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Is Mike Ready to Sell?

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Fact: Mike Ashley spends his free time feeding seagulls candy he found underneath his couch

Sports Direct Boss Mike Ashley Attends High Court Over Alleged £15m Banker Deal
What an odd looking man
Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images

The past few months have essentially been a living hell if your name is Mike Ashley.

After yet another disappointing transfer window that resulted in relations with his manager Rafa Benitez reaching an all time low, the supporters of Newcastle finally took their first stand against the owner since the appointment of Benitez. Numerous protests were organized through the newly formed Magpie Group, fans began to attack the club as well as Sports Direct through the internet, and fans went out of their way to encourage everyone they possibly could to refrain from buying products from Sports Direct. For the first time since he’d taken over the club, Ashley’s actions resulted in fans actively trying to lose him money. Sports Direct share prices began to drop as the company was feeling the affects of people being redirected from their store, and the overall negative publicity surrounding Mike Ashley.

Ashley, and his partner in crime Keith Bishop, began to desperately try to figure out a way to generate good publicity around Ashley. This resulted in the two allegedly calling on pundits like Dennis Wise to insult Rafa and praise Ashley on a national scale. This resulted in a PR nightmare as many fans, and non fans of the team could see that Ashley was attempting to put out narratives that would make him look good. This was occurring as fans were still tweeting at Keith Bishop’s agency, Sports Direct’s Twitter account and generally still making a lot of noise on social media. This resulted in Keith Bishop’s Agency blocking tons of fans and eventually going private on Twitter. Sports Direct resorted to blocking fans as well as not tweeting anything for weeks. Both were bad looks for the Ashley camp, but it got a lot worse when pundits, most notably Dennis Wise began to block not only fans but journalists who dare question Mike Ashley.

In a last ditch effort to generate positive publicity Mike Ashley decided to save the failing House of Fraser department store chain by buying the company. This did create much needed positive buzz for the owner, but that quickly went away when news broke that Ashley was dealing with a warehouse dispute within the company . Ashley apparently wanted to pay the warehouses less than what they previously were being paid, which of course is unsurprising, and resulted in workers not receiving compensation.

The ongoing protests against him and his company, as well as the ordeal regarding House of Fraser has led to the shares of Sports Direct to continually fall. To make matters worse, this week in the search for a new auditor Sports Direct was dealt a huge blow as the top firms in the UK (EY, KPMG and PricewaterhouseCoopers) have removed themselves from the search. Sky News reports that the reason behind this is “potential conflicts of interest and reputation issues relating to the company’s corporate governance”. The “issues relating to corporate governance” is what really sticks out about this statement, as all of mike Ashley’s businesses have faced some sort of controversy dealing with how he runs his businesses.

It seems with this latest news that Ashley may be a bit overwhelmed. All of his business properties have been in the news for all of the wrong reason, and it appears as if he might be gearing up to make a big financial move with one of his properties in order to remove some of the heat he is facing, and generate some cash to invest in his other two properties. A lot of news surrounding Newcastle, has lead many to believe that he is gearing up to sell the club, and he could actually be serious about it this time.

There are three stories this week that have peaked the interest of the Geordie faithful that are positive signs that the club could possibly be returning to the market. The first being a rumor that the asking price has dropped down to £300m, the second being that there are reportedly a lot of upgrades coming for St. James Park, and finally that Rafa has finally brought some positive news regarding his contract.

Mike Wants Less Money?

In The Chronicle’s Weekly Q&A session Mark Douglas was asked (for the billionth time) if there were any interested buyers for the club. Optimism that the club could retain some interest has been at an all time high the past few weeks since a rumors surfaced that there were a lot of individuals looking to invest in Premier League clubs. Normally Mark gives the same response that Ashley’s price is still too high, but this week he provided an update that pleased a lot of fans.

Mark has claimed that there is still interest from two parties, one of which is Amanda Staveley’s PCP group.

I can tell you there are at least two interested parties I’ve been told about (one would be PCP Capital, who retain interest but not at the prices being quoted). But whether it ever amounts to anything more than that is the £400million question.

The good news continues, as Mark is told that there has been a potential drop in price because Ashley is “fed up” with the footballing business.

Or should that be £300million, because two weeks ago I was told friends of Mike Ashley were saying he would accept an offer in that region if there were no clauses attached to it. The same person said he was fed up with football - although I’ve heard that before.

