Yesterday the Scottish FA wrote to Mike Ashley, seeking to clarify his intentions for Rangers who he now owns 9% of. And really, it’s quite a good question. Just what could Mr Ashley have in mind?
Before we delve into some of the reasons Mike Ashley might want to own rangers let’s first understand what’s going on. Ashley owns around 9%. Doesn’t seem like a lot but it’s an important figure for two reasons. Firstly, it makes Ashley one of the largest shareholder at the club and secondly, it’s 1% less than the 10% figure Mike Ashley has agreed he wouldn’t exceed with the Scottish FA.
Three years ago when Mike Ashley took a stake in Rangers, he agreed he wouldn’t buy more than 10% of the club or influence the decisions of the boardroom. This was due to his ownership of Newcastle United. But in recent months it appears that even if they want to, it’s unlikely that the SFA will be able to stop him should he wish to go back on his word.
Last month Rangers sounded out with the SFA what may be the implications of Ashley moving his stake up to 26%. So it does appear Mike has some big plans for Rangers. He’s remained tight lipped as usual. But this weekend Ashley loaned £2 million interest free to the club. There may have been no interest on the loan but it came with a big catch.
Two board members stepped down once the loan was approved, this now means Ashley can appoint two of his choosing to the board. It’s though Ashley’s pal and ex-Newcastle Managing Director Derek Llambias will be one. So Ashley can’t exert influence on the board as per his agreement, but he does happen to be appointing at least long-time associate to the board. Hmmm.
Ashley already runs the commercial operations of Rangers and has secured the naming rights to Ibrox. The naming rights deal cost just £1. Yes, that’s right, £1. With it looking increasingly likely he will find a way to run Rangers either directly or indirectly through appointing men loyal to him to the Rangers board, what does the future hold for the club?
Ashley already owns Newcastle as well as a minority stake in Oldham Athletic. Is he perhaps looking to build a footballing empire? People will look to the City group as an example. The group own Manchester city, New York City and Melbourne City. Owning a franchise of clubs has its benefits.
Take Frank Lampard’s arrival in Manchester. Many have sounded off about the Englishman’s loan from New York City to Manchester City. Could Ashley be looking to harvest players through Oldham and Rangers before they make a move to Newcastle United?
It’s plausible, but Newcastle United fans will know first hand, Ashley doesn’t seem too bothered with own-field performances, concentrating instead on those of the balance sheet.
Besides that, Ashley may be able to navigate the SFA but he faces two much larger and immovable objects, the Football League and Uefa. Both do not allow Multiple-club owners in their competitions. This means should Newcastle be relegated from the Premier League he will have an issue as well as if Rangers were to qualify for the Europa League or Champions League along with Newcastle.
All options are possible if a little implausible right now. So what could he have on his mind? Ashley has previously stated he will only consider selling Newcastle from 2016 onwards. Coincidentally this would be the earliest Rangers could qualify for any European competitions.
Owning the Scottish Club could allow him to promote his company; Sports Direct north of the border. Again though it’s unclear how this would work. Changing the name of St James’ Park caused outrage and Newcastle United. Rangers fans do not look like they would tolerate it either and have declared a boycott of Sports Direct if it were to go through.
Perhaps after all the abuse he has suffered at Newcastle he fancies a quieter life with Rangers. It almost appears that Ashley has adopted a ‘burn as many bridges as possible’ approach at Newcastle United with the fans. Granted he has turned Newcastle around financially and would make a nice profit from their sale.
With legislation hindering him at every point perhaps the likeliest outcome will be the sale of Newcastle United in 2016 and the full takeover of Rangers. A fresh start would be appealing along with the lower costs and expectations for Rangers. No Premier League wages, little chance of another relegation battle and a less competitive league.
Manchester City have shown how to leverage a brand and apply it across the board. Their City Football Group works towards the aims of improving the entire group and benefiting the jewel in the crown, Manchester City. Mike Ashley has never had this vision it seems. Conspiracy theorists will want a jucy narrative, some underhand plot to label Ashley with. But so far it appears Mike’s coup north of the border is the beginning of an escape plan from Newcastle.
So in response to the question that is the title for this article, it so far appears Mike Ashley does not have a master plan to build a multi-clyb empire but he does appear to be laying the groundwork for what will be a welcome divorce from Newcastle United.
Sean Curtin, Pundit Arena