Certainly one of the more frustrating aspects of Mike Ashley’s tenure has been a complete lack of communication regarding his objectives for the club. In the 7.5 years the club has been owned by Ashley, we have only heard from the owner a handful of times, and not once has there been a form of dialogue, or even an exchange of ideas. In the absence of clear, open and honest communication, the fans are simply left to interpret the owner’s actions, or lack thereof.
Strangely things were very different under the first club chairman appointed by Mike Ashley, corporate lawyer Chris Mort. Mort had been involved in Mike Ashley’s takeover team, and although he never worked in football before, quickly gained a reputation for being refreshingly approachable for fans and the media. In those early days, Mike Ashley and him often even mingled with the club’s fans in an effort to better understand them (November 2007):
“We’ve made a conscious effort to go out and meet people. That’s partly to promote the club, but also to hear what they have to say, making this a club that they feel a part of. I spend a lot of time walking around the city, just to get the place under my skin.”
Source: The Times
However, it didn’t take long for Ashley’s frequent interactions and open communication with the fans, and subsequently his reign, to turn sour. Fast forward one year; a year in which club legend Kevin Keegan was hired with much fanfare and soon after ‘constructively dismissed’. This followed by Joe Kinnear being hired as his replacement and furthermore, a complete turnaround with regards to the communication strategy, as acknowledged by Mike Ashley himself in his Christmas address (28 December 2008):
“I am the first to accept there have been times this season when you would have liked to have heard more from me direct, particularly at certain points. There have been reasons why I have not have been able to do that, but in the new year we will look to communicate with you more about what we are doing at St. James’ Park, be it through the club’s official website, programme and magazine as well as the wider media.”
Manager Joe Kinnear also indicated that Ashley would speak after the January transfer window (15 January 2009):
“I spoke to Mike last night (Wednesday) and the chairman has been to the training ground.
“Mike is going to speak to the Press when the window shuts.”
Source: The Chronicle
The end of that January transfer window came and went without a word from Mike Ashley. This didn’t deter Kinnear from once again promising that ‘the guys at the top’ would improve their communication with the press and the fans (5 February 2009):
“I know people still have to be convinced about things but there is a sense of unity at the club now.
“The guys at the top know they need to communicate better, which is why they are speaking to the two local papers. I think they will sit down with supporters’ groups and fans and the people of Newcastle at the end of the season – I know they want to do that.”
Source: The Telegraph
Shortly after managing director Derek Llambias explained he and Mike Ashley had made mistakes on the communication side for which he apologised (10 February 2009):
“Historically, with Sports Direct, Mike stayed under the radar for 20 years until he floated his company. Then all of a sudden people realised there was a £2.5billion company there. He stayed under the radar because he had very little Press communication.
“But we do realise owning Newcastle United is a totally different forum. When Chris Mort was here he was very proactive with the Press. When I came on the board, Mike and I discussed it and we basically wanted to keep a lower profile.
“Then within no time at all KK happened. And then it just got worse and whatever we said got worse. So we decided to keep as low a profile as possible, get on with our business plan, move forward with what we were doing with our management team and to assist whatever manager was coming in as best as possible.
“Maybe we have made mistakes on the communication side. We freely admit we have made mistakes and we put our hands up.
“But now we’re in a position where Mike is back on board and we’re not selling the club. Our intention is to go back on the track we were on before with our business plan. We think that is the only way forward for the particular club. And I think it will be a model going forward for a lot of Premier League clubs. So we’re now trying to put the stability back into the club as far as that is concerned.
“We apologise and I personally apologise for the miscommunication.
“Mike has gone out and made some generic statements. We try to do generic statements through the club Press office which people have seen. Basically now we’re saying The Chronicle and the Journal are welcome to come in and ask the questions on a regular basis. We haven’t got anything to hide.”
Source: The Chronicle
Despite having ‘nothing to hide’, the next few years were characterised by a complete lack of communication and numerous media bans. On the other hand, in 2013 the club started their so-called Fan Forum meetings, in which, selected fans could interact with members of the club and board. After the very first meeting, the Newcastle United Supporters Trust (NUST) were banned from further meetings after publishing their meeting minutes ahead of the club’s official minutes. NUST issued the following hard hitting statement (1 November 2013):
“As the only elected body representing fans, the board of Newcastle United Supporters Trust (NUST) welcomed the invitation to take up a permanent position on the Fans Forum organised by Newcastle United.
