The never-ending drama at Newcastle United took another massive twist yesterday when owner Mike Ashley bowed to fan pressure and put the club up for sale.
At least one member of Ashley's inner circle was yesterday in Dubai, believed to be sounding out possible buyers. The price will be over the £250m Ashley has said he has invested in Newcastle.
In a 1,600-word statement, Ashley ended a fortnight of almost total silence by finally delivering a detailed explanation of where he sees the Tyneside club under his regime.
"I am not stupid and have listened to the fans," Ashley said. "I have really loved taking my kids to the games, being next to them and all the fans. But I am now a dad who can't take his kids to a football game on a Saturday because I am advised that we would be assaulted. Therefore, I am no longer prepared to subsidise Newcastle United. I am putting the club up for sale."
Ashley was referring to his absence from St James' Park for Newcastle's game against Hull City on Saturday, when angry supporters demanded Ashley leave the club he only bought last year. Ashley had already been told that he is no longer welcome to stand among Newcastle's away fans by supporter organisations.
But those groups will not be appeased by Ashley's statement yesterday until the club has been sold. Ashley's last chance at reconciliation with Tyneside folded on Friday night when his talks with Kevin Keegan failed to find a resolution.
But while in yesterday's statement there was acceptance that his position is untenable, there was also a measure of defiance in Ashley's tone and he defended the management structure that placed Dennis Wise above Keegan and which so undermined Keegan he felt compelled to walk out 13 days ago. "Dennis and his team have done a first class job," Ashley said.
That structure was described as "dangerous" by Alan Shearer and the nature of some of the decision-making at St James' has been revealed again with Shearer being told last week that he has been relieved of his position as Newcastle United's "sporting ambassador".
The role may be a symbolic appreciation of Shearer's record 206 goals for Newcastle but its withdrawal is the same – symbolic of the antagonism and chaos at the club. It is a petty gesture and will enrage fans further. Like Keegan, Shearer is a legendary figure at the club and Newcastle trades on his name in the form of Shearer's Bar beneath the Gallowgate End of St James'. The news shows how Ashley's people operate and will be greeted with astonishment locally.
That is still Ashley's concern as long as he is owner, though the contemptuous remarks about supporters from "a close friend" in a Sunday newspaper contrasted with the comparatively measured statement released hours later.
"I have enjoyed sport since I was a boy. I love football," were the first of Ashley's 1,622 words. "I bought Newcastle United in May 2007. Newcastle attracted me because everyone in England knows that it has the best fans in football. When the fans are behind the club at St James' Park it makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. It is magic.
"Newcastle's best asset has been, is and always will be the fans. But like any business with assets the club has debts. I paid £134m out of my own pocket for the club. I then poured another £110m into the club not to pay off the debt but just to reduce it.
"The club is still in debt. But there was a double whammy. Commercial deals such as sponsorships and advertising had been front-loaded. The money had been paid up front and spent. I was left with a club that owed millions and part of whose future had been mortgaged. Unless I had come into the club then it might not have survived.
"Before I had spent a penny on wages or buying players Newcastle United had cost me more than a quarter of a billion pounds. Don't get me wrong. I did not buy Newcastle to make money. I bought Newcastle because I love football."
Ashley added he was "prepared to bankroll Newcastle up to the tune of £20m per year but no more. That was my bargain."
Critics will point out that Ashley bought Newcastle without performing due diligence. It was speculated openly on Tyneside that the Northern Rock sponsorship money had been spent in advance by the previous regime. Had that basic business practice of due diligence been followed, perhaps some of this mess could have been avoided.
But only some of it. Only a few weeks ago Ashley was telling lapsed corporate sponsors of a "wow signing" on his way, before bringing in loan signing Nacho Gonzalez on deadline day. The mixed message of 2008 were made flesh in the appointment of Keegan, then Wise.
"I have the interests of Newcastle United at heart," Ashley said in his statement. "I have listened to you. You want me out. That is what I am now trying to do but it won't happen overnight and it may not happen at all if a buyer does not come in. You don't need to demonstrate against me again because I have got the message."
Given the vociferous aspect of Saturday's protests, featuring memorably the parading of a banner reading "Cockney Mafia Out", which was applauded around the concourses just after half-time, the message had to get through. A chant in the 23rd minute of "Stand Up If You Hate Ashley" had most of St James' on its feet.
Yet one week on from Keegan's reputation being pummelled in certain Sunday newspapers, that message still did not stop further sniping yesterday. Newcastle fans were told to raise £1,000 each to buy the club and the description "fickle" was used to describe them. Now Shearer is stripped of duties. Mike Ashley cannot get out of Newcastle soon enough.
'I'm now a dad who can't take his kids to a football game'
The following is an edited version of Mike Ashley's statement:
I have enjoyed sport since I was a boy. I love football. I have followed England in every tournament since Mexico '86. I was there to see Maradona and his hand of God. I know what it means to love football and to love a club.
Newcastle's best asset has been, is and always will be the fans.
I paid £134m out of my own pocket for the club. I poured another £110m into the club not to pay off the debt but just to reduce it. The club is still in debt.
My plan and my strategy for Newcastle is different. It has to be. Arsenal is the shining example in England of a sustainable business model. It takes time.
Dennis [Wise] and his team have done a first-class job in scouting for talent to secure the future of the club.
This will not be a fire sale.
I don't want anyone to read my words and think that any of this is an attack on Kevin Keegan. It is not. Kevin and I always got on. Everyone at the club, and I mean everyone, thinks that he has few equals in getting the best out of the players.
Clearly there are disagreements between Kevin and the Board and we have both put that in the hands of our lawyers.
I am now a dad who can't take his kids to a football game on a Saturday because I am advised that we would be assaulted.
You don't need to demonstrate against me again. I have got the message.