Ashley still owning the pitch at Newcastle but losing the middle ground
Echoes of earlier history as sports shop protest reflects disenchantment at the club
Why is Mike Ashley still doing it? Is it really to plaster St James’ Park in Sports Direct logos? Is there not a simpler, less time-consuming form of advertising? Photograph: Martin Rickett/PA
Frank Brennan may not seem the obvious starting point for a match preview: Newcastle United host Arsenal in the Premier League this afternoon and Brennan played his last match at St James’ Park in 1956.
But the circumstances surrounding Brennan’s acrimonious departure from Newcastle mean that, even 52 years on, he remains curiously relevant.
Essentially Brennan was forced out of the club by the one-man chairman-manager Stan Seymour.
Seymour’s omnipotence was captured in the nickname ‘Mr Newcastle’. Seymour had played for the club the last time they were league champions, in 1927, and had been on the board since 1938. So he had a claim.
His annoyance with Brennan, however, did not stem from the Scotsman’s sense of duty to the club or his form in defence – it was Seymour who signed him – but from the fact that Brennan opened a sports shop in the city near St James’ Park.
This was problematic as Seymour already ran a sports shop there.
Brennan, a fans’ hero, fell out of favour. His wages were cut from £15 a week to £8 – a man with six children. The case was raised at the Trades Union Congress. There was a fans’ meeting at Newcastle City Hall. There was outcry.
Eventually Brennan departed. He was given a testimonial by Newcastle but a measure of the mutual disenchantment was that it was held in Sunderland.
Brennan was one of Newcastle’s greatest post-war players yet Seymour was prepared to hurt the club to protect his business. It is a remarkable story.
It just shows, sports shops can make folk intense.
That’s an observation confirmed over the past few weeks when Newcastle fans have protested outside the shop, Sports Direct, in the city centre and held a meeting in the Labour Club adjacent to St James’ to see what can be done about the current Mr Newcastle.
He, of course, is Mike Ashley, who owns Sports Direct. Ashley has been at St James’ for 11 years – longer than Brennan, though without the latter’s two FA Cup winners’ medals.
Actually, to say Ashley “has been at” misses a fundamental issue since he bought the club: absenteeism. Sir John Hall said Ashley was missing from the meeting in which it was agreed he would buy Hall’s shares.
Had Ashley had his boots on Tyneside ground, he would have performed the correct due diligence before purchase and noticed a large hole in the accounts.
But Ashley chose to buy the club from afar, the first of many poor decisions. It is not necessary to go into all of them – two relegations, the constructive dismissal of Kevin Keegan, the cold-shouldering of Alan Shearer, the eight-year contract for Alan Pardew (two years left, still) Joe Kinnear and on and on. But there’s a few.
There have been good moments – Pardew got the team to fifth in 2012 and into Europe, the club bought cannily and sold well.
And at a time of enormous Premier League income, Newcastle United became profitable. It is not difficult to imagine a wheeler-dealer businessman being more excited by the profit made on players such as Andy Carroll and Moussa Sissoko than a third-round League Cup tie.
But not witnessing the sincere disappointment caused by an early League Cup exit is all part of the problem of absenteeism. If Ashley were around, he would feel it, hear it, share it.
He would, however, also be able to give his opinion, which would be more convincing than some of the talking heads he has speaking on his behalf on TV.
People would listen to him, hear him out. All fan bases have a broad passive/aggressive divide and Newcastle’s is no different. There would be a willingness, even now, to hear Ashley articulate a vision for the club. Should he have one.
If that included financial shrewdness, even meanness, it might not be scoffed at if it was considered strategic. Look at Tottenham Hotspur this summer and contrast them with West Ham United. Newcastle spent some €14.6 million on Florian Thauvin three years ago, so fans know about inappropriate business.
Ashley is entitled to stress these examples. He is entitled to point out to current manager Rafa Benitez that last season’s 10th place finish was not “a miracle”, as Benitez has it, but a consequence of investment in wages, a team growing into itself and Benitez’s coaching. He is allowed to query some of Benitez’s choices. He will be privy to information that we are not.
But for that to happen Ashley would need to be around and to care. He would need to value the difference between owning the pitch and losing the middle ground. He would need to show Benitez respect.
He would need, also, to be able to reflect on a statement made by Middlesbrough owner Steve Gibson after promotion two years ago: “We’ve got to have a go. We’re a sporting entity and if you’re not going to be having a go, you shouldn’t be doing it.”
Why is Mike Ashley still doing it? Is it really to plaster St James’ Park in Sports Direct logos? Is there not a simpler, less time-consuming form of advertising?
Perhaps the answer to the latter question is yes, but just not as cheap.
If so, then there is trouble ahead – and possibly a third relegation.
It begins today, once again before a match that should be the sole focus of the afternoon. There will be a protest outside the club shop whose receipts have shown for years that it is registered in Nottinghamshire, where Ashley has his Sports Direct headquarters.
Ashley may say those fans are unrepresentative of the 52,000 inside the stadium. But it is an opinion he will form from afar.
These supporters, they are doing the hard yards, they are there and will be heard. Jamie Carragher, among others, may claim Benitez is the biggest thing about Newcastle United but that’s wrong. The fanbase, the history, the accumulation of players, managers, matches and memories are what make the club significant.
Initially, when Ashley was present and stood amongst fans, it seemed he understood it, the power of the crowd. But that morphed into the sort of mutual disenchantment Frank Brennan would recognise.
Years later, Brennan was said to refer to “the circus up there” when commenting on Newcastle United. He would surely be shaking his head at the thought that in 2018 a sports shop is again a vehicle for conflict in the city.
As in the 1950s, when Newcastle United last won a domestic trophy, it is such a drain on energy, such a waste of potential.