Ever get the feeling that you’ve been cheated?
It seems relatively certain that Newcastle United’s latest, greatest fan, Mike Ashley, is intent upon selling the club just as soon as a bidder with Â£200m in their kick rolls along. DIC, Liverpool’s somewhat unScouse wooers and pursuers, have already said “no.”
It’s all just a little bit confusing at first. After all, how much more could Ashley put into things than he already has? Not only is there all the shirt-wearing nonsense, all that riding to games in white transit vans and sitting in the away end at the Stadium of Light. There’s the constant liaison with fanzines and supporters’ groups, pledging stability and the long-term view. And of course, the injection of Keegan and Dennis Wise. The investment in youth and reserves. How does a quick sale add up to all that?
Little did I know it then, but I think I saw the answer a couple of years ago, and I saw it in London, in Piccadilly Circus to be exact. I’d given myself the excuse to escape Sutton for “town” for a day, ostensibly to buy some running shoes. Lillywhites, the old warhorse of sports shops, seemed like my kind of place, and if it wasn’t, well, the Sainsbury Wing was but yards away. One of those lovely big old London shops that Richard Curtis might send Hugh Grant into, that Woody Allen assumes are typically British.
I was expecting something with the atmosphere of the changing rooms in “Chariots of Fire”: what I got was one of those fly by night shops that open for six weeks on Oxford Street before the big boys move in. Everything was being sold out of crates or plastic buckets. The prices, when there were any to be seen, had been applied directly to the packaging in marker pen or else with the kind of stickly label that never really comes off no matter how gentle you are. There were no clear departments – I recall a rangle of cheap plastic swimming goggles in amongst some dusty tennis rackets next to a nest of vinyl footballs.
This was Mike Ashley’s Lillywhites. On the outside, the building made out to the others that nothing had changed. Inside, it had been trashed by chavs.
It’s about what you can do with a brand. It’s not nice, but it seems to work: Ashley’s spent Â£120m+ on Newcastle, and it’s a drop in the ocean. One alleged tactic is that of the closing-down sale: reopening shortly afterwards at a similar nearby site under a slightly different name. Another is to offer e.g. Nike at just above cost price, relying on related sales of own brand produce (which will have a hefty mark-up) to bring in inflated profits. All quite legal, and, one imagines, quite exhausting to operate.
You can’t quite do that with a football club, which is a different kind of brand. What you can do is make it look more like itself: more like Toon. So, get in a Toon manager. Play being the kind of chairman that fans would pray for. Appear to set up a proper management structure. It’s like restoring a house for resale: get the cosmetics right. Patch up the structure so it can hold together long enough to convince a buyer.
If this is what’s happening in the minds of Mort and Ashley, then it would explain some of the more mysterious decisions. Dennis Wise, for example. Or not keeping Sam Allardyce, which surely any chairman who was really thinking long-term would have done. Certainly Keegan. I don’t like phrases like “real football man” but these were not “football decisions.”
How could they be? Ashley’s shown no interest in football whatsoever in his life up until now, unless it’s been to sell shirts. And he’s bought the Premiership club furthest in geographical and cultural terms from his own background and upbringing (he hails from the football hotbed of Burnham in Buckinghamshire, and still lives in the Home Counties: he’s rumoured not to get on too well with other denizens of the north-dominated cheap sports gear industry).
No, something else is going on, and all the Keegan stuff is a smokescreen. Nothing illegal, and, frankly, it hardly represents a descent from the good old Freddie Shepherd days. But something else nevertheless.