“The Trust looked forward to the chance to interact with club officials on behalf of our members, with the opportunity to ask pertinent questions and report back to the membership afterwards.
“The inaugural meeting of the Forum took place in September and little were we to suspect that the NUST permanent position would last only one night.
“The Trust made clear that we reserved the right to report back to our members as to what went on at the Fans Forum, the club confirming via their Fans Liaison Officer that they accepted this.
“Questions were duly asked (many supplied by our members following an online survey) at the Forum by the NUST representative, Peter Fanning, and a lively meeting produced many interesting topics of discussion.
“Two days later, NUST published Peter Fanning’s overview of the meeting and it attracted a lot of publicity, due mainly to the nature of the topics covered but also the fact the Newcastle United minutes didn’t appear until 24 hours after they’d been advertised to be released.
“When the club minutes did belatedly appear, nothing of substance that had been reported by NUST was contradicted in Newcastle United’s official feedback.
“However, the spirit of openness has dramatically ended and NUST have been informed by Newcastle United that their ‘permanent’ place at the Fans Forum has now been withdrawn, the only democratically elected organisation open to the whole of the NUFC fanbase, barred from attending the next meeting in December and all subsequent Fan Forums.
“So, in the same week that the Trust organised a successful conference on fan engagement at Newcastle University Business School, covered by the BBC and attended by delegates from all over the country, the club have barred the local press and the only elected fans’ body from interacting with Newcastle United.
“At the same time at a national level, the Government’s Culture Media and Sports Select Committee have recommended that football clubs develop meaningful and structured relationships with supporters.
“They say the first casualty of war is the truth. The fans and local media don’t want to be at war with our football club, we just want a well run Newcastle United that values all of its supporters and the integral part NUFC plays at the heart of the local community.”
Source: Daily Mail
In the next Fan Forum meeting minutes, issued first by the club of course, we read (6 January 2014):
“It was explained that NUST’s exclusion was not due to its Forum questions or what it had reported, but the timing of its report; breaking protocol that had otherwise been respected by all other Forum members. NUST’s report had unfairly become the primary influence on supporters’ and the media’s perceptions of what had been discussed.
“Members were again encouraged to ask challenging questions throughout.”
AMc: “Does the club plan to reinstate NUST to the forum?”
“LM reiterated that the club’s decision was final, explaining that it was taken due to NUST breaking protocol and to therefore maintain the integrity of the Fans Forum.”
AMc and Steve Cole (SC) shared their view that it was a harsh decision.
“LM explained that time and care had been taken over the decision and that contrasting views had been expressed by Forum members regarding this issue.”
At the next Fan forum meeting a question was asked about a personal statement or attendance from Mike Ashley himself (24 February 2014):
AMc: “It would be nice to have a statement from Mike Ashley on his short and long-term goals. Could he attend a fan meeting?”
“The board stated that the owner was part of the group which determined the key messages in the programme notes.
“It was also stated that the owner is fully aware of the Fans Forum and is happy with the Club’s current representation at Forum meetings.”
And lo and behold, just very recently new club managing director Lee Charnley once more stated that the club needs to improve its communication with the fans and media, intimating that this might be something he could get involved with before suggesting he would rather ‘go about his business quietly’ (20 January 2015):
“I think we do communicate but we need to find a better way to communicate.
“Our view was that Alan [Pardew] was the one who was front and centre and will take all of the questions on all areas of the club. Alan was then left, sometimes, in a difficult position answering questions that he probably wasn’t best suited to answer.
“This is an opportunity for us with a new head coach coming in – there’s more clarity about his role and what he does. His role is coaching and that’s what he can talk about.
“If that’s the case it’s only right that I then support him in terms of the messaging going out. If I’m saying ‘Only talk about team selection and the games’ there needs to be another voice.
“I think the information has been out there, through the fan’s forum and through the statements, but it’s how we get it out there that needs to improve.
“I’m not someone who courts the media or has relationships with journalists giving them on or off-the-record information about players or any other elements of club business. I want to go about our or my business quietly and professionally. That’s where I want to be.”
Source: The Chronicle
After years and years of empty promises of improved communication, there is no doubt that the club owner holds the fans and the press in utter contempt. Key club representatives outside of the manager/head coach will communicate only the bare minimum, and ban every media outlet or fan group that addresses them critically, regardless of whether they report the truth or not. Considering almost everything they do say turns out to be either clever PR (notoriously before season ticket renewal time for example) or an outright lie this is probably for the best.