Why did Mike Ashley sack Chris Hughton?

December 11, 2010

Some leadership stories are simpler than others. The departure of the Newcastle United manager this week seems sad but relatively uncomplicated to explain. But there may be possibilities beyond the most widely-accepted explanation

There has been wider-than-usual condemnation of the abrupt removal of Chris Hughton from his post as manager of Newcastle and his replacement with Alan Pardue. The consensus was high among footballers, pundits, fans, and fellow managers.

The popular story runs as follows

[1] The owner Mike Ashley has ‘previous form’ for ill-judged and hasty decisions in hiring and firing managers.
[2] This dismissal follows a pattern.
[3] It is ill-judged this time because Hughton had done an admirable job in the rescue of the club from relegation from the Premier league (a decline itself widely attributed in part to its dubious governance under Mr Ashley).
[4] The revival this season in the Premiership was better than expected even by fans. A relatively brief run of poor results recently has still left the club close to the middle of the Premiership table.
[5] Chris Hughton is widely admired as a capable manager.
[6] Claims that his replacement, Alan Pardue, will bring an experience which would strengthen NUFC’s future are unconvincing.

Chorus of disapproval

Among this chorus of disapproval, one voice offered some justification for the owner’s decision The Guardian suggested that:

Maybe, just maybe, Ashley will get this one right. Hughton was popular with the players but not so popular, apparently, that the team felt like breaking sweat at West Bromwich Albion last weekend, when Newcastle did not so much have an off day as a day off. A manager should never be one of the boys because boys occasionally play truant. Newcastle’s record since Hughton brought them back to the Premier League has been surprisingly good…yet impressive performances against Aston Villa, Sunderland, Arsenal and Chelsea have been offset by losing at home to Blackpool, Stoke and Blackburn. It seems that under Hughton, Newcastle were up for some fixtures but not others, a bit like Middlesbrough under Gareth Southgate. Christmas departures are sad but not necessarily bad.

The Guardian analysis differs from the widely espoused view that Newcastle are cursed with a particularly stupid Chairman who fails to see what is obvious to almost everyone with an opinion on the matter.

Other possibilities

There are other possibilities. Mr Ashley has in the past revealed an emotionality in his leadership style. His actions may have repeatedly influenced by irrational feelings of frustration and a failure to win the approval of the Newcastle faithful.

Or maybe, and I find this rather convincing, the owner is an entrepreneur who was successful in earlier business dealings. He may well be pursuing an entrepreneurial strategy for preparing the club for his exit at as good a price as he can obtain. In which case, the sacking may not necessarily be bad for Mr Ashley. As for Newcastle Football Club? New ownership may also ‘may not necessarily be bad’ for the club.

“If you always do…”

The team turned in one of their best performances of the season a few day’s after Pardue’e appointment [Saturday 11th December]. A new dawn? More systems-oriented fans may feel that “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you always got.”


Ashley, Kevin and Hostages to Fortune

September 15, 2008
Mike Ashley in Newcastle Shirt

Mike Ashley in Newcastle Shirt

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.

The outcome

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.


“You’re not Fit to Wear the Shirt. Take it off!”

January 5, 2008

shirtless-newcastle-fan.jpgNewcastle fans are known for taking the famous Magpies’ shirt to bed, and only removing it during the chilliest of mid-winter games. Is the terrace chant to new owner Mike Ashley an invitation for him to go topless for the toon? And what should Alan Shearer be wearing for his Match Of The Day appearances?

Mr Ashley as new owner of Newcastle United Football Club hit on a highly symbolic way of letting the fans know he was not in it just for the money.

He announced his matchday arrivals by appearing not in the directors’ box, but on the terraces. He didn’t just turn up, he arrived wearing the black and white shirt, that ultimate symbol of fandom. Then he began fraternizing on the supporters’ coaches.

But these actions were not enough to secure a leadership honeymoon for the new owner. Results continued to go south. Those ultras, fans who strip off faster than the cast of the Full Monty, could be heard crying “You’re not fit to wear the shirt”.

Were they inviting their new Chairman to follow their bare-buff example in support of the club? Somehow, I don’t think so…

Knowing me, knowing you

A new leader from outside a company or a football club has to address the matter of distinctiveness, whether arriving as an outsider or an insider. The is sometimes called the sociological dilemma of the other, a term only rarely incorporated into terrace chants.