UEFA Champions League Semi Final: Liverpool v Chelsea
Will our queen return to save us from the fat man?
Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Both statements are worth examining, and both are great news for Newcastle fans. The retained interest of PCP is a good sign, as it seems as if Staveley and her group were waiting for a moment like this to swoop in and buy the club. Staveley’s last offer was £250million flat with promises to spend upwards of £200m worth of investments in the club, after she had offered two bids of £350, and £300m with conditions. It is unsure whether she would be interested in a straight up £300m bid, but she has made it clear that her most recent offer is still on the table.

Nonetheless, the attractive and more realistic price for the club is bound to draw in interest from parties looking to invest in a club.

St. James’ Park Upgrades

When selling something, a sane human being does whatever it takes to add value to the product by making it look as nice as possible. Mike Ashley, is not sane and has not done that at all when trying to sell the club. The lack of investment put into St. James’ Park and the training ground is abysmal and off-putting to potential investors, as that is money that they have to now invest in the club. However, there is now hope that Ashley may have changed his approach.

Andrew Musgrove, of The Chronicle, dropped a series of articles focused around a conversation about facilities he had with current facilities manager for NUFC Eddie Rutherford. The majority of the articles talk about the amount of upkeep and investment the club has put into the facilities that goes unnoticed by the fans and media. A particular point of interest is the amount of investment the club has continued to make in making St. James’ a desirable place for all fans, including ones with disabilities. In this regard you have to applaud the club for going above and beyond the UK standard s for disabled individuals and truly providing a space for them to enjoy the match to the best of their ability.

Newcastle United v Tottenham Hotspur - Premier League
The Club is apparently trying their hardest to make every day a great dame for all of the fans
Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images

A much smaller project caught my eye, because it is a current wave of investment in St. James’ Park that fans might notice. Rutherford in the piece goes on to talk about how he has been working with Lee Charnley to improve the player’s tunnel at St. James. While this is not as glorious as replacing a stand, or upgrading the toilets, it is a step in the right direction for the club and does show to potential investors that they do care about the facilities.

The piece not only shows some ambition on the club’s behalf, but also has a timely release as it of course was rumored that Mike is seriously interested in selling the club. Improving the facilities is one way to please potential investors, and is something we have not seen from Mike Ashley before.

Rafa Smiles Once More

After a stressful few months of contract negotiations where it seemed as if Rafa and the club were never going to reach an agreement, the attitude around St. James’ has changed.

Rafa before was on the record expressing his frustrations with the negotiation process, and with the fact that some of his contractual demands were not being met. This set an overall tone of doubt that spread among fans and journalists that a deal was not likely going to get done soon.

Rafa however, offered a glimmer of hope to fans that maybe he could be set to continue his tenure at St. James’. It appears as if Rafa is happy with the club, and is now feeling relaxed about contract negotiations as opposed to the negative undertones we got from him this summer concerning contract negotiations.

The Chronicle are claiming that Rafa is relaxed, and has no problem with the salary the club have offered, but just wants to make sure things behind the scenes are run properly.

AFC Bournemouth v Newcastle United - Premier League
Here we see Rafa playing the classic Children’s game “Red light, green light”

Rafa had this to say about life in Newcastle right now:

“What I will say about the North East and Newcastle is you can live your life and you can enjoy your football

The people love the club and love the team, especially if you are giving everything.

That is the perfect scenario for a manager.

So I am quite relaxed because I am happy here.”

All of these are wonderful things to hear from your manager, especially after a summer in which he seemed to be frustrated with the way contract talks are going. For the club, this is great as Rafa is one of the key pieces that make the club worth anything. His leadership as a manager, and his success is unmatched which makes him a valuable piece of the product Ashley is trying to sell. If Ashley is able to secure a long term deal with Benitez, it is sure to raise the eyebrows of key investors.

The combination of these three elements could mean entirely nothing on the the grand scheme of things. Ashley could once again be bluffing about his pricing, or he could be improving the stadium in small projects to save money, and Rafa could be just handling his contract situation as a professional. But, it of course is more fun to be optimistic and see that Ashley is straggling and needs to let Newcastle go, and that improving the stadium is something that investors would love to see and that Rafa’s calmness is because he may know something we don’t .

One thing that is for certain, is that Mike Ashley has appeared to be more and morefrustrated with how the Newcastle fans have interfered with his businesses. This frustration is key to driving him out of our wonderful club, so don’t stop now, and don’t stop ever.