David Prosser: Ashley's tough tactics

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The Independent Online

Outlook If only Newcastle United played as hardball as their owner Mike Ashley; they might never have been relegated from the Premier League.

Mr Ashley's retail business, Sports Direct, has Blacks Leisure over a barrel. It wants to raise cash in order to go on with its efforts to return to financial health, but Sports Direct, which is on the record as being interested in buying Blacks, has enough shares in the retailer to block the rights issue – and said this week that it was minded to do so. If some sort of compromise can't be reached, the effect on the value of Blacks might enable Sports Direct to achieve its ambition of acquiring the retailer on the cheap.

As a large shareholder in Blacks, Sports Direct is entitled to a say in the retailer's future, in exactly the same way as its fellow owners. It is clear, too, that Sports Direct is not breaking any rules by behaving in this fashion.

Still – in the football parlance with which Mr Ashley is familiar – this looks like ungentlemanly conduct. The suspicion must be that Sports Direct, which bought its stock in a hurry, is not voting the shares in the interest of Blacks, or its fellow shareholders, but using the stake as a bargaining chip for its own ends.

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