He has been the focus of the ire of Newcastle United supporters for much of the last three or four years, but Mark Brophy is wondering whether, with the team back in the Premier League and comfortable in mid-table, this summer might be a chance to re-evaluate the club’s owner, Mike Ashley.
The recent publication of Newcastle United’s financial results for last season made humbling reading for many fans. Not because they make plain the folly of the club’s previous spending, although they do. Nor because they have highlighted how far the club has fallen since the days of Champions League qualification almost a decade ago, although they have. No, the humbling part of the results is that they show exactly how dependent the club has become on Mike Ashley, the focus of many fans’ ire.
Supporters convinced of their dislike of Ashley almost from day one have pointed to his repeated transfer-window profits and his attempts to sell the club as further proof of his desire to claw back his money and ditch his failed experiment now it’s turned out to be less fun than he thought it would be. Such fans might also say that funding by Ashley only became necessary because of his chronic mismanagement, and that he therefore forfeits the credit for making up any shortfall in Newcastle’s finances.
What is indisputable is that the financial mess was already in place when he bought the club, and that even though transfer profits have been generated during Ashley’s tenure in charge, those profits haven’t covered the operating losses of the club. Mike Ashley has personally injected between £15m-£17m of funds in recent years to balance the books, on top of the cash generated by player sales. He’s currently owed roughly £140m by the club. It’s harsh to accuse someone of asset-stripping when they are paying a proportion of the wages out of their own pocket.
So does Mike Ashley deserve thanks for keeping the club afloat over the past few troubled seasons? Is he in fact bringing down costs to drive the club forward? Thanks to the wage bill being reduced by about a third since relegation and the football staff re-establishing the club in the top flight, this season the club will have made an operating profit before transfer dealings are taken account of. Money is beginning to be generated rather than swallowed up. Assuming there to be no catastrophes between now and August in the form of relegation, the manager leaving, or a summer-long attempt to sell up, for the first time under Ashley there will also be no excuse not to start building the side. Without finance or circumstances to fall back on as a reason not to spend, it’s make-or-break time for his claims to be in it for the good of the club.
Demonstrating a wish to help the club progress doesn’t need silly money to be spent on players. What is required is merely to continue within the club’s means as it has done for the last four years, the difference being that this summer Newcastle are in a financial position to spend an appreciable net amount, even if he starts to take back some of his loans, and still end up in the black. Adding more of the transfer surplus from the current season would mean most concerns about the first team could be addressed. The wisdom of his financial plan could be acknowledged without the constraint of worry over the direction the football side of the club was heading in, ever-present up to now.
Should that happen in the summer, Ashley’s entire time in charge may have to be re-evaluated, and though many fans might feel a little shamefaced about it, they may be delighted that his motives turned out to be laudable all along. The flip-side to all of this is that if a transfer profit is made again, or if the transfer window closes on another frustrating summer without appreciable recruitment, then all fans will know exactly where they and Ashley stand. Without past excuses there can be no more hiding behind future intentions. His desire only to run the club on a shoestring and sell on promising talent at a profit with the long-term aim of recouping his investment will be finally confirmed. Purely financial ends with no agenda of sporting improvement will not be acceptable to those patiently filing through the turnstiles, and they will no longer be able to ignore the evidence of it. In that case, let the battle lines be drawn.
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