sanctioning the signing of Benitez – and it’s worth busting another myth here, as Keys and Gray insist that Ashley brought the Spaniard to the North East, whilst in fact it was Benitez that approached Newcastle – may become the defining moment of Ashley’s time as owner. Initially buying the owner a slice of goodwill, the very public breakdown in the relationship between the two has created a divide in opinion, and Benitez’s army is just that much bigger. Now into the final year of his contract, the manager has given his boss ample opportunity to show that they share a vision of the club challenging for trophies. Instead, Ashley has demonstrated the truth of his character – the greedy, dishonest, petty and boorish belch of a man that supporters in the North East have been telling anyone who’ll listen he is for over a decade. A man so concerned at the failure of his one true business interest that he would fund a smear campaign against the manager and fans of his own football club. A man who, finally, has been revealed as a compulsive liar.
Mike Ashley lied about Keegan’s constructive dismissal. He lied about the sale of Andy Carroll, and he lied about the ‘short-term’ nature of the Sport Direct advertising that has sullied the stands at St James’ Park for the past eight years. He was implicated in the employment tribunal that saw Jonas Gutierrez awarded £2m in damages after being cast aside by the club following his diagnosis for testicular cancer. He lied about completing due diligence on the finances when he completed his purchase of the club, and he lied about Amanda Staveley’s interest in buying the club from him. During Rafa Benitez’s two and a half year spell on Tyneside, Mike Ashley has lied over and over again about the control the manager has over footballing matters, about the funds he is willing to release, and the investment needed in the club’s infrastructure. He has lied to Newcastle United’s managers, players, staff, supporters, the British press, a court of law, and – in response to MP for Newcastle Upon Tyne Chi Onwurah’s petition against her hometown club’s owner – he has lied to the incumbent Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Jeremy Wright.
A reminder too that, away from his lack of endeavour in the football world, Ashley is regarded as the most nefarious character in retail. Cracks have already begun to show in his relationship with House of Fraser, the company he bought for £90m a day after the transfer window closed. Initially dressed up as the saviour of 17,000 jobs by those intent on opposing the Geordie point of view, Ashley has already begun to close stores across the country, citing ‘greedy landlords’. It’s always someone else’s fault. Previously, an expose by The Guardian in 2016 revealed how employees at Sports Direct’s warehouse in Shirebrook were paid below the National Minimum Wage, which triggered an investigation by the Business, Innovation and Select committee into working practices at the company. The report uncovered conditions likened to ‘Victorian Workhouses’, whilst employees were treated “as commodities rather than as human beings”. Sound familiar? As recently as this week, the standing of Sports Direct took another hit as research from the Reputation Institute deemed Ashley’s company ‘the worst retailer in the country, reputation-wise thanks to its 73 per cent profit decline last month and widespread condemnation of its treatment of staff.’ Even Keys and Gray will struggle to dress Mike up as the victim there.
If a man is known by the company he keeps, then Ashley’s latest, desperate charm offensive is more revealing of the man’s character than his litany of deceit. When misogynists, convicts and charlatans remain your last line of defence, it’s clear the war has been lost. Whether Newcastle United will finally be rid of the poison that has infected their club for the last eleven years remains to be seen, but it will be for the good of the club, the city, and for English football if this truly is the ‘pantomime villain’s’ curtain call.
Some further reading on the subject of Newcastle United and Mike Ashley’s ownership:
Newcastle: The club where tomorrow never comes by Daniel Story [via Football365]
No trophies, little investment and two relegations – when will fans finally recognise Mike Ashley as a genius? by George Caulkin [via The Times]
Mike Ashley by numbers and why Dennis Wise is wrong over Newcastle’s current state by Luke Edwards [via The Telegraph]
How Newcastle fans are fighting back against Mike Ashley and his apologists in the media by Henry Savill [via iNews]