Posted tagged ‘Mike Ashley’

Fantasy football

March 26, 2012

Every so often readers of this blog have to put up with posts about Newcastle United FC. More often than not these have been tales of woe, with accounts of mismanagement and uncertainty of direction, skulduggery and delusion. Not today. Against all the odds, for the past year Newcastle’s owner has served up a banquet for the fans in the form of extraordinarily skilful management (in the form of the unexpectedly brilliant Alan Pardew) and sheer genius in sourcing new players. The result: the club sits at number 6 in the Premier League, equal on points with Chelsea, but after spending only a fraction of the money that has sustained (or not sustained) the latter. And they are just five points below out-of-form Tottenham Hotspurs, with eight games to go.

If Newcastle can win enough of these games to get above Chelsea and overtake Spurs, then it’s the Champions League. Oh well, you can dream.

In this blog I have been very critical of owner Mike Ashley in the past, and would still maintain that he needs to become better (or even just very slightly good) at communicating with fans. But it may well be that, contrary to what I had thought, his recipe for running a premiership club is right after all. Less of the silly spending, more strategy and tactics. And to be honest, it’s a more interesting approach.

The football trade

February 1, 2011

My apologies in advance to those whose eyes glaze over when I write about soccer. But if you bear with me here, I am actually looking at the business of football, rather than the game.

Nevertheless, first a bit about the game. Yesterday, as some readers may know, was the last day of the ‘transfer window’ (more correctly called the ‘registration period’). What this means is that for four weeks in January ending on the 31st (and later for 12 weeks in the summer) players can transfer between football clubs. But this isn’t about players making career moves at their own initiative; it is more about clubs buying and selling players as tradable assets. This is so because whenever a player who is under contract to his club transfers, the ‘buying’ club has to pay a fee to the ‘selling’ club representing the asset value of the player. So if this a player who is in good form and has time left on his contract, any club wanting to acquire him will need to pay a large fee. And I really do mean large. Yesterday Newcastle United FC (the club I support) sold its star player, Andy Carroll, for a reputed £35m to Liverpool.

If you’re still with me, let me briefly look at the football logic of this. I say briefly, because there isn’t any logic. Carroll has so far scored 11 goals this season, and he is one of the Premier League’s top scorers. Newcastle were promoted from the (lower) Championship last summer, and Carroll’s productivity has been important in keeping them up in the premiership. While most observers would consider Newcastle to be a fairly safe bet for staying up, it’s not yet in the bag, and anyone looking at the football prospects rationally would say that Carroll should have been a vital contributor to a successful outcome. Nor is the £35m income helping the club in any way, because it has come too late to spend it on a replacement player. Just to reinforce all this, Newcastle manager Alan Pardew said repeatedly that Carroll would not be ‘for sale’ in the transfer window. And yet, he was sold.

So if there is no football sense in what was done, what was the point of it? And here’s an intriguing thought. What if Newcastle United owner Mike Ashley isn’t dealing in football strategy at all, but instead is pursuing objectives relating to his club’s balance sheet? What, in fact, if he doesn’t actually have any football strategy – I mean at all? Here’s how it might look. Andy Carroll has come through the ranks at Newcastle, where he has been for his entire playing career to date. He came to prominence last year when Newcastle successfully returned to the Premier League from the Championship, aided significantly by his success as a striker. His run of good form has continued in the current season. So now he has become a valuable player. If your strategy as a club owner was to get the team into the top places in the premiership, you would hold on to him, regardless of what other clubs were offering. But what if you didn’t care about that, and if what you wanted was to make money by trading? Then of course you’d sell him, if you were offered that kind of money.

So Ashley’s business model for Newcastle may be that it will make money from developing and then selling top players. This strategy would work best if the club is not in the top premiership places. Why? Because to get there and stay there you have to invest big money and hold on to key players. For this strategy the club does need to be in the premiership, but a place somewhere in the middle of the rankings would be perfect. So you make good but not overwhelmingly excellent players the backbone of the club, and you put into such a group a small number of hugely promising players. You build them up until they have a real asset value. And then you sell them. The club keeps its place somewhere between 9 and 14 in the league; your outlay is manageable, and your sales make big money.

Can this strategy work? On paper, yes – but I suspect not in practice, thankfully. The reason why it will ultimately fail is because the overall mix of the business model must include fan loyalty: supporters buy tickets and products and provide morale boosts for the team. But the enthusiasm of the supporters depends heavily on what I might call ‘the dream’. This is the belief that, perhaps, this club will one day be right at the top. It keeps the wheels of the club’s business turning. If it became clear that the dream is just that and that the owner has no intention of pursuing ultimate glory, that would change all the atmospherics and, I suspect, the business would no longer work. So the strategy works only as long as no-one knows that it is the strategy.

