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Mike Ashley's plan: How Newcastle United sold its soul to Sports Direct

Newcastle's problems start at the top, and they were reflected in their poor performance in the Tyne-Wear Derby Sunday.

Stu Forster/Getty Images

What is Mike Ashley's plan for Newcastle United?

We do Q&A posts with other blogs fairly frequently. I'm no stranger to wide-eyed questions about what in the world is going on over there. Will Alan Pardew keep his job, despite the recent run of bad form? Does Mike Ashley think he's running a circus? What's the deal with Andy Carroll/Jose Enrique/Kevin Nolan/Joey Barton/Demba Ba/Yohan Cabaye leaving? Do you ever get the feeling that the club is working against you?

These questions and more skirt the issue, which is why this more direct line of inquiry took me aback so. The plan? Yeah, Mike Ashley has a plan for Newcastle United. Make money with it. Next question. Right?

Somehow, the way it was phrased this time around forced me to articulate Mike Ashley in a way that I haven't had to before. My view of Ashley mirrors that of most of the fanbase. He's a meddling, bumbling idiot more interested in money than winning.

His plan, then, is to make money. Here's the thing, though: There's more than one way to make money running a football team. Topping the Forbes Most Valuable Sports Team list is certainly one track to piles of cash, but so is running the equivalent of a cut-rate sporting goods outlet that abuses its employees. (Yahoo! Finance)

You know where I'm going with this: Newcastle United is Sports Direct. Obtain cheap merchandise, mark it up, and sell it. Rinse and repeat. The only competitive incentive Mike Ashley has is to keep his team in the Premier League, because he's seen what the Championship does to profit margins.

The plan is not to win. The plan is to win enough that the product is viable. Winning too much can be undesirable. Who needs extra matches? The revenue from Europa League competition is a pittance, and accidentally qualifying for the Champions League would trigger new expectations about investing in players and so forth. Win just enough. At the end of the season, they'll have enough points to keep Premier League status, and that's what keeps the money rolling in.

Derby? What's that? Newcastle-Sunderland is just another game. Putting unnecessary importance on a single game doesn't fit the plan. Sports Direct doesn't have a signature product. If you go to their website today, the word SALE in in white on a red field dominates the page. The Sports Direct product is a sale rack overstuffed with chintzy replica shirts posing as the real thing. It's a 27-inch (figure slightly exaggerated) TV attached to the side of the stadium with zip ties masquerading as a new big screen entertainment experience, because that's what the fans want. Sports Direct is an emphasis on the quick buck over authenticity in shape or form. Sports Direct is selling the team's best player when safety is assured - every time.

Mike Ashley's plan? Rip the soul out of Newcastle United. There's profit in product, not soul.

What is a club in any case? Not the buildings or the directors or the people who are paid to represent it. It’s not the television contracts, get-out clauses, marketing departments or executive boxes. It’s the noise, the passion, the feeling of belonging, the pride in your city. It’s a small boy clambering up stadium steps for the very first time, gripping his father’s hand, gawping at that hallowed stretch of turf beneath him and, without being able to do a thing about it, falling in love.

- Sir Bobby Robson