The outsider has to work hard to avoid being dissed for not being one of us. The internally promoted leader has another kind of credibility problem through local knowledge and gossip about behaviours in earlier non-leadership roles.

In either case, actions speak louder than words. The leader has to convince by his actions, and words (speech acts) sooner rather than later.

Who is this Brian Ashley anyway?

Newcastle United has figured in several earlier posts. The culture under the long-standing chairman Freddy Shepherd was examined in an account of the possible struggles of the new coach Sam Allardyce. But any such problems for Sam were compounded when Freddy rather reluctantly handed over control to another outsider, Brian Ashley.

Mike Ashley is the entrepreneur behind Sports World, who became a paper billionaire early in 2007 with the public floatation of his business empire and renaming as Sports Direct International. Until then he had largely avoided courting publicity. This was an area in which he was to become increasingly less successful. Publicity over a costly divorce settlement became news, and then as he really hit the headlines after his successful bid for Newcastle.

Writing for the North East, local journalist Mick Lowes examined the end-of-year situation.

As [Newcastle] United enter their 116th year, the question has to be asked: has there ever been a 12 months of such radical change in the long and illustrious history of the North East institution?

Clubs under repeatedly new ownership – nothing new.

Clubs hiring and firing managers left, right and centre – old hat.

Clubs buying, and dispensing with, players at a rate of knots – as old as the hills.

A club, though, that in a few weeks finds itself with a new owner, new chairman, new manager… backroom staff and nine new PLAYERS – unheard of!!

Lowes goes on to examine events since Mr Ashley’s arrival:

[At first] Suspicion was fuelled by a lack of information, a case of simply not knowing who, or what, was Mike Ashley …[Although] Like Sir John Hall and Freddie Shepherd, Ashley is a self-made man ..[however] he might not have, as yet, the same “feel” for Tyneside but it’s clear he has the right kind of working-class grounding to appreciate what the football club means to the rank and file supporters.

The change of chairman is also indicative of the current climate in football. I’m sure, even by his own admission, that Chris Mort [The new Chairman] would consider his feelings for Newcastle United Football Club to be somewhat less impassioned than those of his predecessor. With a background in sport, he is clearly geared up to the demands of the “football business”… Whether talking to fanzine editors, or those of us in the local media, it’s also plain to see that, like his boss, he’s well and truly “bought into” Newcastle United…

Appointed by one regime, and inherited by another, the one thing you have to say is that life can’t have been easy for Sam Allardyce over the opening half of the season.

[However] Nobody has a divine right to success, but the fans in the business definitely deserve better. If not, sadly, 2008 will see more change.

That intense piece of journalism seems to me to capture one aspect of the culture surrounding the club. Initial suspicion of the new owner and chairman has been somewhat overcome as they demonstrate that their loyalty goes beyond the bottom line.

Sam on the other hand is judged by expectations of what goes on every Saturday. Poor results, rather than his ‘otherness’ , is the immediate cause of discontent among the fans.

Which brings us to Alan Shearer…

Alan Shearer: The Leader we Deserve?

Alan Shearer was being touted as the next manager, the hero-rescuer for the club, before he had retired as a player, before he had completed a coaching professional course, before Sam’s appointment.

I don’t know the degree to which this was media initiated manipulation, or whether there really was and still is a ground swell of support for the idea.

To outsiders it seems increasingly inevitable that Allardyce will have trouble surviving long enough to overcome the difficulties of an outsider at Newcastle. It is unlikely that Shearer will transform the club’s fortunes.

The problem is partly that club seems likely be reducing its options far too severely, if an insider is to be preferred over all other candidates.

THis would be a problematic approach even if the insider had an outstanding track record of success.

In times of crisis, an organization may well turn to an insider who has achieved great things elsewhere. Jurgen Klinsmann is the latest such example in his appointment to the German national team during a period of poor performances. Klinsmann had not many more direct credentials for the German top job than Shearer does for the one at Newcastle.

Rightly or wrongly, there appear to be pressure to get rid of Sam, perhaps seeing that it might increase the chances of a Shearer succession.

I have the impression that Shearer will be tempted eventually, but will be cute enough to resist what might prove to be an impossible job in the near future.

Far trickier than commentating on the problems of other managers for BBC’s Match Of The Day.


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