Ashley: 'I stand with the Newcastle fans because that's what I've always done'
Behind the beer-swilling image and desire to be seen as one of the lads, Mike Ashley is renowned for being a ruthless businessman, writes Michael Walker
The landscape is changing around St James' Park. Across Barrack Road the old Newcastle brewery has been pulled down and the view now stretches up the hill into the west end, where Newcastle United's roots date from the 1880s.
Surveying this football-daft corner of England, there must have been times when the Newcastle owner Mike Ashley has wondered why he is here. Particularly in the past few days.
It is a question that has been asked for longer and by more people than Ashley. From the moment in May of last year when Ashley bought out the Newcastle shareholdings of Sir John Hall and his son Douglas, the motivation of the 45-year-old Hertfordshire-based billionaire has been the source of intrigue.
Distrusting of the press and apparently unwilling to speak via Newcastle's match programme, for 15 months Ashley let everyone – including Newcastle fans – guess.
But three weeks ago that changed. In the launch edition of a new club magazine, Ashley set out to explain why he is at St James', what he wants to do there and how he plans to do it. Although Kevin Keegan's position within the club has been in doubt for some time, when he gave the interview Ashley cannot have thought Newcastle would be verging on being managerless one day after the closure of the transfer window.
"People have to understand that I've always been a big football fan," Ashley said, beginning his explanation of his £134m purchase of Newcastle. "Who was my team? England. I've been to every World Cup since Spain in 1982 and to every European Championships. I'd been all over the world following England since I was a young lad. When the opportunity came up to buy Newcastle United it was what I'd call a no-brainer.
"I was being offered the chance to own one of the jewels, one of the diamonds of the Premier League," Ashley added. "There was no hesitation... And you must also remember that I've had shops in the North-east for 15 to 20 years. Some of the best people I've ever employed in my companies have been from the North-east."
As for standing among the supporters at away games, rather than sitting in the directors' box, Ashley said: "I wear my strip and I go in with the fans because that's how I've always gone to football... the other reason is that I also like to take my kids with me to the match as well because it's a family thing for me. They bring their mates along and we are one big group.
"We played Stoke City away in the FA Cup on a Sunday night in January. We all got together, hired a minibus and drove to the match. Everybody loved it and that's what away trips are all about for me."
Big, loving family man, swilling pints on what used to be the terraces, this is one portrait of Ashley that has become familiar. But in the City of London, Ashley is known as a ruthless businessman who played the City brilliantly when he floated his Sports Direct chain three months before buying Newcastle. At St James', those two sides of Ashley have to merge.
Selling his 43 per cent stake in his core retail business earned Ashley £929m. Initially the City was impressed. This was a boy who started out in a sports shop in Maidenhead in 1982. By 2007 Sports Direct International had a turnover of £1.2bn, 400 stores and owned a portfolio of brands such as Slazenger. Ashley was unconventional, he wore jeans to corporate meetings and carried paperwork in plastic bags. He shunned publicity. But now the City thought he was about to put on a tie and join them.
Yet less than a year later, with England replica shirt sales slow in his shops after Steve McClaren's unsuccessful stint in charge and sportswear sales static due to horrendous summer weather, Sports Direct shares had plummeted in value. Some of its management was alienating investors. The City did not understand why he bought Newcastle – especially without observing due diligence and therefore not realising he had to cover £100m of debt on top of the £134m purchase price.
Ashley announced a 30 per cent drop in profits in July, though by last month the Financial Times were able to write: "Trading performance aside, Sports Direct is in danger of losing its pariah status and becoming a model of good governance."
If only, they will be saying on Tyneside, where it is thought the right offer would surely tempt Ashley to sell, and where there is still amazement that due diligence was not performed. Had he performed it on Keegan, Ashley would have known he was appointing a manager every bit as headstrong as himself.