Mike Ashley, owner of Newcastle United Football Club has become a high-profile leader for all the wrong reasons. His strategy and style have combined to leave him vulnerable to rejection by the fans he joined on the terraces during games
It was a popularist move which always risked creating a hostage to fortune for Mike Ashley. On match days he regularly appeared on the terraces, wearing the black and white striped shirt among (allegedly) Newcastle fans. A man of the people. TV pictures would show him downing a pint of brown stuff at competitive speed.
The phony image
But even the drink was dismissed by fans as not the real stuff. And the media hinted at hubris to come. This was a man from the people, of the people. A leader with the common touch. A veritable Napoleon, in there with the front-line troops. Or maybe not. A rich man playing the game of ordinary bloke made good.
The hostage to fortune
The hostage to fortune was the cultivated image of someone who shared the vision and dream of the fans. Mr Ashley was applauded for his actions in bringing back Kevin Keegan, the man the fans described as The Messiah.
But at the same time, Mr Ashley seemed to be putting other plans in place which were deeply offensive to the proud Keegan. A uber-managerial appointment of Dennis Wise. Transfer actions without adequate consultation with Keegan. It was not difficult to predict that Kevin, for all his love of Newcastle United, could bale out.
The fans could not square this with the image the owner was cultivating.
A remarkably swift resolution. Within a week of Kevin Keegan leaving, ferocious protests against Ashley as Newcastle slump to a home defeat against Premier League newcomers Hull. The protests were pre-planned, and the loss is largely irrelevant to the momentum of events.
Mr Ashley issues a lengthy and personal statement indicating that he no longer sees any merit in his retaining control of the club.
I bought Newcastle United in May 2007. Newcastle attracted me because everyone in England knows that it has the best fans in football. When the fans are behind the club at St James’ Park it makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. It is magic. Newcastle’s best asset has been, is and always will be the fans.
But like any business with assets the club has debts. I paid £134 million out of my own pocket for the club. I then poured another £110 million into the club not to pay off the debt but just to reduce it.
The club is still in debt. Even worse than that, the club still owes millions of pounds in transfer fees. I shall be paying out many more millions over the coming year to pay for players bought by the club before I arrived.
But, he continued, events over the last weeks led him to the decision to put the club up for sale. Fan power indeed, which he concluded had put his family and himself in the path of physical danger
I am not stupid and have listened to the fans. I have really loved taking my kids to the games, being next to them and all the fans. But I am now a dad who can’t take his kids to a football game on a Saturday because I am advised that we would be assaulted. Therefore, I am no longer prepared to subsidise Newcastle United.
I am putting the club up for sale. I hope that the fans get what they want and that the next owner is someone who can lavish the amount of money on the club that the fans want.
This will not be a fire sale. Newcastle is now in a much stronger position than it was in 2007. It is planning for the future and it is sustainable.
The Entrepreneur as survivor
The message is unusually personal. It is consistent with the image that Mike Ashley projected from the terraces. But for all the emotion, there remains a healthy survival instinct within the actions of a permanently successful entrepreneur. Mr Ashley may have lost the club, but he is likely to do so in a way which may keep him off the terraces, but is unlikely to force him and his family on to the streets.