Blog

There’s an impressive statue of Newcastle United hero Alan Shearer… on the site of what was once a disused toilet.

Despite its unfortunate and insalubrious location, there’s plenty to admire about a towering bronze statue of a Geordie icon.

Embed from Getty Images

Of course, there’s no suggestion Newcastle owner Mike Ashley knew what he was doing in sanctioning the siting of the sculpture, which unlike Sir Bobby Robson’s hallowed statue, is positioned beyond the perimeter of St James’ Park. But that is why the striking £250,000 statue speaks volumes about the sports retail mogul’s disastrous attitude to public relations on Tyneside since he bought the club 13 years ago.

And the statue – created by Northumberland sculptor Tom Maley and paid for by late Newcastle chairman Freddy Shepherd – has symbolic value in more ways than one. Ashley just doesn’t care about PR – he didn’t even bother turning up for its unveiling.

Since getting caught on camera downing a pint when Newcastle played at Arsenal in 2008 – earning him a police ticking-off – it’s been one PR own-goal after another. And it’s been played out against an awful backdrop since he turned St James’ Park into a giant advertising billboard for his beloved Sports Direct.

How to Lose Football Friends and Alienate Fans’ would be a fitting title for Ashley’s Tyneside memoirs. He did the takeover deal on the quiet, which suited a mega successful businessman for whom talk is cheap, and he swept into St James’ Park without a murmur. Despite his huge Sports Direct success, he kept such a low profile in the media that few Newcastle fans had even heard of him.

The same applied to the sports reporters paid to cover the ups and downs of the old curiosity that is Newcastle United. And that included me in my eventful days as a football writer for the Daily Telegraph. They were already exciting times and once Ashley arrived expectation rose that the good old days were about to return to Tyneside thanks to the largesse of the new billionaire owner.

But how wrong could we be? What followed was the most acrimonious era in this proud club’s history. It has seen Newcastle lurch from crisis and crisis and twice banished from the Premier League after relegation.

Embed from Getty Images

Thing is, it all started off well enough as Ashley, donning a replica shirt, mingled with fans at away days and bowed to their wishes by sacking unpopular manager Sam Allardyce. And then he stepped up the charm offensive by bringing back Geordie messiah Kevin Keegan and installing him as manager.

But then it all went downhill. Ashley became a pantomime villain thanks to a series of PR gaffes including:

  • Re-naming St James Park as Sports Direct Arena
  • Bringing in his so-called Cockney Mafia to run St James’ Park
  • Forcing out local hero Kevin Keegan
  • Bringing in Joe ‘JFK’ Kinnear as manager
  • Hiring and then firing Alan Shearer as manager
  • Losing a disability discrimination case with cancer-hit Jonas Gutierrez.
  • Hiring former England boss Steve McClaren
  • Letting the revered Rafa Benitez leave Tyneside
  • Splurging £40m on misfit Brazilian striker Joelinton
  • Furloughing Newcastle’s non-playing staff as Covid-19 hit home.

There is, though, method in the madness for Ashley. In fact, Sir John Hall, who sold his stake in Newcastle to the sports retailer, told me years ago that he saw the club as a marketing tool – which has worked as the Sports Direct brand has gained global exposure. And despite initial misgivings, firing manager Chris Hughton and hiring Alan Pardew as manager proved to be a masterstroke as Newcastle moved to within touching distance of Champions League football.

It proved to be a false dawn. Because of his disdain for media relations, he never even bothered trying to win over the fans with reasoned arguments. And if it appears that he doesn’t give a toss, it’s because he doesn’t. In fact, from what I can gather from those closest to him, Ashley thrives on confrontation, even with his own allies, cronies and confidantes.

Embed from Getty Images

And so, once he overcame the initial shock of the Toon Army turning on him after Keegan’s exit, the vitriol was all water off a duck’s back. He was rarely seen at St James’ Park where fans united in their opposition to their least favourite Southerner. Even rarer were Ashley’s interviews – even with Newcastle’s in-house media, apart from when he wanted to sell the club.

From what I can remember he’s only done TWO decent interviews as Newcastle owner. One was with Daily Mail chief sports writer Martin Samuel which you can read here; and there’s another with senior Sky Sports reporter David Craig which is here.

Every now and again he’d do interviews with the financial journalists but from what I could tell they were compulsory due to the Stock Market regulations.

He even paid for a PR firm but their role seemed, from a football reporter’s point of view, to be just to ignore every request that came their way, probably because that’s the way Ashley liked to play things.

As the Telegraph’s Ben Marlow put it: “Mike Ashley might own Newcastle United but he’s taken the Millwall approach to public relations since floating Sports Direct in 2007: No one likes us, we don’t care, as the fans proudly sing at the Den.”

He has tried and failed to sell the club ever since and it’s only now that it looks as on his way out due to a Saudi takeover.

While Newcastle have hardly been out of the headlines throughout the coronavirus pandemic, it’s been business as usual for Ashley as regards football. He’s said nothing. And he’s not even letting anyone doing any talking on his behalf. In fact, he’s not even allowing anyone to do off-the-record stuff.

It need not have been like this. If only Ashley had treated Newcastle United and its fans with respect. No one would expect him to keep necking pints with the fans but those who shell out money for season-tickets are entitled to expect good communication from the man at the top. That’s certainly the case at clubs like Liverpool where fans are listened to by the top brass.

They say it’s good to talk and it is. Ashley could have saved himself a lot of aggravation had he had a healthy, positive attitude towards media relations. He’ll be counting the cost of his misjudgments on the media front as fan hostility is bound to drive down the price of his football asset – and that’s bound to hurt one of the UK’s most high-profile businesspeople.

Mike and Me

It was a case of so near, but so far for me and Mike Ashley.

During my time as the Daily Telegraph’s man in the North East, I came tantalizingly close to landing an interview with the pantomime villain.

It was in the midst of the storm that erupted after Kevin Keegan stormed out of St James’ Park after having had enough of Ashley and the Cockney Mafia.

I headed to Sports Direct’s Shirebrook HQ with fellow reporters, The Sun’s Steve Brenner, The Times’ George Caulkin (now of The Athletic) and the Mirror’s Simon Bird for the company AGM.

We went there braced for hostility, expecting to be surrounded by up-in-arms Newcastle fans on the warpath.

But it all fell flat. It was one man and his dog territory. We were half-promised a quick chat and so our hopes were high. But how naïve could we be?

All it took was a hand grenade to be lobbed Ashley’s way in a strangely subdued and procedural AGM by a Sun news reporter about his trip to a New York dancing bar for our hopes to be dashed.

It was his get-out-of-jail card and so when I asked how we were fixed for said interview, back came the reply: ‘No, thank you very much” and on that note he was gone and we headed back up the A1 empty-handed.

That was 10 years ago and since then a toxic atmosphere has enveloped St James’ Park.

Header Photo: Ardfern, Wikimedia Commons