In a surprising turn of events, Newcastle United have released a strongly-worded statement responding to recent comments from Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn which criticised Mike Ashley’s running of the North-East club.
The statement defends the club’s financial situation and refutes claims made by Corbyn that 'bad owners' such as Ashley risk their own club’s financial security and put their business interests first.
The club rarely comment on off-field matters, staying particularly tight-lipped over possible takeover developments and fan protests over the past two years.
However, the fact they have responded directly to recent comments could be a sign that fan pressure and the negative publicity surrounding the Newcastle owner are starting to have an effect.
What did Corbyn say to provoke the reaction?
After addressing Labour supporters at Newcastle City Hall on Sunday, Jeremy Corbyn held a meeting with football fans and local MP Chi Onwurah.
Speaking to the media afterwards, the UK opposition leader and Arsenal fan echoed the sentiments of many disgruntled fans and bemoaned the impact billionaire owners such as Ashley have had on English football, saying:
"A football club is more than just a club, it is an institution at the heart of our communities. Clubs are part of the social fabric that binds us together.
"They are too important to be left in the hands of bad owners like Mike Ashley who put their business interests ahead of everything else, marginalise supporters and even put the financial security of clubs at risk.
"Sport must be run in the interests of those who participate in it, follow it and love it, not just for the privileged and wealthy few.
He then went on to set out potential plans to tackle inequality in football and give more power back to fans and the grassroots game, as well as fairer pay for those who work at football clubs.
It is not the first time Corbyn has criticised Mike Ashley, as the Sports Direct owner has also come under fire in the past for the company’s use of zero-hour contracts and for alleged poor working conditions.
How did Newcastle United respond?
In an official statement on its website, the club noted its ‘disappointment’ at the opposition leader’s comments, describing them as an ‘attack’ on the club.
It went on to call Corbyn’s words ‘misinformed’ and ‘damaging’, whilst defending its finances and repeating the claim that every penny generated goes back into the club and not into Mike Ashley’s businesses.
The statement reads: "We are disappointed by comments made by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn at the weekend regarding football governance and club ownership, in which he specifically attacked Newcastle United.
"Amongst his comments, Mr Corbyn accused ‘billionaire owners like Mike Ashley’ of ‘ruining our national game’, claiming these ‘bad owners’ put their ‘business interests above everything else’ and risk their clubs’ financial security.
"In overlooking existing governance and regulation, as well as the hugely positive impact Newcastle United and other professional clubs have in their communities, Mr Corbyn has demonstrated a surprising lack of knowledge about our national game.
"We feel, therefore, it is important to address his damaging and misinformed opinions in the interests of the club and its supporters.
"Financially, other than sums provided to the club on a short-term, interest-free basis and repaid to him as intended, we would like to make it clear that Mike Ashley has not taken a penny out of Newcastle United in interest, salary or dividend, as is customary at many clubs.
"As stated on numerous occasions before, every penny Newcastle United has will continue to be available to it.
It continues by referencing the important charitable work that the Newcastle United Foundation performs in the local community and invited Corbyn to visit the organization to see for himself.
What are the implications?
The weight of the club’s response to Corbyn’s comments is a sign that his rhetoric had touched a nerve, especially at a time where the club is struggling on the pitch and attendances are falling.
While Corbyn may be attempting to capitalise on the mood among Newcastle supporters in order to drum up support for his party in the run-up to a potential election, his singling out of Mike Ashley as an owner is more personal and not a slight on the football club as a whole.
Therefore, the response through the official website may only serve to alienate fans further, as it could be seen as Mike Ashley using the club as a mouthpiece for his own views.
In doing so, he may simply be strengthening Corbyn’s argument further. By using the Newcastle United brand for his own purposes, Ashley would not be living up to the claim that it is ‘an institution at the heart of the community’.
Regardless of whether fans agree with Corbyn’s politics, it is not likely that today’s statement will gain Ashley any more support amongst the Newcastle fanbase, despite the terrific win over Manchester United on Sunday.