In one of the most frank interviews you are likely to read this season, Newcastle United owner Mike Ashley spoke with Sky Sports about a roller coaster 10 years at St James' Park.
Speaking on a special 'Mike Ashley: Speaks Direct' feature on Sky Sports Premier League, the 52-year-old opened up on his acquisition of the club, the heavy criticism he has received from fans, his regrets and his hopes for the future of the club.
The topics Ashley covers concern all football fans, not just those connected with Newcastle United, and we have the full transcript for you to delve into below...
Remember, you can watch 'Mike Ashley: Speaks Direct' On Demand now...
Sky Sports: I'd like to start by asking you where Mike Ashley's interest came in football? What's your earliest footballing memory?
Mike Ashley: The school I went to was only famous for one thing... Peter Osgood went to that particular school. That's probably my earliest memory of the importance of football.
SS: Did you ever think growing up you may own a football club?
MA: No, never. Not growing up. It never occurred to me.
SS: When it came to making that decision, what can you remember about the time you decided to purchase Newcastle United?
MA: It was an odd situation. I was in Barbados at the time having floated Sports Direct, having a reasonably good life, shall I put it that way. A colleague of mine said: 'I don't think you're going to believe this, but I think Newcastle United are available.' I said: 'Don't be silly, of course they're not available, that has been rumoured for years. They don't really want to sell. They're a public company, etcetera, etcetera.' But he came back in the afternoon and said: 'I am telling you that Newcastle United is available.' So I said: 'Well if that's the case, we'll make a phone call, see if it's true.' I deposited the money, spoke to Sir John Hall, and the deal was done very quickly. The rest was history.
SS: What was the first thing you thought you had to do when you bought a football club, what was your thought process?
MA: I think you always have the ambition to turn something into more than it was. So you think maybe I can make just that little bit of difference. In my case, it was to think in a different time frame, maybe if we didn't live for every Saturday and for that game, maybe if we had a three-year plan, a five-year plan, a seven-year plan, we could actually build on something at Newcastle United. You must remember at the time that Manchester City didn't have the owners they have now, and if you look back 10 years, Newcastle United could have easily been the fourth club in [English] football. Easily, and that's what I believed at that time.
SS: Very little, if anything, was known about you when you joined Newcastle United, you were very private. How did you feel being catapulted being into the public eye and the focus that Newcastle brought on you and your family.
MA: Once I'd gone public I knew that media attention would come anyway because of Sports Direct. But I can tell you the early days at Newcastle were some of the best, fun days any male adult can have, in the crowd, going mad, it's a dream. You can't play but you end up owning something like Newcastle United. You can't make it up really.
SS: You really captivated the Newcastle support, you travelled on the buses to games, you were in the crowd, wearing your shirt. Just how much did you enjoy that? Was that better than being sat in the boardroom?
MA: It's a totally different experience. It's probably a hundred times, a thousand times more fun than being in the director's box. You can't describe it. It's a very, very special experience.
SS: How accepted did you feel by the Newcastle public when you were doing that?
MA: Totally, they were great. They weren't actually great when we went 1-0 down! But up to that point they generally were great, because they thought we were going to win 3-0! At 1-0 down they might get a bit unfriendly, saying: 'What are you going to do?! This isn't good enough! You've got to do something,' but that's the whole ecstasy, from extreme joy to extreme pain, that's football, that's what makes it so exciting.
SS: You mention the word pain there… there were obviously times during your 10 years where you and the Newcastle fans had different opinions. Twice you said you were putting the club up for sale because you felt they perhaps didn't appreciate what you do. What was your thought process there? Did it hurt you personally that you were perhaps being driven out of the club?
MA: It's not that we didn't share the same beliefs for the club, what we wanted for the club. But at that point, with the media and everything else, I just felt it was more negative for the football club if I was there. So the best thing for the football club was for me to stand aside. If I'd come along and done my best, in my opinion it might be my best, but in reality if that's not good enough, and it hurts the football club, then it's best that you stand aside. I actually understand how cross the fans were. If I was a fan, would I have been as upset as they were? I would probably have been worst! It wasn't acceptable what happened at Newcastle United Football Club, but of course I never did it on purpose. There was no gain for me at all to get certain things wrong that I did in those times.
SS: On reflection, what advice would you give to yourself 10 years on?
