Ashley, Kevin and Hostages to Fortune

September 15, 2008
Mike Ashley in Newcastle Shirt

Mike Ashley in Newcastle Shirt

Mike Ashley, owner of Newcastle United Football Club has become a high-profile leader for all the wrong reasons. His strategy and style have combined to leave him vulnerable to rejection by the fans he joined on the terraces during games

It was a popularist move which always risked creating a hostage to fortune for Mike Ashley. On match days he regularly appeared on the terraces, wearing the black and white striped shirt among (allegedly) Newcastle fans. A man of the people. TV pictures would show him downing a pint of brown stuff at competitive speed.

The phony image

But even the drink was dismissed by fans as not the real stuff. And the media hinted at hubris to come. This was a man from the people, of the people. A leader with the common touch. A veritable Napoleon, in there with the front-line troops. Or maybe not. A rich man playing the game of ordinary bloke made good.

The hostage to fortune

The hostage to fortune was the cultivated image of someone who shared the vision and dream of the fans. Mr Ashley was applauded for his actions in bringing back Kevin Keegan, the man the fans described as The Messiah.

But at the same time, Mr Ashley seemed to be putting other plans in place which were deeply offensive to the proud Keegan. A uber-managerial appointment of Dennis Wise. Transfer actions without adequate consultation with Keegan. It was not difficult to predict that Kevin, for all his love of Newcastle United, could bale out.

The fans could not square this with the image the owner was cultivating.

The outcome

A remarkably swift resolution. Within a week of Kevin Keegan leaving, ferocious protests against Ashley as Newcastle slump to a home defeat against Premier League newcomers Hull. The protests were pre-planned, and the loss is largely irrelevant to the momentum of events.

Mr Ashley issues a lengthy and personal statement indicating that he no longer sees any merit in his retaining control of the club.

I bought Newcastle United in May 2007. Newcastle attracted me because everyone in England knows that it has the best fans in football. When the fans are behind the club at St James’ Park it makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. It is magic. Newcastle’s best asset has been, is and always will be the fans.
But like any business with assets the club has debts. I paid £134 million out of my own pocket for the club. I then poured another £110 million into the club not to pay off the debt but just to reduce it.

The club is still in debt. Even worse than that, the club still owes millions of pounds in transfer fees. I shall be paying out many more millions over the coming year to pay for players bought by the club before I arrived.

But, he continued, events over the last weeks led him to the decision to put the club up for sale. Fan power indeed, which he concluded had put his family and himself in the path of physical danger

I am not stupid and have listened to the fans. I have really loved taking my kids to the games, being next to them and all the fans. But I am now a dad who can’t take his kids to a football game on a Saturday because I am advised that we would be assaulted. Therefore, I am no longer prepared to subsidise Newcastle United.
I am putting the club up for sale. I hope that the fans get what they want and that the next owner is someone who can lavish the amount of money on the club that the fans want.
This will not be a fire sale. Newcastle is now in a much stronger position than it was in 2007. It is planning for the future and it is sustainable.

The Entrepreneur as survivor

The message is unusually personal. It is consistent with the image that Mike Ashley projected from the terraces. But for all the emotion, there remains a healthy survival instinct within the actions of a permanently successful entrepreneur. Mr Ashley may have lost the club, but he is likely to do so in a way which may keep him off the terraces, but is unlikely to force him and his family on to the streets.


Kevin Keegan and the limits of charisma

January 19, 2008

kevin-keegan-green-cross.jpgKevin Keegan’s triumphal return to Newcastle United Football Club demonstrates the power of charisma. But will it also indicate its limitations?

On Wednesday January, 2007, a major sports story broke in England. Unlike some stories, this one began big, but the after- shocks of the first story were even bigger.

The football story of January had been the sacking of Sam Allardyce from his post as chief coach at Newcastle United. This was sporting news, but hardly surprising. The only element of certainty about Sam, in face of a cluster of difficulties on and off the field, was the timing of his sacking.
The end was mercifully swift, but that too was unexpected, as Sam was on his way to a press conference.

The consensus view that had developed outside the club was that the culture had held unreasonable expectations, and that Sam’s days were numbered, even if his team were to improve on a modest start to the season.

An unhelpful culture, and a new ownership regime were local factors assumed to add to problems including a stack of injuries to key players, such as striker Michael Owen.

Our people need a saviour

Part of the culture seems to be a deep emotional need for a saviour. The conditions for acceptance of a charismatic leader seem to be particularly favourable. Opinion polls (backed up by betting patterns) indicated how strong was the yearning for such a person.

At first, the front-runner was not Kevin Keegan, but the more recent figure of Alan Shearer. Even as he was reaching the end of his playing career, Alan Shearer was being mentioned as a future manager of the club.

