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Two Ambitions, One Club

What Rafa and Ashley’s recent interactions with the press say about the future of Newcastle United

Newcastle United v Barnsley - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

On Sunday evening, just after Newcastle United finish their first game back in the Premier League since May 2016, Sky Sports will air an interview with Newcastle owner and best friend to the working man Mike Ashley, who rarely does such interviews or speaks to the press in any manner. Snippets of the interview are already available, and if you have yet to see them, let me save you the time – they’re not very encouraging to the average Newcastle supporter.

To spare you from having to hunt down bits of footage and scouring various media sources, we’ve compiled the highlights here, with commentary.

“If you said to me I am wealthy - in theory I am a billionaire or maybe a multi-billionaire - but in reality my wealth is all in Sports Direct shares.”

Boy oh boy, do I hate this argument of wealth as a measure of liquid assets. What Ashley is saying here is technically true – a sizable portion of his wealth IS tied up in shares to Sports Direct, the sporting good company that Ashley started in 1982. This does, technically, mean that he doesn’t actually have billions of pounds in the bank at his disposal. However, this argument conveniently ignores two crucial aspects of wealth - first, wealth is not a strict measure of currency or other liquid assets accumulated. Ron Swanson wasn’t poor simply because he chose to hoard his assets in the form of stockpiles of gold and precious gems buried underneath trees – these assets, just as with rare stamps or collections of art, are always available to convert to liquid assets at the will of the owner.

This leads to the second thing this argument obfuscates – Mike Ashley’s wealth is tied up in shares to Sports Direct expressly because that is where Mike Ashley would like for his wealth to be. For Ashley to imply that his wealth is tied up in assets that he cannot, admittedly with some foresight, liquidate to provide funding for the club is untrue and insulting. Whether or not he SHOULD take such a course of action is another question entirely, but it should not take away from the fact that this is a deliberate choice Mike Ashley is making.

“I don't have that cash in the bank so I don't have the ability to write a cheque for £200m. I don't have it, it's simple.”

If you, the reader, are a) a fan of Newcastle United, and b) expecting Mike Ashley to, at any point, write a single check for £200 million, I would love to hear from you in the comments section, because I’m not entirely sure that such a person exists. Kelechi Iheanacho joined Leicester for a reported £25 million; I know that if that had been Newcastle making that deal, I would have been ecstatic. In stating this, it’s almost as though Ashley is setting up a figure out of, I don’t know, straw perhaps, to knock it down and prove his point correct, despite the fact that the opinion embodied in that straw, I don’t know, man, isn’t actually held by anyone. If only there was a name for this sort of argumentative fallacy.

"And I have to make it clear that I am nowhere near wealthy enough in football now to compete with the likes of Man City [sic] and others where it is a wealthy individual taking on what is the equivalent of countries. I cannot and I will not."

This was, for me, the most fascinating part of the highlights that have seen early release. Again, Ashley shows his ability to obfuscate his stance while technically remaining within the boundaries of truth – when Mike Ashley claims that Newcastle isn’t in a position to compete “with the likes of Man City and others,” he is establishing a false relationship between Newcastle and Manchester City. No one believes that Newcastle can compete financially with Manchester City, and no one is particularly upset about this fact. The issue is in the “and others” mentioned by Ashley, as the concern held by a majority of the Newcastle base is that the club, as he says, cannot and will not compete with the likes of Leicester, Watford, Bournemouth or West Bromwich Albion. If the club cannot compete with the levels of wealth of those clubs, then this is a clear indication that Mike Ashley, as he would like for us to believe based on his responses in this interview, does not have the wealth to own and operate a healthy Premier League club, and as such should be looking to sell at his earliest opportunity.