MA: I probably rushed in too early. The first thing, when we let Sam Allardyce go, I was probably too keen to get going and make a difference, and I was a bit naïve about how football worked, I thought football was better regulated than it was. I was a little bit shocked at quite how football was more like the wild west. I could never imagine the money that people like Sky would pay for football. I still can't believe the sums that are paid. I thought the difference would be to get the academy right, the training ground, the fans' prices, the new generation of fans coming through, and building the football club from the ground up. That was where I thought I could make a difference, because I thought I could put in the time and the money. But now, let me think of an analogy; let's say football was a bicycle back then, it's now a Formula One car going along in the outside lane. It is so different from when I bought the club.
SS: How do you feel about the way you've been portrayed, do you think that's fair, or unfair?
MA: Criticism is a funny thing, because I think if you want to be something, create something or make a difference in any walk of life you have to be hugely self-critical. There's a reality. I think the majority of criticism I deserved, because I did really get some serious decisions wrong, albeit not deliberately, but that's a fact of life, because I get the time-frame wrong. People ask me what I'd do differently in football, I'd actually think more short term. I wouldn't try building something for five, 10 years' time, when in actual fact the landscape has completely changed. Therefore your medium or long term views never come into play because it has changed too much by the time you get there.
SS: Outside the money aspect, the short-termism of football, what have been the biggest challenges inside football, not only with Newcastle?
MA: I suppose trying to get your head round the fact on a Monday morning you are in a totally different business world, where normally you have cheques and balances, football literally doesn't have any. It is almost like, right, say a player comes up for £15m and we want him, it will be OK, because they say this player will supposedly 'come and embrace the club, and leave everything out there on the pitch'. But actually that isn't the case, you can get a lot more out of a trainee, or, for example, a young Andy Carroll, because they've got so much passion and want to get that place in the team, and in fact they do leave everything out on the pitch. So football is a very, very strange industry to get your head around.
SS: What type of owner would you describe yourself as, at the beginning, the middle and now in this 10th year?
MA: Very naïve in the beginning. In the middle I thought I was just about beginning to get my arms around it a little bit, we had a manager on an eight-year contract [Alan Pardew], had the finance right, we were talking about investing in the training ground and the academy, we had a strategy, buying the better young talent that's available and developing. That was around 2013, 2014, I thought we were going along quite well, and then within 18 months the wheels have come off, like a game of snakes and ladders, and we went from square 98 all the way down to about square 92!
SS: From what we do know about you, you're a man that is driven by success. When you don't get it right in football, how much does it eat away and make you want to succeed more?
MA: The first thing you feel is stupidity, because as soon as you know the hindsight of something, you know that was actually the wrong thing you were doing. For example, I thought it was the right thing to do to generate as much money as possible for Newcastle, so when people say to me: 'Whatever you do, in interviews do not talk about changing the name of St James' Park!' Well I'm me, and I'm going to talk about making an error, and I should not have changed the name of St James' Park. I should not have done that. Football is not all about making money and reinvesting it into football clubs, it has a very strange balance to it. I wanted to get naming rights, get money in and invest it into the club. The reality is, the vast majority of the Geordie fans would rather have the name of St James' Park and finish maybe one or two places lower in the table, because they want to keep it special. You begin to learn that the special side of Newcastle maybe means a little bit more than the ultimate end performance on the pitch.
SS: You inherited Sam Allardyce, there have been several managers since. How much input have you had on that process?
MA: It depends which manager. With Sam, I apologise to him, I was too hasty. Probably a little bit too eager to get started myself. With some of the others I did have a big input as to who we brought in. With Alan Pardew, I didn't actually know him before football at all, and I thought he ended up being very good. I thought I was very unfair to Chris Hughton, who got us promoted, I don't think I gave him enough time. And then of course you've got the Joe Kinnear era, Kevin Keegan, Alan Shearer.
SS: Two of the names that stand out there are two club legends in terms of playing career, Shearer and Keegan. Was it the right thing to do to appoint them, in terms of the dream, but in reality the expectation was too great?
MA: Personally I don't think for either of those individuals it was too much for them. Alan Shearer came in at the time when he was probably the only person on this planet who could keep Newcastle up. He did an absolutely fantastic job in everything else but the odd result not going his way. It was a hair's breadth, or a bad refereeing decision away. I genuinely thought that was the right thing to do for the football club. In a way, I would have done my job at Newcastle if we'd got one of the club legends in place, staying up, going forward and rolling on that strategy. Everybody else blames everybody else, but I totally agree with the appointment, and I was probably the man who said let's go for the safer pair of hands in the Championship with Chris Hughton. I think Kevin Keegan is an outstanding individual, and also did his best at the club. It wasn't always easy for Kevin at the football club, we didn't have that structure around that we should have had to support him, with the signings and everything else, and I will take responsibility for that. So Kevin, I apologise for that.
