John Irving, once a trusted lieutenant of Newcastle United owner Mike Ashley and now playing a key role in the multi-million pound development of Newcastle International Airport, offers a rare insight into the Sports Direct magnate's business psyche and says that, while he may be unpopular with many fans, the club should count itself fortunate to have him. Deputy business editor Steven Hugill reports

THE dictionary defines the word divisive as “something that tends to cause disagreement or hostility between people.”

When it comes to football, the adjective, which also throws up connotations of discordance and dissent, can refer to something or someone.

It’s ironic then that sections of Newcastle’s fanbase, which comes together under the football club’s United moniker, are inextricably linked to the word.

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The reason is club owner Mike Ashley, who stands as a figure of disharmony for many recruits of the self-titled Toon Army.

Followers on social media pages continue to bang the drum for his departure, their cacophony of cries allied to a particular unsavoury terrace chant that emerged a few years ago.

Supporters’ angst rests upon Mr Ashley’s perceived lack of investment in the club, and the feeling is strong.

Relegation to the Championship, the supposed Cockney Mafia, Dennis Wise and Joe Kinnear, and the alleged ignorance towards cup competitions has left fans seething in recent seasons.

Add in supporters’ rage that Mr Ashley has seemingly allowed the team to lose its entertainers tag, so vaunted in fans' halcyon days when their King, Kevin Keegan, ruled the roost, by failing to spend big on transfers, and the picture builds further.

But what is the Sports Direct founder, whose aggressive business attitude continues to see his successful retail empire expand, really like?

The man himself rarely speaks publicly, though last year he briefly changed tact.

Appearing in a TV interview, he revealed he wouldn’t sell the club until it won something, either a cup, or Champions League qualification, adding hard work done to steady finances leaves it in a position to strengthen playing resources.

Fans, as is football’s fickle nature, remain sceptical.

They don’t want to keep looking at black and white pictures of Jackie Milburn helping the team lift the FA Cup, or keep referring back to the era of Bobby Moncur and Pop Robson when the club secured the European Fairs Cup.

They want to see their team back at the pinnacle of the sport in the modern day.

That desire, according to one of his former closest allies, is exactly what Mr Ashley, who was once caught on TV sinking a pint while wearing a replica shirt alongside fans at a game, wants too.

John Irving, Newcastle Airport’s business development director, worked at United for about eight years as finance director.

In hackneyed football parlance, he was one of Mr Ashley’s trusted lieutenants, so is qualified more than most to speak about the Magpies’ chief.

Speaking exclusively to The Northern Echo about his ex-boss, the answer is swift and unequivocal; Newcastle United are lucky to have him.

While such a statement is enough to send some fans into a frenzy on internet message boards, Mr Irving is more than clear is his assessment.

“When Mike came in there was a step change in business attitude”, says Mr Irving.

“It is now a very stable football club, but that doesn’t come out because it’s not the fun stuff.

“What we did has given the club a firmer footing and what it’s doing now is the direct consequence.

“They have got the ability to go and buy quality players.

“We always had a plan and they are working on it now.”

But what of Mr Ashley as a boss? Does he have the club’s best interests at heart?

Once again, the answer is unmistakable.

“Mike is very fair and has been very good to me”, says Mr Irving.

“He gets a lot of criticism at the club for things that are not necessarily his doing.

“The club is lucky he bought it; I honestly believe that.

“If not, I don’t know what would have happened.

“He lets you get on with your stuff and is very shrewd, and he doesn’t want to fail at anything.

“People talk about him not having an interest but that is total rubbish.

“He’s great to work for and is an inspiring business leader.

“The (fans’) criticism won’t have affected him as much as it may have others, but it will have had an effect.

“However, he won’t change his style.

“When he first came to Newcastle, he came to enjoy the football and that’s what he still wants to do.

“He is investing and has done, but there remains a lot of negative press though that’s because the game is one of opinions.

“He has made a massive difference to Newcastle United and has never taken money out of the club.

“Football has changed and clubs can operate badly and still make money because of the television deals.

“But Newcastle does work well, it operates well and still makes money.

“The model works at the club and Mike has Newcastle United’s best interests at heart.

“You don’t build a football club by chopping and changing and that’s reflected in the management.

“He’s been very loyal on that front and that’s a good thing.

“When I was there, I looked after the business side with a great team of people around me.

“It was all about budget planning and cash flow planning, working with Derek Llambias and Lee Charnley on what we were going to do in the transfer windows.

“It focused on what we had and what we could spend.

“We built a really good business model and always stayed ahead of the game.

“As a club this season, they are definitely not where they should be but they’ll be better next year.

“Mike won’t accept anything less than that.”

Sipping from a grey cup in his airport office, as similarly dull grey skies hang heavy outside, Mr Irving moves on to talk about his new role.

A key factor in his job, as the title suggests, is the expansion and extension of the airport’s success, by way of new routes, increased flights and better services for customers.

It has also included a £14m departure lounge redevelopment to include new shops, eateries and bars for passengers as they wait.

The backbone of that will be the site’s Transatlantic flights to New York, which return this year after a strong showing in 2015, and its daily long-haul service to Dubai, which has carried well in excess of a million people since its 2007 inception.

However, Mr Irving says that isn’t enough and points to the burgeoning Discover the World from Your Airport campaign.

A website offering, it allows travellers to tailor their holiday requirements and secure their perfect getaway.

“The aim now is to plan a new identity; we are listening to customers’ feedback, which is important to us and a big thing as we go forward”, says Mr Irving.

“We are talking to people about the airport and the services.

“We are listening to customers’ feedback, which is important to us and a big thing as we go forward.

“New York is the key one, but we have to tell people it is here; people have got to use it.

“We are also seeing the benefit of Emirates’ Dubai service, which is going out every day at a high level.

“If we can get New York going like that, it will be good for the airport but good for the local economy and businesses too.

“Last year was a good year for us but we need to be better.”

So how will the Discover campaign supplement the airport’s two stellar routes and make the site better?

“We have the airlines and the routes, but we are always looking for more opportunities; that is what we do”, says Mr Irving.

“Everyone is looking for the next thing, we are not complacent, and customer service is important to us.

“That includes us asking ourselves; ‘what is our competition and where are people going from if they are not flying from here?’.

“Discover the World from your Airport is all about that.

“It’s about telling people where they can go and is a dedicated part of our website.

“It’s a constant reminder of everything we do and a great way for us to spread the word.

“Our region goes all the way down to North Yorkshire and across to Cumbria, so it’s important we tell people about the things we have here.

“We are in an industry where people have a great deal of choice; we have to be right at the top of the pile.”

As the interview begins to draw to a close, the focus goes back to Newcastle United.

As a lifelong fan, does he regret not being part of the team as Steve McClaren ushers in a new era?

“Eight years at a football club is a long time but it was a good experience, and now I have new challenge”, he says.

“Working for a football club is one thing, but trying to find new opportunities and growth stories for the airport is something different.

“There are some similarities between the jobs, title-wise it looks completely different, but I did a lot of the commercial things at the football club.

“Being at Newcastle really helped me in terms of what I was involved in.

“I went into a business that needed some work and we did a good job.”