The more concerning part is that “cannot” is not as likely as “will not.” Ashley has made clear, whether he wants supporters to realize it or not, that he does not have the intent to liquidate any of his notable wealth for the health of the club, and that he will not be competing financially with the likes of Chelsea, Liverpool, or Manchester City and United. This would seem to directly contradict Ashley’s statements on record that he will not be selling the club until it wins trophies. Something unexpected happened in 2016, though, something that may have been more damaging in the long-term to Newcastle under Mike Ashley than relegation.

Leicester City’s victory in the Premier League that season came despite the club boasting a modest transfer kitty and wage list. In thinking about Ashley’s quotes in this interview through the lens of quotes from interview past, I wonder whether he saw Leicester’s victory, a statistical near impossibility built on the over-performance of most players and having hit a generational goldmine in the transfer market in the form of N’Golo Kanté, as the avenue through which Newcastle sees the glory he has promised without spending the money he has not.

“It's Newcastle United, it doesn't have a £40m-a-year stadium naming rights deal, it doesn't”

There are plenty of unintentionally insulting statements made by Ashley in this interview, but I think this is the only statement with the intention to twist the knife for Newcastle’s supporter group. The comment seems to be a dig at fan response to the 2011 announcement that St. James’ Park would be renamed Sports Direct Arena as the latter was found to be a vehicle to “showcase the sponsorship opportunity to interested parties,” while the former was not “commercially attractive” enough to remain.

In 2012, Wonga announced that the historical name would be reinstated as part of the kit sponsorship deal that ran through the end of this past season, meaning the money that Wonga had supplied to keep the name intact has run dry. The timing and directness of the statement leaves fans little choice but to wonder whether this is an assertion that supporters need to choose between history and funds. If Newcastle United and its supporters are, in fact, suffering the repercussions of a bruised ego on the part of Mike Ashley, the vindictiveness of his withholding funds moves beyond negligence and into a pretty morally dubious place.

“I don't want the fans to watch this interview and think 'that's great Rafa is getting £150m in the morning' - he's not.”

No need to worry about that, big guy.

Elsewhere on Friday, Rafa Benítez was giving his pre-match press conference ahead of the first match of the season Sunday. The content of Ashley’s interview, while not known to Rafa at the time if his conference, is unlikely to be news to the Newcastle manager; after all, as Ashley mentions when discussing the fact that the funds he will be giving the club are not enough, “Rafa knows that. It’s not a secret, every penny the club generates he can have but it won’t generate enough.” It’s difficult to imagine working in such a situation, being told to accomplish glory with resources that make survival less then certain. It must be hard to have your ambition, competitive nature and love of football not met by your employer. It would certainly be enough for any mortal to question his or her interest in remaining.

Newcastle United v Barnsley - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

Fortunately, Rafa isn’t mortal. After a challenging summer during which he has not spoken directly with Ashley, Benítez reaffirmed his commitment, saying, “I’m here. My commitment is 100%. I will try to do my best. I told my players the other day that we have to be ready. If you have two or three new players, or five or six or eight, it doesn’t matter. What we have to be sure is that the 25 players that we will have will give everything.”

Christopher Nolan’s new film Dunkirk (stick with me) about the evacuation of British and French forces from France at the onset of World War II is (rightly) receiving plaudits for reshaping the ways in which war movies can be presented while holding to the principal tenet of the genre - namely, that any history movie, especially one about war, should have a prescient message that resonates with the world its audience navigates. When I left the theater, I left feeling that Dunkirk was about a government that had abandoned its citizenry, and a citizenry that refused to abandon each other. Since I’m not interested in ruffling the feathers of anyone in the #sticktosports community, I offer only this - Mike Ashley has made public that he will not make available the resources needed to succeed, and Rafa, in his own interview, has responded in kind, saying the he will succeed with what he is given, filling supporters around the globe with the same dignified resolve as Beyoncé giving us her grandmother's lemonade recipe. This is the story of an owner who has abandoned his club, and a club, led by its manager and including its supporters, refusing to give up on each other. Whether we close this chapter with happy returns remains to be seen.