From Shirebrook to Coventry
My earliest interaction with Mike Ashley was when I managed his Sports Direct account for Nike. It was a dark, cold night in Shirebrook which is notable for two things. Shirebrook is in the heart of coal country where Arthur Scargill rallied his fellow miners against Margaret Thatcher and secondly, where Mike's empire is headquartered. To be specific Junction 29 off of the M1 and then follow the signs. Mike invited me to accompany him, his brother John and his father who I only knew as Mr Ashley. Mike's chopper was waiting on the helipad as we all strode across the tarmac. I'm the last to get in and the only one to begin to strap myself in. Conscious of eyes boring down on me. Look up and hear the pilot say " First time?". Without waiting for the obvious answer he bangs the side of the chopper and says " This goes down, were all dead mate", slams the door shut and away we go. We were off to Coventry to watch Mike's team, Newcastle United in the Carling Cup. Couldn't tell you what round it was, but Kevin Keegan was the manager. I should at this point explain that Mike has a driver named Ian who turns up with the Bentley once we land and off we go again. Ian's never been to the Ricoh where Coventry play so I can't blame him for dropping us off at the opposite end of the ground where we were supposed to be. Problem was we had to walk past all the Toon fans, who were hovering around the coaches that had brought them South. Most had already had a skinfull, shirts were tied around their waists and cigs being passed around. Mike is not someone who can blend in and I hear the first words directed at him " Buy us a f****** striker, open your wallet man". While all this is going on there is an official from Newcastle desperately trying to catch up with his Owner to make sure he has tickets to get in. 'Tickets' I think, he's the Owner of Newcastle. Welcome to life with Mike. We were to sit in the 'Away' section with the Toon Army and needed tickets to get in. Remember Mike's father was with us and once he got wind, said he was having none of that and duly asked to be escorted to the 'Directors Box'. I was tempted to offer to keep Mr Ashley company but thought, 'this is probably a test, better suck it up'. It was all you could imagine once we got inside, chaos. Sitting in the middle of the Toon faithful, half the 'Army' wanting to hit Mike and the other half wanting a picture taken with him. Insanity. 10 mins before half time Mike stands up and says "Come on then". Finally, I think we're off to the Directors Box for a nibble and cold one. Not so, as Mike tells his brother John to get the meat pies and that he will get the beers with me. We're spending half time with the Toon Army. More pictures, beer spilt everywhere, more abuse and more praise for Mike. The police look on in awe, all two of them who were crazy enough to be in the vicinity. Frantically talking into their walkie talkies for back up. Thankfully there were no casualties and Newcastle won in extra time. Back to the Bentley and Ian takes us back up the M1 to Shirebrook while Mr Ashley goes South in the chopper. As I stretched out in the back seat of the Bentley, little did I know that the fireworks were just about to start as the voice of Dennis Wise comes over the hands free speaker and I hear "Super Kev just doesn't". The saga of Kevin Keegan is for another day. All in all a grand night out in the Midlands! One for the ages.
Twice In a Lifetime
In 2011 I was General Manager of Umbro North America and received a phone call asking me what I thought of the commercial potential of the New York Cosmos as a guy by the name of Paul Kemsley had purchased the team (rights and memorabilia). The Cosmos were back and taking to the field again. The Cosmos had played in the North American Soccer League (NASL) and were known for bringing Pele to America against the backdrop of New York City in the 70's. Their fall was almost as meteoric as their rise and this extraordinary story was captured in the 2006 film 'Once in a Lifetime'. Well it seemed the phoenix was to rise from the ashes amd Umbro signed on as the 'Official Kit Supplier' to the Cosmos. Little could I have known what a pantomine those next twelve months would be. Paul Kemsley or PK as he was referred to left school in North London at 16 and started a real estate business called 'Rock' at age 27. Success attracted prominant investors and in 2007 he teamed with HBOS, a bank and an insurance company. PK's timing couldn't have been worse as the credit crunch hit and HBOS was acquired by Lloyds Banking Group. Rock was placed into bankruptcy and liquidated. All PK's real estate holdings were sold for what he termed 'giveaway money'. It's unclear how bust PK was, if he got a payoff to walk away but he was now fronting the New York Cosmos. I first met PK in the NYC office of the global advertising agency, Anomaly. Carl Johnson the founder of Anomaly was an investor in the Cosmos and also present was Terry Byrne, boyhood friend / early agent of David Beckham. A group of us from Umbro listened to PK evangelize the Cosmos opportunity, millions to be made from merchandise sales and how Cosmos would be the 20th franchise in Major League Soccer. Sitting there and listening you couldn't help but be energized. Then someone asked the question that sucked the life out of the room; " What about players and what league will they play in? ". PK didn't miss a beat, indicating Terry had assured him players wasn't an issue and the plan was to use current pros initially in a series of