This week, SB Nation is running a series throughout its websites called “What If?”. It’s easy fodder for any site as we can all conjure a million that would be different if something had never happened. I’m going to up our week with Newcastle United’s biggest “what if” in its entire history.
What if Mike Ashley had never bought Newcastle United?
Would it be all rainbows and butterflies? Would Newcastle United have found itself back at the top of the table after an already drastic drop in competitive performance? Newcastle United’s record signing at the time of Mike Ashley’s purchase was Michael Owen at £16.8 million, far below the record signings of the decade such as Zinedine Zidane and Hernan Crespo.
The club was also not in the finest of financial positions at the time of the takeover, which has been a recurring topic of conversation when discussing Mike Ashley’s ignorance of not doing due diligence before his takeover of the club. Mike Ashley has also used this point to say that he was unaware of the club’s dire financial situation.
The argument goes that Mike Ashley had ruined the club by always seeking to turn a profit on transfers, which in turn hindered transfer progress on bringing in new players and fresh talent. But the purpose of my article isn’t to argue that Mike Ashley has done poorly as an owner, it’s how Sir John Hall would have performed if he continued to manage Newcastle United into the modern era of football.
Sir John Hall had been endeavoring to sell Newcastle United for three years before Mike Ashley came knocking on his door to do a rapid deal. His swift decision to sell angered not only his son, Douglas, who thought his father was making a grand mistake for selling to the retail giant, but Freddy Shepard as well.
But it isn’t as if Sir John Hall had no idea who he was selling to. He knew Mike Ashley’s business practices, and he knew that Mike Ashley’s intent for the club had little to do with Newcastle itself: it had everything to do with marketing.
This all came out in an article written by our good friend Chris Waugh at the Chronicle back in 2017. Sure, fans may not have liked that Sir John Hall had sold the club to someone he knew would take advantage of it, but he also knew that following Chelsea’s purchase in 2003 by Roman Abramovich spelled the end of the local owner, and the beginning of billionaires. The same way that Mike Ashley learned that his time at Newcastle United would be limited when Manchester City, PSG, among other clubs have an influx of money that he will never be able to compete with.
It is also because Sir John Hall, while popular with fans, was really no different from Mike Ashley himself. We like to complain that much of the money injected into Newcastle United from Mike Ashley are from loans, but Sir John Hall did the same thing, albeit with better success. He continued to sell off shares for millions of pounds and stepped away from the club in an administrative capacity after he had already made a sizable fortune from it around 1998. There was nothing stopping Sir Hall from following the money. Either sell Newcastle while it’s good, or let the club suffer, and sell for nothing.
If Hall had simply said he wanted to hold out and keep owning Newcastle United because that had been his business for over a decade, then surely Newcastle United would have suffered a relegation before 2009. The tens of millions of pounds being spent on players were nearly higher than the actual net worth of the Hall family itself. Michael Owen was a final effort to improve the scoring ability of the club, and that failed completely.
Sir John Hall’s ownership of Newcastle United was destined to end in disaster. He sold the club to a man who ultimately is the reason as to why the club remain in the Premier League today. We may hate his guts, and we may be lacking the quality of the 90s era Geordies, but we’re in the Premier League, and that’s something Sir John Hall was not going to be able to guarantee much longer.