SS: To the outside, people who read about you, those who have met you, you are a successful wealthy man. Do people overestimate your wealth, when they read how much you are worth?
MA: It's very, very difficult to get the scale in football. You can say to me I'm wealthy, in theory I'm a billionaire or a multi-billionaire, but in reality my wealth is in Sports Direct shares, which are the same as wallpaper, I don't have that cash in the bank, so I don't have that ability to write a cheque for £200m, I don't have that, it's very simple, it's not there. I would have to sell the Sports Direct shares to fund that. So people outside of football looking in sometimes think that's how much you have in the bank, I must make it crystal clear that I am not wealthy enough in football now to compete with the likes of Man City etcetera, not just Man City. It's basically a wealthy individual taking on the equivalent of a country. I cannot, and will not. That's why, if someone would like to come along, take this seat and fund Newcastle with a nought on the end with more wealth than me, I will not stand in Newcastle's way. One of the reasons I am doing this interview is because I don't think you'll find many people out there who will actually stand up and do it. So I think myself and the Newcastle fans are going to be together for a good while longer! We've got the man himself at the moment in Rafa, and let's hope we can generate some funds, and give Rafa some chance to get some chance to get some building blocks going over the coming years.
SS: You've mentioned you can't take on a country like that, I don't want to ask you how much money you're giving Rafa Benitez…
MA: Not enough. Sorry to interrupt, but it's not enough. Very simple. It's not enough. And Rafa knows that, it's not enough, it's not a secret. Every penny the club generates he can have, but it doesn't generate enough. It's Newcastle United, it doesn't have a £40m a year stadium naming rights deal, it doesn't. I don't want the fans to watch this interview and think: 'Great, Rafa's getting £150m in the morning.' He's not. With Lee Charnley's help, and Lee answers to Rafa by the way, not the other way around, let's be crystal clear, Rafa makes all the final decisions on players out, players in, but he has to do it with the money the club have. I have put my £250m in the football club, guys, that's it, there is no more from me, now the club has to generate its own money.
SS: You've made a conscious decision in recent years to stand back, has that helped you to enjoy it a bit more again?
MA: Not really, if I'm totally honest. I actually loved being totally involved in it. There was this absolute high point under Alan Pardew in the last game of the 2011/12 season when we could have finished third. We could then be in the Champions League, then have the money, start investing, and we would be rolling. Now I feel more like the passenger on the top floor of the bus, sitting at the front looking out of the window. I really have plus/minus negligible effect on what happens at the club regarding the football side.
SS: Twice you've been relegated, twice you've come back as champions. How important for you was coming back at the first attempt?
MA: You've got to do everything you can to come back at the first attempt. Football is a momentum game, and if that momentum starts to go against you, it actually feeds on itself. You must, must, must not get into that in the Championship. Otherwise you can actually go from the Premier League, to the Championship, and end up in an almighty mess. Chris Hughton, it was absolutely amazing what he did with the players, we kept the team and nobody left who didn't want to leave. Last season, we actually improved the team to make sure that we came straight back up. So on both occasions, slightly different ways of doing it. And please, God, do I not have to do it again. I know the Newcastle fans won't want to hear it, but just for this season I'd like to be mid-table, safe, back on that path of growing this football club.
SS: Did what Leicester did justify what you were trying to do, and give you hope for the future?
MA: Leicester, to me, is something that couldn't happen. It was like watching a science fiction movie. I still don't understand it, I still don't believe it actually happened! I was absolutely certain I would have never seen it in my lifetime, and it did happen, but I'm absolutely certain it won't ever happen again in my lifetime. It is impossible.
SS: You mentioned you and the Newcastle fans might be together for a while yet. What do you think can happen in that time, and what do you think you can make happen?
MA: My dream is from the bottom up. I want to start with the academy, I want to be able to produce Andy Carroll's. I look at Southampton and their academy, and that I think could be done. Not like Leicester, as I said I don't believe that could happen again. But Southampton, the academy, bringing them through and making it a priority for the football club. This would be my dream, to say to people, we always put in an academy player, a mantra for the club, that we give the academy players the first opportunity to get in.
SS: What would it mean to win a trophy? Can you put it into words?
MA: Maybe this year we could look for mid-table this season, and maybe make the cups a priority this season. Get ourselves safe and then go for a cup. Either cup. And the dream would always be qualifying for the Champions League, that's what it is for me, simple.