exhibition games around the globe to launch the Cosmos back on the world soccer stage. We all left that meeting in 'hope' more than 'belief'. Months went by and the skeptics in the soccer community voiced their opinion. PK kept pouring gasoline on the fire announcing that Pele was now 'officially' on board, that Eric Cantona would be the coach and that the first game of the 'new' Cosmos would be as the opposition to Manchester United at Old Trafford on Friday August 5th, 2011 for Paul Scholes testimonial. All did come to pass and Cosmos got thumped 6 - 0 with Scholes himself scoring a screamer. Cosmos showed up with a mixture of players that for all intents and purposes were well past their 'sell by' date and a number of youngsters from their Academy ranks. I should have known that this was going to be the case as was attending a reception a month earlier at the British Consulate in LA for Manchester City and Patrick Viera told me he had been pressed into turning out. Viera who had been retired for a while said " I need to start training ". He came on in the 70th minute for a cameo. Still PK persisted giving interview after interview, sparing with Don Garber of the MLS about how Cosmos should and would be awarded the next MLS franchise. Where he was to get the $100M from for those rights was anybody's guess and I know Garber had PK figured out from minute one. Commercially the Cosmos did have potential, but the soccer environment was a lot different in 2011 than the 70's. Fox and NBC had elevated coverage of soccer leagues all around the world and today's international soccer stars are just as well known to US fans as peers in NFL, MLB etc. The world has become a village. Every summer more and more international teams tour the US to build their brand. Yes, the Cosmos were back, albeit a team with history but not the buzz of the group that included soccer icons such as Pele, Chinaglia and Beckenbauer. For all PK's grand ideas, promises of a game at the Meadowlands everything limped along and was on life support. PK who had installed himself in an aprtment on the 75th floor of the Time Warner Center for a reputed $57K a month saw the writing on the wall and sold his stake in the Cosmos to a group out of the Middle East. More practical ownership and management had the Cosmos join the NPSL and subsequently the NASL where they won the Championship in 2015. I doubt if they will ever play in the MLS but great to see the Cosmos back out on the soccer field where they belong. For all his bravado and questionable judgment PK was able to convince Pepe Pinton the gatekeeper of all things Cosmos to bring the team back to life and share the mountains of memorabilia from the 70's. The New York Cosmos are a part of soccer folk lore and it's great to see them thriving once again. Fast forward to 2013 and I was having a drink with Mike Ashley the owner of Newcastle United at a pub outside of Derby in the UK when I hear the words " Twice in a Lifetime " uttered by someone standing behind me. Mike looks at me smiling and says " Believe you know PK".
Howay The Lads - Barnsley FC
2009 started with Capt 'Sully" Shallenberger performing an unpowered water landing of US Airways flight 1549 in the Hudson River three minutes after taking off from New Yorks Laguardia Airport. Newcastle United were relegated from the Premier League in May and looked to bounce back at the first time of asking. Opening game in The Championship was on a sunny August afternoon against Reading at SJP. Having a bite to eat and pint before kick off Mike Ashley turned to me and said "Who's in our League then?". Thankfully Derek Llambias the Toon Chief Exec chimed in and saved the day. Mike knew he had to be there for the first game, seen in the stands and his lack of enthusiasm may have been down to realizing the daunting task ahead. The Championship is a brutal league, lot of parity and if you didn't get automatically promoted as one of the top two finishing teams you got sucked into a nail biting round of playoffs for the last spot. We headed out to take our seats and Mike puts his hand on my shoulder and says "Ricardo, you sit right in front of me". He always called me Ricardo. I was happy to sit anywhere and then he piped up "Just in case they (the fans) try to get to me, will have to come through you... yeh". I stood there for a second mouth wide open and Mike gave me a cheeky grin as he walked by. In the end it was a rather sedate afternoon, everyone was well behaved. Chris Hughton was the Manager and Toon delivered a 3-0 opening day win that saw three from Shola Ameobi. In the following months I moved back to the US (work related) and didn't see another Toon game until October when I was back in the UK for a business meeting. I let Mike know that I would be over and he suggested we meet up at Barnsley where the Toon were playing. Worked out well as I was staying the weekend with friends in North Yorkshire and Barnsley was a short drive down the A1. Oakwell has been the home of Barnsley FC since 1888. Parking at the train station I made the short walk to the ground and looked for where I was supposed to be. A steward who looked like Ronnie Barker directed me to a gate and I offered up my name for admission. Ushered into the Chairman's Lounge I thought I had entered a scene from Downton Abbey. Had it not been for a Toshiba TV hanging on one of the walls, would have bet all the furniture was original from 1888. Presently, a man walked over to me and introduced himself as "The Chairman" and asked me if he could get me a drink. "A Cabernet