Apart from anything else, what this tells me is that having rich businesspeople owning football clubs is not good for the game. Indeed, all this excessive money that has been fueling the game has distorted it. I hope that all come to see reason before football as a genuine sport dies, the victim of inappropriate business strategies.

It gets crazier and crazier in Newcastle (and that’s saying something)

December 7, 2010

I suppose it had to happen. Just as everyone was settling down, the fans were content (if occasionally a tad anxious), the media vaguely positive – just as it all looked reasonably good, in steps Newcastle owner Mike Ashley and fires manager Chris Hughton. OK, I hope you know what I am talking about here: it’s one of my occasional rants about football club Newcastle United. Apologies to those not in the least interested.

Nearly two years ago former Ireland international Chris Hughton was plucked from a supporting role under Kevin Keegan to take over as acting manager, and eventually permament manager. How did he get on? Just after Newcastle were relegated in the summer of 2009 he put in place a proper team spirit and a determination to get out of the mess, and sure enough, Newcastle dominated the Championship and were back up in the Premiership at the first available opportunity. A number of commentators predicted they would fail there, but in fact Newcastle have beaten Aston Villa and Arsenal and held Chelsea to a draw. So what does an owner like Mike Ashley do? Well, he fires the manager of course. And what do the fans do? They cry in despair.

One of the major problems with soccer right now is the role that has now been given to rich football club owners. They often treat clubs like their personal toys, undermining stability while often not providing necessary funds. Some get it right: Arsene Wenger at Arsenal and Alex Ferguson at Manchester United have been given full autonomy to act as needed without owner interference. And who could deny that it has been a successful formula?

In the end, though, football clubs are the property of their fans, for without them the business would collapse. I believe we need to think again about the appropriateness of having wealthy owners at all – perhaps there should be a FIFA rule (if only FIFA were more transparent) that all clubs are required to be cooperative ventures owned collectively by their supporters.

Right now I am stunned, in total disbelief.

The Newcastle story

August 25, 2010

OK, I haven’t written about Newcastle United FC for a while, and you won’t expect me to be completely silent on events… For those who don’t know what this is about, a little bit of background on the life and times of this football (soccer) club. Two years ago the sky fell on Newcastle, as the owner fell out with the much loved manager, Kevin Keegan. Keegan left, and a completely chaotic season followed, at the end of which the club was relegated from the Premier League to the (then) Coca Cola Championship. In the meantime the owner, Mike Ashley, was trying to offload the club but couldn’t find a buyer, the fans hated him, the biggest players left. Fatalistic fans were already talking about further relegation to League One.

And then it all changed. Newcastle’s players bonded in adversity with each other and with the caretaker manager, former Ireland international player Chris Hughton, a steely determination set in, and the club started winning games. Actually, winning them again and again. Until at the end of the season Newcastle easily came out on top of the Championship and were promoted back to the Premier League. Then, ten days ago or so, in the opening game of the new season, the club faltered against Manchester United at Trafford Park, and some were already predicting they would be relegated again. But just for now, no-one is saying that, because on Sunday last Newcastle annihilated Aston Villa, beating last season’s number 6 club by 6-0. Maybe things are looking brighter at last.

For me, the Newcastle story is a romantic one, of enthusiasm and determination in adversity, and the desire to do something and be something in and for a city that lives and breathes football. Of course there are still all the questions about where international soccer is going: the inflated salaries and transfer payments, the mountain-sized egos that the modern game has produced, the role of super-rich owners who don’t know how to respect the game, and so forth. But there is also the sheer excitement at seeing these dramatic struggles, and the joy of watching the game when it is at its best.

Go, Newcastle!

Re-naming hallowed ground?

October 31, 2009

Sorry, it’s one of those moments when I have to say something about events at Newcastle United FC. As some readers may know, the club has not been having a happy time with its current owner, Mike Ashley, and fans have been in revolt ever since he forced Kevin Keegan to quite as manager.

But however inept his performance as owner may have been to date, this week he wandered into quite new and mine-strewn territory. Earlier in the week the club announced:

‘Newcastle United now aims to move forward on and off the pitch. The Club aims to maximise its commercial revenues; this includes renegotiating its Club sponsor and kit deal, which expire at the end of this season, as well as welcoming offers for the stadium naming rights for next season.’

Stadium naming rights? Does he even begin to know what can of worms he is opening there? As every Newcastle supporter knows, St James’s Park is one of the key iconic places in England’s North-East. Generations have converged on it on Saturdays and other match days. Of course the stadium itself has had to change radically over the years, as standards have moved on and new expectations have grown regarding safety and comfort. But what has kept the link between today’s stadium and past generations of supporters is the name, St James’s Park.

The idea that it might be re-named, and indeed for commercial reasons, has united supporters in fury. I find it hard to see how Ashley will not be forced to back down; or else be run out of Toon…

Light at the end of the tunnel?

