Links with Sun newspaper
18 July ~ Thanks to a most unusual pre-season, the ire that so characterised Newcastle United's 2014 looks to have faded this summer. For the first time since January 2013, owner Mike Ashley has sanctioned a number of permanent signings, something that has surprised fans and, judging by their official website, even the club itself: when France and Montpellier playmaker Rémy Cabella was unveiled earlier in the week, their choice of headline was the telling, rather desperate: We've got Cabella!
Fans are well aware, however, that Ashley's motives remain corporate and not sporting, something that was laid bare this week by rumours of an exclusive "cash-for-access" deal between the club and the Sun. First mooted last season after the banning of the local press, such a tie-up now looks — despite denials from both parties — to have entered its formative stages.
The Sun, points out George Caulkin of the Times, was the only national newspaper represented at the unveilings of Cabella, Jack Colback and Siem de Jong. The Mirror's Simon Bird, meanwhile, drew attention to an article titled Why we should love Mike Ashley, featured in the Sun's City pages last week, which seemed to hint at the possible future direction of coverage. (One of the reasons? "Newcastle Utd fans loathe him.") The same edition carried the exclusive De Jong interview.
That this undermines the impartiality of sports media is precisely the point. It has long been suspected by journalists, fanzines, and match-going fans that Ashley seeks to suppress stories that might damage him personally, or, crucially, his brand. When other fans ask why most Newcastle fans are so strongly opposed to their owner, this is why: they feel that their club is no longer a club, but is instead a vassal of a discount clothing empire.
On Tuesday, Newcastle faced Oldham away in a pre-season friendly; Oldham, whose matches are played at "SportsDirect.com Park" and whose shirts are sponsored by the Ashley brand Sondico. Today they will fly out to New Zealand on a short pre-season tour where, coincidentally, Sports Direct are soon to open their first stores. The stadium is no longer the Sports Direct Arena, and the free advertising is at least a little less intrusive since the painting over of the massive rooftop company logo, but self-promotion remains at the heart of Ashley's ownership.
Though as much of last season's anger was directed at manager Alan Pardew as it was Ashley (one L'Equipe commenter, speaking of Cabella's move, summed up fan feeling nicely: "Newcastle is a good club but they have a crap coach."), most are fed up of seeing their club's image stained by the company it keeps. This applies to Sports Direct, shirt sponsor Wonga, and the Sun. Kieran Dodds