Newcastle: How Mike Ashley’s romantic relationship with Tyneside club turned TOXIC

Mike Ashley used to love his black and white Newcastle United shirt. Sadly for supporters, his affection never did extend to the club it represents.

It is said that he paid £3million to appear in the 2009 movie Goal III wearing his favourite jersey, in which his one line was telling a friend to ‘f*** off’. If the club’s fans had one line for Ashley in the years that followed, it could well be borrowed from that script.

But that was not always the case. Certainly not in 2008 when Ashley — decked in his colours and six months into his ownership — stood at the downstairs bar of Blu Bambu nightclub in Newcastle’s Bigg Market.

Mike Ashley’s relationship with Newcastle started as a love affair – but ended in acrimony

With him was Newcastle chairman Chris Mort, around 10 of his Sports Direct staff and his minder, Ian. The bodyguard was there to keep well-wishers in check. Back then, with Kevin Keegan the newly appointed manager, it was handshakes and not fists being thrust in Ashley’s direction.

He had just bought a round of drinks for the entire nightclub — at a cost of around £2,500 — and was imploring Mort, the publicity-shy lawyer, to take to the stage and sing Blaydon Races, which he duly did. The dancefloor and Ashley chanted with him in celebration of Newcastle’s earlier victory.

‘Those were the good times,’ says one source close to Ashley.

‘He bought the football club (in the summer of 2007) as part investment, part play-thing, part gamble, and he enjoyed the first year or so.’

Ashley (right) smiles up in the stands of St James' Park as he watched his team play

Ashley (right) smiles up in the stands of St James’ Park as he watched his team play

It said much for how freely he could wander around town that, on one occasion, he was turned away by a Blu Bambu doorman given its policy of no football shirts — a misunderstanding that was quickly rectified and the drinks were soon on Big Mike.

But despite the black and white exterior, the clue to his true colours lay in the company he kept. On the night of Mort’s drunken singalong, Ashley had earlier picked up the tab for a meal in Chinatown, surrounded by his Sports Direct cronies and not Newcastle club staff.

For the red and blue of his retail business was his real love. In time, the football club would become a vehicle for its promotion, a movement accelerated following the first of two relegations under his ownership in 2009.

It is said that Ashley and his family were shocked by the abuse they received from Newcastle fans on that fateful, final day at Villa Park, and his attitude to the club changed thereafter.

Sports Direct was his real love. The football club would become a vehicle for its promotion

Sports Direct was his real love. The football club would become a vehicle for its promotion

‘It became about maximising brand exposure for Sports Direct at the expense of on-field ambition,’ says the source. ‘He had an attitude of, “All noise is good noise”. A lot of the stunts he pulled were exactly that — renaming the stadium, branding all over the ground, he knew the publicity it would generate.

‘If the team did well at the same time then great, but he wasn’t going to invest his own money chasing the top four. The margins just didn’t add up. Instead, it was about making the club self-sufficient, making a profit on player sales and staying in the Premier League to keep Sports Direct prominent.’

It was a shameful and frustrating neglect of a football club that should be among the best in Europe. With new Saudi owners, supporters can finally dream of that becoming a reality.

Ashley, though, never grasped the potential. For him, the detail was in the retail. At the once impressive club store, longstanding staff were discarded and replaced with his own men, much like the subsequent downgrade in quality on the shelves.

Ashley renamed St James' Park to the Sports Direct Arena and used it as an advertising tool

Ashley renamed St James’ Park to the Sports Direct Arena and used it as an advertising tool

It is said that Ashley and his family were shocked by the abuse they received from Newcastle fans when the club was relegated on that fateful, final day at Villa Park

It is said that Ashley and his family were shocked by the abuse they received from Newcastle fans when the club was relegated on that fateful, final day at Villa Park

Legend has it that one of Ashley’s appointments even asked if the iconic home shirt needed to be black and white stripes, so out of touch were those new arrivals with the history of the club. Ashley seldom felt comfortable in the football world and, tellingly, when he threw parties at St James’ Park, it was his Sports Direct staff who got the VIP treatment.

He would ferry in store managers from across the country and, after a kickabout on the pitch and a company presentation, the drinking would begin. Ashley was always the life and soul.

He would arrange celebrity appearances from those attached to his brands and, given his teenage years as a squash champion, was said to be particularly enthused when Tim Henman started volleying a few tennis balls around one of the stadium’s corporate suites.

Robert Pires, Matt Le Tissier, Chris Waddle and Carl Froch, were all attendees at the annual jamboree. Comedians Kevin Bridges and Chris Ramsey performed stand-up, while everyone else drank until they fell down.

‘For one day every year St James’ was like Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory for his Sports Direct employees,’ says another source.

Meanwhile, along the corridor, Ashley was cutting costs. Club staff were furious when their matchday ticket allowance was scrapped and former players also found themselves redirected to the box office.

