Mike Ashley likes a punt. He’s been known to win and lose over a £1 million pounds a throw on the roulette wheels of some of London’s swankiest casinos, and of course he has a passing interest in football as well. So far his interest in Rangers extends to £3 million in interest-free, albeit secured, loans.
£3 million may be a few bob more than the rest of us would consider pocket money, but Mr Ashley plays at a different level. Whilst the man in Sauchiehall Street might look to strike it lucky at Supercasino.com Mr Ashley might be more inclined to simply buy the whole operation outright, just for the fun of it. His net worth is estimated £3.75 billion - give or take the small change.
And that’s what makes his moves at Rangers so odd. He can’t buy the club whilst he’s involved at Newcastle, and nobody would ever imagine that he’d walk away from there. He’s ridden through enough stick to have proved that several times over.
So that begs the question, are we simply seeing a sharp eyed business man toying with one of the biggest names in British sport simply for the sake of promoting Sports Direct? Or is this an opportunist smash and grab raid to seize an asset and a brand whilst it is going cheap?
Whatever the underlying intention, there is no doubting that Ashley is taking his interest in Rangers personally: all the recent boardroom wrangles at the club have seen a reinforcement of the merchandising tie in with Sports Direct as well as effectively giving Ashley the whip hand when it comes to shaping the board of the club going forwards. But is a long term involvement really all this is about?
The club insist that of the three offers to refinance recently, Ashley’s proposed loan top-up was the only one that passed due diligence. There is, inevitably an irony in those words being attached to the club at a time of such disharmony, especially since, on paper at least, Ashley’s offer was the one that stood to put the least cash into the club.
With an AGM due before the start of the New Year Ashley’s indeterminate status as a sort of ghost backer cannot be sustained for long. In what has all the hallmarks of a brinkmanship manoeuvre, we are all left waiting and watching.
At the moment there are far more questions than answers at Ibrox. The staff cuts that followed what has been described as ‘Ashley’s power grab’ suggest that his input is being felt in practical day to day terms. Even the SFA have expressed frustration at his refusal to communicate fully with them. Ashley is keeping everyone guessing - and for all the collateral damage, it does appear that that is precisely how he likes it.
What happens to Rangers is not the be all and end all of Scottish football, but television sponsorships are bought and sold on the basis of iconic brands and high-octane clashes between so-called ‘big sides’, not to mention the importance of Rangers’ away support to the rest of the league. Rangers are undoubtedly one of those big clubs, even if they do appear to be being treated as little more than a rich man’s punt right now.