This is the sentiment generated by a great on-the-pitch leader. At Manchester United, I can (just about) remember the terrace talk around ‘Captain Marvel’, Bryan Robson as future leader off the field. Robson made the transition to manager with some struggle. There seemed to be rather less talk a few years later around Mark Hughes, or even Roy Keene, each of iconic status at the club, and who were to make more promising starts to subsequent management careers.

Shearer the once and future saviour at Newcastle

During his time as England captain, Shearer was widely regarded as a thoroughly uncharismatic character when he appeared before the media. He often appeared truculent and sulky. Hardly the characteristics associated with the charismatic leader. On the field he exercised the selfishness of the individual goal scorer in the van Nistelrooy or Gary Lineker mould,

This aspect of Shearer’s public persona is rarely mentioned now by fans or commentators. Nor did it seem to matter to the clamouring fans last week that Shearer has no experience in football management. The symbolic power of the Shearer myth was sweeping all before it.

Except for one little point

Shearer quickly indicated he had not been approached by the club, and felt he was too inexperienced for the vacancy. Shearer was replaced as front-runner, but Keegan did not become the front-runner. In quick succession other names came and went. There was Harry Rednapp who seemed to me to tick as few boxes as Allardyce for the bare-breasted brigade of Newcastle fans.

After Harry’s Andy Warhol moment there was Jurgen Klinsmann .
The German FA had turned to Klinsmann in desperation and the national team did better than the fearful host nation expected. Klinsmann also is more of an identifit figure of a charismatic personality on the field, and closer to the articulate end of the spectrum off the field. Klinsman’s name also reappeared briefly in media stories after Shearer appeared to be a non-runner.

Maybe its Keegan and Shearer

After denials by Klinsmann, another rumour, that a deal had been struck with the dream-team of Kevin Keegan and Alan Shearer who would share managerial responsibilities.

The Messiah returns

Then the bombshell. The last rumour was partly correct. Kevin Keegan had agreed to become the new manager at Newcastle. He is to return from self-imposed exile (as do many charismatic leaders from religious and political mythology).

Note to any readers from cultures distant from that of England: Football is often spoken of in religious terms. This is sometimes unconscious, but often tinged with irony. These are deep matters indeed, and you will have to do some ethnographic research, perhaps starting at Shearer’s Bar in Newcastle, to make more sense of it than I have been able to.

What happened next?

Many strange things happened. They are all extensively recorded. Crowds came to bear witness. They did not wave palm leaves, but did have banners saying The Messiah is Coming. Others said Kev the King. I particularly liked more secular Super-K ones, made from family-size Kellogg’s packs. Now there’s a thought. Kelloggs to take over as sponsor of NUFC from Northern Rock?

Thousands of extra fans flocked to the holy of holies, St James Park, for a FA replay against Stoke City, where re-enthused players scored a convincing win, witnessed too by Super-K.

The Press Conference

Keegan’s first press conference was another early indication of the charismatic leader in action.

Keegan had the necessary air of confidence in himself as the special one destined to do a special job. The video clip will make excellent and instructional viewing for leaders and students of leadership.

The charismatic performance

I have watched many performances (for that is what they are) by leaders and would-be leaders over the years. This one was up there with the old classics and newer examples of the inspirational style.

In British sport, there were the unrivalled performances by Jose Mourinho.

In business, there have been various appearances of Richard Branson as super-leader, and the recently mourned John Harvey-Jones.

In national politics, there were the two conference speeches by David Cameron, each considered to be high-voltage and influential in confirming his leadership credentials and style. There was the even more emotionally-charged adieu from Tony Blair recently, and (for me) many years earlier, Neil Kinnock’s finest oratory, when he successfully confronted the growing influence of the militant wing of his party in an electrifying conference speech.

Kevin’s magical moment

Keegan’s performance was up there with these magical moments.

By coincidence, it took place on a day when a new and glamorous national hero had been acclaimed after a near-disaster crash of a Boeing 777 arriving at Heathrow. Captain Peter Burkill had been claimed an iconic figure of Hollywood proportions, although the near- perfect story was slightly blurred as it emerged that the in crucial last minutes, it was first officer John Coward who had responsibility for taking over from the automatic landing system as the engines failed to respond to orders.

Leadership musings before the first match

Whatever happens, the first match played in the time of King Kev was going to be high-voltage, high drama, big box-office.

But whatever happens in that match, the drama is still early into its first act.

Update: After the first league game [Saturday 19th January 2008]

The first game was as emotional at the start as expected. But according to the BBC

Kevin Keegan’s return as Newcastle boss turned into a damp squib with a desperately poor goalless draw against Bolton at St James’ Park.

So we can conclude one thing. The new-leader bounce did not take place. These players did not have hidden reserves that could be called forth, either from fear for their futures,. or from those mysterious motivational forces triggered by encounter with a charismatic leader.