IT has been a typically busy week in the life of Mike Ashley.
On Monday, he engineered a surprise deal that saw his Sports Direct chain snap up an 11 per cent stake in House of Fraser that scuppered the proposed sale of the department store group to Chinese investors.
Less than 24 hours later, and he shocked the City by selling more than £200m of Sports Direct shares, reducing his stake in his flagship company to around 55 per cent. The move, which is believed to be connected to the collapse of a proposed bonus scheme that would have seen Ashley pocket £72m of free stock, is widely regarded as the first stage of a broader realigning of the tycoon’s business interests.
Today, like so many businessmen up and down the land, it is anticipated that he will relax by watching a game of football. The key difference, of course, is that the club he will be watching are another of his investments rather than a labour of love.
With all that is going on in his life, what drives Ashley to retain his ownership of Newcastle United? Is it the availability of free global advertising and promotional space for Sports Direct? Is it the fear of having to write off millions to get out? Or is it, as some would have you believe, simple pig-headedness and a refusal to accept he has got things wrong?
Given the ferocity with which he guards his privacy, and his complete refusal to make himself available to the press, it is futile to second guess Ashley’s motivations and ambitions. Even so, it is undeniably interesting that he has suddenly decided to take a much more active interest in what is happening at St James’ Park.
Prior to missing last weekend’s defeat against Manchester United, he had attended four matches in a row for the first time this season. Following Lee Charnley’s promotion earlier this week, he has also formally joined the board to sit alongside Newcastle’s new managing director and their financial chief, John Irving.
It feels as though something significant is brewing, and to be fair, there is clearly a need for major change this summer given the weaknesses within the playing squad that have been glaringly apparent in recent weeks.
But Newcastle supporters could be forgiven for wondering if Ashley’s new hands-on approach is good news or bad. It doesn’t benefit anyone to have an owner who has completely lost interest in their club. Yet going by his past record, it would be hard to have too much faith in Ashley’s ability to bring about positive change if he decides to exert more day-to-day control over the Magpies’ decision-making process.
“I think he’s taking a closer hold of the club, maybe, and I think that’s a good thing,” said Alan Pardew. “He’s obviously been at the games, and he’s seen for good or bad what we are at the moment.
“I think he has a good knowledge of football, and good experience now. You have to say that he’s an experienced owner, and I’d like to think that in the summer, we can make the right decisions.”
Quite how many decisions result in an actual transfer, however, remains to be seen. One of the most alarming aspects about this week’s mission statement from Charnley was the admission that Newcastle’s policy is to make “one or two” signings in each financial year.
Pardew attempted to clarify those comments on Thursday by claiming that those figures were a ‘baseline’, and that further signings would be required in the summer if players were to leave. When it comes to Newcastle, however, ‘required’ and ‘completed’ are clearly two very different things.
Luuk de Jong was the only player to arrive in January, and while there were suggestions at the time that Joe Kinnear’s failings had contributed to Newcastle’s sluggish activity in the transfer market, Ashley’s parsimonious approach was also surely a factor.
Given that the template has not changed, why should the Magpies be any more successful at landing their targets this summer? According to Pardew, Charnley’s increased influence should have a positive effect.
“I think Lee has been in and around our transfers and had good experience of working with Graham (Carr) and myself,” he said. “He knows the needs of the club, the agenda the club sets and also the needs of the first team. He has a good understanding of that.
“Sometimes, like with all transfer conversations, there are certain conflicts about positions, and sometimes there are conflicts about certain types of player. It is very important that the chief executive (on managing director in Charnley’s case) makes those calls right.
“Some might favour the younger player, maybe for the future of the club rather than the immediate use of the manager. The immediate problems for the manager are the priority, and I think he understands that. I think he gets that right.”
At the start of the season, Pardew was set a target of finishing in the top ten, something he is still expecting to achieve. Without Yohan Cabaye, who left in January, and Loic Remy, who is not expected to return next season, however, Newcastle look no better than most of the sides battling against relegation in the bottom half of the table.
The likes of Chelsea, Manchester City and even Liverpool have disappeared over the horizon. The fear is that the likes of Everton, Tottenham and Southampton could be joining them soon.
“There’s getting to be a bigger gulf between the top teams and the teams just under,” said Pardew. “I think that’s a cause for concern, and I think they’re going to get stronger and that’s something ourselves, Everton, Aston Villa, Southampton are really having to be clever about to try and stay with them.”