If you want to be thanked by a grateful nation, don’t ever buy a failing football club, especially not in a city where the local team has a tribal following. That is the moral of the tale of Mike Ashley, who has just stepped down as chief executive of Sports Direct's parent company.
Never mind creating, or saving, 20,000 jobs. Never mind fighting price-fixing by rivals determined to rip off impressionable young football fans desperate to own their club’s strip. Never mind being brave enough to invest in High Street stores which almost everyone else thinks are doomed. Ashley’s public reputation was always going to be dependent on the performances of Newcastle United’s footballers. If they didn’t win trophies – and they had never won the FA cup since 1955 nor the football league since 1927 – Ashley was always going to be bogeyman.
Until he bought the heavily indebted Newcastle United in 2007 few, indeed, had even heard of Mike Ashley. His modus operandi of buying failing businesses with money raised privately kept him out of the public eye, even when saving jobs. Yet, come Newcastle’s ejection from the Premier League and suddenly he was launched into the public consciousness as an objectionable oaf who exploited his workers and – apparently – despised Newcastle’s fans.
I have never met Mike Ashley. I don’t own shares in his company and, apart from buying a remarkably cheap but serviceable set of golf clubs there a few years ago, I don’t often frequent his stores. I don’t fancy a job in his vast distribution warehouse in Nottinghamshire, although the same applies to any warehouse, anywhere.
But it strikes me that Britain could do with one or two more Mike Ashleys. The reaction of many of Britain’s retailers to the challenge from Amazon and other online retailers has been to roll over and give in. They experiment with trying to attract custom through nice coffee shops and rebranding exercises, but they won’t do what is necessary: to compete on price. By failing to do so they merely act as Amazon’s showrooms – people come in, look around, maybe have a coffee, and then go away and order the goods online. That is not a sustainable business model.
Mike Ashley is the exception. He understands that prices are what matter most. As a result, he has shops which remain viable in spite of online competition. Would anyone else have saved House of Fraser when it went bust in 2018? Come off, it, the place was doomed.
Yet Ashley managed to save most of the stores, keeping a few High Streets alive and saving many jobs. That, alone, ought to have qualified him for public admiration – even if he hasn’t been able to inspire Newcastle’s long-underperforming footballers.