`

Newcastle owner Mike Ashley hits back after being 'treated like pantomime villain' - and says he stopped NUFC 'becoming like Sunderland'

Mike Ashley
Mike Ashley

Newcastle owner Mike Ashley has hit back saying he was being treated as a "pantomime villain" after a parliamentary petition set up against him by a Tyneside MP.

Newcastle Central MP Chi Onwurah launched a petition demanding he stop "exploiting" NUFC and its fans, stating the club was a key part of Tyneside's social, economic and cultural wellbeing.

She accused Mr Ashley of failing to support manager Rafa Benitez, or provide the investment in players, training facilities and community engagement that Newcastle United needs.

But the Sports Direct founder has hit back, saying the petition against him was unfair and had led to employees of his companies receiving abuse, harassment and intimidation.

The businessman was writing to Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Jeremy Wright, in response to the parliamentary petition raised by Ms Onwurah. His remarks may not gain him much sympathy or thanks from frustrated fans, however.

In the letter, dated August 3 and published by the Daily Mail, he fiercely defended his stewardship of the club, setting out investment during his takeover, Newcastle’s commitment to community projects, and the fact he had avoided the club ending up in similar difficulties to Sunderland and Aston Villa.

"The petition presents a wholly inaccurate assessment of the situation at Newcastle United," he said.

"As owner of Newcastle United, I have provided the club with interest-free loans, the outstanding balance of which as at today's date is £144million, whilst I also cleared all of its third party debts, which stood at £76million in 2006/07, and incurred finance costs of £6.5million that existed when I purchased the club.

"This enabled Newcastle United to establish an affordable ticket pricing policy for fans."

He added: "Furthermore, my continued financial support, the huge contribution of the world class manager we retained, together with the fantastic efforts of our players and staff, enabled the club to swiftly recover from relegation in 2017.

"This contrasts starkly with the experiences of clubs such as Aston Villa and Sunderland, and, less recently, Leeds United and Nottingham Forest"

Mr Ashley pointed to the club's community engagement programmes through the Newcastle United Foundation, events organised by which were attended by Mrs Onwurah.

He went on: "Our training facilities have greatly improved during my tenure, and very clearly do not have a negative impact on performance, given we secured a place in the top 10 of the Premier League last season."

The Newcastle owner said since publication of the petition, an "unprecedented volume of unacceptable abuse was directed towards staff at Sports Direct and its associated companies, via social media, email and telephone".

He added: "This included digital material of an obscene nature, incitement to commit criminal damage and language that was clearly intended to intimidate and harass staff.

"We are in the process of bringing examples of this behaviour to the attention of police."