Does Newcastle's spending spree reveal a penitent or persistent Mike Ashley?
Background image: Andrew Curtis, CC BY-SA 2.0
Every manager who sizes up Newcastle sees the same thing. St James’ Park seats 52,405 obese or slack-muscled, pasty-skinned males sporting cheap haircuts and cheaper tats. If ever there was a time to be sexist and exclude women from an activity, this is it. That’s not the point, however. Toon is a massive club with a tremendously passionate fan base. It should boast a much larger, fuller trophy cabinet, one commensurate with its size.
Even the best managers are tempted by the legendary status that awaits them if they can clean out the Premier League’s Augean Stables. They don’t realise the enormity of the task until Mike Ashley hands them a Swiffer mop with just one pack of refills and leaves them to it.
Rafa Benitez thought he’d learned his lesson in how to handle chairmen deftly and subtly after spells under the Americans, Tom Hicks and George Gillette at Liverpool, Massimo Moratti at Inter, Roman Abramovich at Chelsea, Aurelio De Laurentiis at Napoli and Florentino Perez at Real Madrid. For the sixth time, he thought wrong. One can only wish him good luck at Dalian Yifang in the Chinese Super League.
The cattle [as Ashley probably envisions paying customers] herded into St James’ Park stable for 19 annual league matches and two or three cup tilts took a liking to Rafa even though the Spaniard refused to criticise his employer. He worked patiently and diligently with the tools provided, brought the club back to the Premier League at the first asking and kept them safely there for two seasons.
Unfortunately, success doesn’t always breed success. Often, it only fosters the desire for more. That desire for greater success is where managers reach the crossroads with Mike Ashley. The SportsDirect tycoon runs his football club like his clothing and sporting good chain. Buy at low prices and move the product out the door as quickly as possible. Don’t let anything hang on the rack too long or gather dust on the shelves.
When a manager seeks to invest in superior merchandise or, worse, angles for a pay rise, it’s time to write him off. It happened to Chris Hughton after he achieved much the same as Benitez with the Magpies. The only difference was that Rafa’s status as a Champions and Europa League winner kept him in the job longer. While he tried to redeem himself for past mistakes, the 59-year-old was a public relations asset for Ashley. When he began to think his redemption complete and assert himself, it was time to move on.
Naturally, the Toon Army was angered by his dismissal. When burly striker Salomon Rondon elected to follow Rafa to China rather than make his loan move from West Bromwich Albion permanent, the anger began to boil. It nearly spilt over when the club’s other top scorer, Ayoze Perez was sold to Leicester City soon after. Don’t let the merchandise sit on the shelf.
Then Ashley did what no one expected. He broke the club transfer record for the second time in the calendar year, spending £39.6 million for Hoffenheim’s Joelinton. Nor did he stop with the young Rondon doppelganger. The tight-fisted owner forked out another £16.2 million on Nice winger Allan St Maximin, £4.9 million on Amiens right-back Emil Krafth and £900k for the loan of left-back Jetro Willems for the season from Eintracht Frankfurt.
Never mind that a transfer record under £40 million isn’t going to win any dick-measuring contests in the current market. Manchester City set their new record at £63 million when they bought Rodri from Atletico Madrid in the silly season’s early doors. They followed up by paying Juventus £58.5 million for Joao Cancelo. Notoriously scrupulous Arsenal financed Lille LOSC’s foreseeable Ligue 1 future by acquiring Nicolas Pepe for £72 million. Tottenham spent £54 million on Tanguy Ndombele while Harry Maguire set Manchester United back £80 million after the Red Devils had already dented their budget to the tune of £49.5 million for Aaron Wan-Bissaka. In windows twice and thrice removed, Liverpool invested £66.8 million in Alisson Becker and £75 million in Virgil van Dijk.
In terms of size and potential, Newcastle fit right in with the Premier League top-six but when it comes time to put up, Mike Ashley tends to shut up. For a starved Newcastle support, however, £61.6 million spent on players is a small fortune. Even the NetSpend of -£29.5 million after Ayoze Perez’s sale is figured in represents a welcome shock to the system.
Ashley further appeased the Toon Army by refusing to sell native son, Sean Longstaff to Manchester United, welcoming back prodigal son Andy Carroll and hiring Newcastle-born manager Steve Bruce. The Geordie trifecta won’t push Newcastle into the Premier League top ten but they’re a public relations masterstroke.
The question is why Ashley changed tack? He’s been reviled at St James’ Park almost since day one. The billionaire put the club on the market years ago but suddenly hasn’t been so willing to move the merchandise. More than one prospective buyer has given up in frustration. No one is quite certain whether the latest pigeon, UAE Sheikh Khaled bin Zayed Al Nahyan is genuinely interested.
There are two possibilities. Ashley values the club too much to sell at any price or buyers simply won’t meet his honest valuation. Unfortunately, his sudden investment doesn’t offer a clue. On the one hand, he genuinely could be trying to build a more competitive squad.
[Waits for everyone to stop laughing]
On the other, he could be fattening the cow for market. When you want to sell your house or car, you fix them up in mostly cosmetic ways. A fresh coat of paint and new appliances for one, a detail wax and Armor All on the tires for the other. Never mind the cracked engine block or the boiler that quits when the temperature dips below zero. If the squad is a little more valuable and the fans are happier, maybe a sucker will come in with a suitable offer.
Never forget that Mike Ashley is a retailer. He knows how to make low-quality goods look like premium merchandise.