would be great, thanks". Silence. "A Cabernet, red wine" I offered up again. "Listen lad, you'll get whatever red we've got and like it" was the reply in a deep Yorkshire accent. Fair enough. A thimble of red wine was handed to me and I was told that the pies were in the back room. After ten minutes of talking to the Mayor of Barnsley about his many hollidays in the States, Mike wandered in with his Mother and Father followed by Ian, his driver and defacto security guard. It was 2:55 and after the pleasantries were over we were pointed in the direction of the Directors Box. Ascending narrow wooden stairs that creaked with every step we emerged from darkness. Almost immeadiatly there was a torrent of abuse directed at Mike by Newcastle fans who were seated not thirty yards from the Directors Box. It was non stop for the whole 90 minutes and fair play to Mike and his Parents they sat there stoic and suffered. I happened to sit next to Joey Barton that day as he had travelled but didn't pass a late fitness test. I remember him being small and never stop criticizing the players (from both teams) and constantly bantering with the Newcastle fans nearby. The game ended in a 2-2 draw, Joey whisked off his sideline jacket and threw it over to a Toon fan. It looked like a Small and was no way the poor recipient was slipping into it. Mike was on the wagon, going through some kind of 'cleanse' he told me so he wasn't up for any drinks and just wanted to get South and home. As I started walking back to my car the afternoon rain had left puddles on the uneven pavement and I remember thinking that maybe it wasn't so much Downton Abbey but opening credits to Coronation Street that I was remided of. I ran up the hill past the train station where the Toon Army were gathering and singing. The season was going well and eventually Newcastle would win atomatic promotion with 102 points and a goall difference of +55. Andy Carroll scored 17 goals that season. In typical Mike Ashley fashion it was all too good to be true and he fired Chris Hughton before the start of the Premier League season. This started the era of Alan Pardew who rewarded Mike's faith in him initially but then wore out his welcome. Newcastle have again just lost their Premier League status and I would be very surprised to see them come straight back up this go around. Playing in The Championship is for a special type of player and will require a dramatic overhaul of the existing squad. One thing is for sure there will be 40,000 passionate fans at every home game looking for that same passion in their team that was sadly missing this season. And Sunderland avoiding the drop at Newcastle's expense was misery personified.
The Grand National - Red Rum
The Sports of Kings has always had a following from Soccer players who enjoy the races as a place to relax and have a 'flutter'. Described as " the ultimate test of a horse's courage " The Grand National is held annually at Aintree Racecourse in Liverpool, England. First run in 1839, it's a handicap steeplechase over 4 miles 3 1/2 furlongs with horses jumping 30 fences over two laps. It is the most valuable jump race in Europe, with a purse of over $1M. Today's (April 9th, 2016) race saw 39 horses start and 19 finish. The 2016 winner was the Irish horse 'Rule The World' with odds of 33-1 ridden by a jockey (David Mullins) making his first appearance in the Grand National. This was the first time the winner had ever jumped fences! Notable because the fences at Aintree for The Grand National are much larger than those found on conventional National Hunt tracks. Fences with names such as 'Beaches Brook' , 'The Chair' and 'The Canal Turn' have become famous in their own right. Only one horse in the history of the race has ever completed 'the treble' or won the race 3 times. That horse is RED RUM. A bay gelding Red Rum was born May 3rd 1965 and won in 1973, 1974 and 1977. Oh and came second in the two intervening years 1975 and 1976. The victory in 1973 when Red Rum came from 30 lengths back is often considered one of the greatest Grand National races of all time. 'Crisp' was 15 lengths clear of Red Rum at the last fence and Red Rum with jockey, Brian Fletcher on board won by 3/4 of a length. Richard Pitman the jockey on Crisp later stated " I still dream about that race, of Crisp running so strongly and jumping so fearlessly, and then the sound of Red Rum's hooves as he got closer and closer at the end ". Red Rum was bred at Rossenarra stud in Kells, County Kilkenny, Ireland, by Martyn McEnery. His sire was Quorum and his dam Mared. McEnery gave Red Rum his name by taking the last three letters of the names of his dam and sire respectively. Red Rum had a very mediocre start to his career and was passed from training yard to training yard. Then a Southport car dealer by the name of Ginger McCain bought Red Rum for his client Noel le Mare and began to train Red Rum on the sands at Southport. As a national celebrity Red Rum opened supermarkets, led The Grand National parade for many years and his likeness was found on playing cards, mugs and posters. Even appeared as a studio guest at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards ceremony. The main bar at Aintree is now called 'The Red Rum'. On October 18th, 1995 Red Rum passed at age 30. He was buried at the winning post at Aintree which is still a destination for fans. The epitaph reads " Respect this place / this hallowed ground / a legend here/ his rest has found / his feet would fly / our spirits soar / he earned our love for evermore ".