August 16, 2009

No, I am not talking about a possible turning point in this recession, with Germany and France, and even the Czech Republic, apparently showing some economic growth for the first time in a while. I am not even talking about the apparently-still-on-the-tracks Metro North, though goodness knows this is a vital bit of proposed infrastructure for Dublin, and North Dublin in particular.

No, I am of course talking about Newcastle United FC and the deserved win against Reading yesterday, the first time that the hard-pressed Newcastle fans have had anything to cheer about in quite a while. Owner Mike Ashley continue to mess around with the will-he won’t-he teasing about his intentions to sell the club, there is no permanent manager in sight – though Alan Shearer is ready and willing and Ashley claims to want him (but won’t do the deal), players are leaving the club by the score; but at least the players that remain seem to have become more determined, and this performance was impressive, not just because they won but because they played with fluency and commitment.

Maybe there is still hope. But the first imperative must be for Ashley to sell. Go on, Mike, surely you want to put all those constant insults from Newcastle fans behind you. Just sell!

Football musings

June 12, 2009

OK, I know I said I wouldn’t blog about soccer for a while, but I cannot help observing the following. We have just seen Cristiano Ronaldo sold by Manchester United to Real Madrid for a cool £80 million. At about the same time, Mike Ashley is aiming to sell Newcastle United FC to anyone with the cash for £100; I suspect that it may change hands for something like the same price as Ronaldo. Real Madrid, with more cash on its hands than either of the British clubs, is not owned by a private individual or investor.

There must be some lessons in there somewhere.

And the Newcastle show rolls on

September 13, 2008

I realise that some people reading this blog may not find the ups and downs of Newcastle United FC totally fascinating. But just allow yourselves to survey the scene. Here we have a big football (soccer) club, with a proud history and perhaps the most loyal fan base of any club anywhere. But we also have decades-long under-achievement, and in recent years a constant soap opera – usually involving the manager – that keeps far too much attention on matters off the field.

But we also have one or two love affairs between the fans and some key individuals who capture the mood and lift the spirits. Perhaps the most notable of these have been (first) player and (then) manager Kevin Keegan, and the record goalscorer for the club, Alan Shearer. In January of this year Keegan returned, unexpectedly, for his second spell as manager, and for once players and fans were happy. Keegan is one of the game’s romantics, preferring style and flair over defensive tactics, and these are attributes that are loved on Tyneside. In Newcastle city and area, the club is everything to local morale, and Keegan embodies it.

Until he fell out with the club’s current owner, Mike Ashley, and felt that because he did not have proper control over the recruitment of players he had to leave. Fans were outraged, and today’s first game since all this happened was accompanied by major protests and actions by supporters, with the clear message that the owner and his management team were now not wanted any more. And in the midst of all this the team lost today’s game, a home fixture they should have won.

As it happens, today’s lucky winners were Hull City FC, which also has a little bit of my loyalty, as I worked in Hull for 10 years. So if this outcome was perhaps a salutary lesson for the owners, I am glad the the beneficiaries, since there had to one, were Hull.

But apart from the ongoing drama at Newcastle – and just now it seems that a happy ending is only possible with the return of Keegan – there are maybe some issues here for the sporting world. Games such as football/soccer have become hugely expensive, and clubs can realistically only prosper with some very wealthy owners who have the personal resources to put millions into the club each year. Naturally many of these owners will be businesspeople, who will apply their normal practices and expectations to their football ‘business’.

There is no reasonable alternative to this mix of business and sport, the egg can no longer be unscrambled. But it may be time for some reflection on what kind of owner conduct allows a club to thrive on the pitch. One of the lessons the Keegan saga should be that the manager needs to have proper backing, and needs to be fully in charge of the game and all aspects that influence the players and their success or failure.

It will be interesting to see how this saga ends. Actually, as this is Newcastle, it is unlikely to end. But we may find out what the next amazing development will be.

The Newcastle circus

September 7, 2008

I have mentioned before in this blog that I am a fan of Newcastle United FC – the English football (soccer) club. And indeed I mentioned that I am something of an admirer of its manager, Kevin Keegan. But now I need to say ex-manager, because in the course of this week his employment in that capacity ended. He appears to have resigned, but did so in circumstances that suggest this was really a firing.

Like most Newcastle fans, I was dismayed at this turn of events. Kevin Keegan is a somewhat old-fashioned manager, less intent on the science of football and more interested in the romantic aspects of the sport and in playing it stylishly.

The problem with Newcastle has been that its board has not understood how to manage the business in a way that also supported good football. So for the past few years Newcastle United has been run in the most alarmingly amateurish way at board level. It was thought by some that things would improve when businessman Mike Ashley bought the club last year, but it now seems he made the manager’s job impossible by imposing a complex bureaucracy on him and removing from him the capacity to take some of the key tactical decisions.

Again like most Newcastle fans, I want Kevin Keegan back quickly – preferably under a new owner.

Gosh, wouldn’t it be easier to be a fan of Manchester United! But not as exciting…