I was asked by our former editor (I never did like him by the way. The new editor is much better, good looking lad too…) to do a piece looking at what Ashley should do over the summer. Obviously, our corpulent owner has already achieved the number one objective, persuading Rafa to stay with ‘the project’ but that is only the first step.
I don’t know what was said during the meeting with our favourite señor but whatever he’s been promised needs to be delivered. Although Rafa may have taken a conciliatory approach after the difference of views during the January transfer window, I don’t think he would be as forgiving a second time. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me. Rafa is nobody’s fool.
It looks as if he has been given assurances regarding his control over football related matters and I think this is where the confusion arose in January. It is impossible to segregate activities in a football club into carefully delineated boxes. A transfer depends on finance as well as the ability to identify and persuade a player and his agent that Newcastle United would be a good destination, preferable to other suitors if the player is in demand. There is no reason to believe that the Ashley/Charnley approach has changed regarding their wish to secure value with potential resale profit. The January window is not a promising area to deliver this as buyers are usually in extremis, seeking to rectify previous mistakes and avoid relegation (as we saw in January 2013) or to consolidate and, if possible, guarantee a successful outcome to the season. Rafa, thinking as a football man, wanted to virtually guarantee promotion through the signing of players such as Andros Townsend who would improve his options and add some class at the sharp end of the pitch. Ashley thought he would deliver that success in any event. We had taken 36 points from the previous 15 games and were looking a knocking bet for promotion with 52 points. We won three out of four in January and, although we lost in the Cup at Oxford, I think Ashley would see that as a positive development, sharpening the focus on the league. The fact that we won five and drew four of our next nine games is a testimony to the professionalism of Rafa, his staff and the players as they put any disappointment behind them. Ashley probably thinks it justifies his approach.
However, the fact that there was any confusion over the situation highlights the fact that, although corporate communication has improved (it couldn’t get much worse) there is still some way to go to make sure that all parties are clear about their responsibilities and accountabilities. As Chairman, it is Ashley’s responsibility to ensure that there is clarity and clear lines of accountability. This includes sorting out Graham Carr’s role, if any, in the club. The fact that he attended two away matches sitting next to the owner whispering sweet nothings into his shell-like, while the Manager was denied such communications shows a lack of corporate and emotional intelligence which underlines why communication has been so poor. This isn’t just about keeping people happy (although Ashley doesn’t seem to care much about that). It is making sure that people know who does what and the limits of their influence. It avoids turf wars between competing interests inside the club e.g. a desire to sign players from France using the services of only one agent such as Sport Mondial as opposed to building the best team possible by sourcing players from across the market. I am sure that Graham Carr will highlight the profits made on some players but this has been at the expense of building a team and the loss of revenue as a result of the recruitment policy implemented and subsequent relegation when he was part of the Football Board dwarfs the profits made on players. Ashley was undoubtedly scarred by his experience with Allardyce who invested the owner’s money in a bunch of has-beens and never-will-bes in 2007. Since then he has recognised his lack of expertise in this area and sought the advice of people he trusts regarding football matters. He trusts Carr but he needs to clarify the relationship and recognise that the final say regarding who comes in and who leaves must rest with our resident Champions League winner.
Ashley must also realise that he needs to rebuild a club which has been allowed to wither away. The days of having a small squad of ‘purple’ players who were virtually guaranteed a place in the starting eleven has to be consigned to the past. A successful club must have a strong squad generating competition for places. In some areas this might mean investing in experience over youth to achieve the correct team/squad balance, something neglected under the previous ‘model’. He must recognise that such a balance will improve team performance and with it the sell-on value of players if and when they leave.
Ashley might also wish to reconsider the wisdom of selling off the land at the back of the Gallowgate if Rafa is able to achieve the success he believes is possible through ‘the project’. Remember what he achieved at the Mestalla Stadium where he overturned the hegemony of Real Madrid and Barca to win La Liga twice and the UEFA Cup with Valencia not to mention winning the Champions League with Liverpool. If we are in the position of challenging for honours we could easily see a return to the days of the 10,000 waiting list and the ‘sold out’ notices. A gate of 65,000 plus is easily achievable at St James’s and that could generate additional revenues which in turn could be invested on the pitch. Even with his misanthropic tendencies surely it would appeal to Ashley’s ego to be known as the man who rebuilt a football club and made it a power in the land once again. At the very least it would be worth more should he ever decide to sell it on.
Ashley also needs to give Charnley a kick up the arse to get a move on developing the commercial side of SJP. Even the mackems make more than us despite our far superior location, history, access to transport and hotel infrastructure etc. Even recognising that we have been hamstrung by the virtual monopoly of in-stadium advertising by S***** D***** we have seen our commercial income flatline and it needs to be sorted particularly if we are to make use of ‘every last penny that the club generates’. We need to maximise that pot. The new kit sponsorship deal is a step in the right direction in more senses of the word than one as we also need to exploit the growing Asian market. The fact that we are now the only Premiership club north of Burnley and on the East coast from Berwick down to London shows the potential support base.
Going back to the issue of communication, it wouldn’t do any harm either if the owner was to speak directly to the supporters every now and again. I get it that he feels uncomfortable being interviewed by the media but the odd interview on NUFC explaining why the club are doing what they are doing would go down well. Nature abhors a vacuum and inevitably, based on our past experience, any radio silence will have supporters fearing the worst about the owner’s plans. It gives him an opportunity to present his vision (if he has one beyond making more money) and views regarding the future development of the club. It would be nice to hear from the organ grinder occasionally.
Our return to the Premiership gives Ashley a chance to start again. We will never forget his past mistakes (and they have been many and calamitous) but he seems to have recognised that things could not continue as they were. If he were really up for it and was genuine in his desire to win a trophy before he leaves he should reconsider his approach to financing the club which currently operates with one hand tied behind its back because of the way he uses it as a vehicle to advertise his business.
The appointment of Rafa has effectively given him a ‘Get Out Of Jail’ card. How he uses it will determine how he and the club are viewed for the foreseeable future. If he were really up for it and took the radical step of investing to accumulate rather than expect the club to be self-financing he may yet pass Go and collect even more money.
WALLACE WILSON – Follow Wallace on @WallaceHWilson