Keegan was shocked to learn a new transfer model — overseen by executive director Dennis Wise — would target lesser-known players from Europe and South America. Buy ’em low, sell ’em high was the remit. Keegan soon quit.

Did Ashley care? Some say he really liked Keegan but, sensing that trust had evaporated, he did not attempt to rescue the situation. Rather, he kept faith with those associates he had chosen to run the club, and that was his biggest downfall.

Kevin Keegan was shocked to learn a new transfer model, which would see the Magpies target lesser-known players from Europe and South America

Kevin Keegan was shocked to learn a new transfer model, which would see the Magpies target lesser-known players from Europe and South America

In 14 years of Ashley, there has been a vacuum of football expertise at executive level and a harmful disconnect between owner and manager, as well as between the club and its fanbase. Add the names of Alan Shearer, Chris Hughton and Rafa Benitez to that of Keegan as popular managers who were left feeling anger or resentment towards Ashley and the hierarchy.

Even before Shearer took charge for the final eight matches of the relegation season of 2008-09, Ashley had blocked plans for a statue of the club legend within the grounds of St James’ Park.

Still, Shearer wanted to stay on as boss. To this day, however, he is yet to hear from Ashley after outlining his plans for the club at a post-season meeting, during which the owner brought his own sandwiches in a plastic bag.

Shearer’s statue was eventually unveiled in 2016, on the site where public toilets once stood beyond the stadium’s perimeter.

As one Premier League official says: ‘It looks like a football club, but once you get inside there is nothing there. You’ve always had the feeling no one really cares.

The new transfer model would be overseen by executive director Dennis Wise (right)

The new transfer model would be overseen by executive director Dennis Wise (right)

The move to appoint Wise soon turned sour and the fans wanted the 'Cockney Mafia' out

The move to appoint Wise soon turned sour and the fans wanted the ‘Cockney Mafia’ out

A shirt shows Ashley and close friend Wise, asking the pair to leave the Tyneside club

A shirt shows Ashley and close friend Wise, asking the pair to leave the Tyneside club

‘You arrive in the matchday owner’s suite and those who are meant to be representing the club are walking around on their phone eating pick ’n’ mix. The culture in the club needs drastic change, reform at almost every level.’

This is an observation long since aired by supporters, former players and the region’s journalists, not that Ashley or anyone else ever listened. Over time, Ashley became increasingly absent and, away from Tyneside, there was little evidence of the unrest upsetting the billionaire.

While Newcastle staff and the fans bemoaned the direction in which their club was heading, Ashley was entertaining his Sports Direct favourites during boozy weekends at his luxury chalet in the Swiss ski resort of Verbier.

And that was Ashley, a gregarious character to be around in his own environment. ‘A little odd at times,’ says a source. ‘But always good fun with it.’ So merry was he one night in Verbier — we are told the evening started with employees downing a bottle of wine in a drinking game — it is said he fell into the indoor swimming pool.

As another source says: ‘He looked at his Sports Direct staff as the ones who made him money. Those at the club were merely employees on the payroll of his billboard.’

Fans have long stood against Ashley and have called for different owners to take over

Fans have long stood against Ashley and have called for different owners to take over

Fans protest Ashley back in 2018 and have long wanted him gone from their club

Fans protest Ashley back in 2018 and have long wanted him gone from their club

Another anecdote we can reveal captures the maverick nature of Ashley the gambler, and his generosity to his staff. It is no surprise, however, that the story takes place in the Shirebrook headquarters of Sports Direct, and not St James’.

During a meeting with senior managers, he gave them all a playing card. Ashley had a deck himself and started turning over cards from the top. The first to match was a store boss from Teesside, who was then handed by Ashley the keys to a new Ferrari Spider.

Meanwhile, back at St James’, a succession of dressing rooms fell out with the owner over bonus payments, and managers were disciplined should they dare to discuss transfer policies in public. 

Steve Bruce became the latest boss to have his knuckles rapped when questioning the club’s spending last month.

Steve Bruce had his knuckles rapped when questioning the club’s spending last month

Steve Bruce had his knuckles rapped when questioning the club’s spending last month 

There have been occasional attempts to mend relations, such as taking Benitez and his squad for an Italian meal in 2018 when, while eating a £7.95 spaghetti bolognese and drinking two pints of lager, he incentivised the players with a trip to Las Vegas if they avoided relegation.

They stayed up but the trip did not happen, despite some players keeping their diaries free.

Broken promises. Broken relationships. A broken, dysfunctional football club. Ashley may have loved his black and white stripes during a lager-fuelled honeymoon period, but in the sober light of day his priority was the barcodes on his shelves.

What he will leave behind on Tyneside is damaged goods. There is much work for the new owners to do.

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