Mark Ashton: The 'divisive' figure with a track record for promotion and profits
- Credit: Archant
Mark Ashton will leave Championship club Bristol City at the end of the season to become Ipswich Town's new chief executive. STUART WATSON takes a look at his career so far.
Mark Ashton was a goalkeeper for West Brom’s youth and reserve teams during the late 80s. He went on to became a director at the Hawthorns in 1990, a role he held for 14 years.
During that period, the Baggies went from the third-tier to the Premier League and developed their stadium.
Ashton left the West Midlands clubs after their quickfire promotion back to the top-flight in 2004.
He worked with managers such as Ossie Ardiles, Ray Harford, Bryan Little and Gary Megson.
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Ashton was chief executive of Watford from 2004 to 2008.
With the club battling Championship relegation, there was scepticism when Ashton was involved in the process of appointing unknown 34-year-old Aidy Boothroyd as manager in March 2005 (Boothroyd had previously been youth development officer at West Brom).
The Hornets were promoted to the Premier League the following season after a Play-Off Final win against Leeds. An instant relegation and subsequent play-off semi-final defeat followed. Along the way there were runs to the semi-finals of both the League Cup and FA Cup too.
Ashton resigned from his position in December 2008 days after the surprise departure of chairman Graham Simpson.
He subsequently sued the club for a reported fee of around £300k, money he claimed was owed as part of his contract, but that High Court claim was eventually withdrawn.
A scathing article published in the Watford Observer around that time opens with the line: “Logic dictates there must be more than one person with a good word to say about Mark Ashton’s reign as Watford’s chief executive, but I have yet to meet them.”
Ashton became Wycombe Wanderers CEO in February 2009, also joining the board of rugby club London Wasps, who groundshared with the Chairboys at the time.
He resigned from both roles just four months later though after Wycombe had achieved automatic League Two promotion under Peter Taylor's management.
He said: “I've been in football for the majority of my life and now feel it is time to do something different.
“I've had a number of highs and lows in football and regard my short time at Wycombe some of the most enjoyable.
“I have a new baby daughter and intend to spend the summer at home with my family before deciding on my next career move.”
That next move proved to be five years as chairman of Grove Life, a Worcestershire-based ‘lifestyle management solution’ business which aims to ‘enhance and protect the lives of busy professionals’ in the sports, media and entertainment industries.
In 2014, Ashton returned to football to become CEO of Oxford United.
One of the first things he did was sack the recently appointed Gary Waddock (after just eight games in charge) and bring in former West Brom player and coach Michael Appleton.
The U’s subsequently finished 13th in League Two and were then on their way towards promotion when Ashton left midway through the following season.
Majority shareholder Darryl Eales said: “Mark leaves us in a much better state, both on and off the field, and he has played a significant part in this transformation.
“The reality is that, having relinquished a number of other business interests, I have both the time and desire to devote to running the club, and Mark understands that, in the new structure, we would be duplicating roles.”
Ashton arrived at newly-promoted Championship club Bristol City in January 2016 as Chief Operating Officer and was promoted to CEO in the summer of 2017.
He was made an EFL Board Director in 2018 and named Championship CEO of the Year in 2019.
An article on offthepitch.com (Feb 2020), reported that Bristol City's commercial income had grown by a staggering 612% during Ashton’s reign compared to the Championship average of 59% over the same period.
At that juncture, the club’s turnover had grown from £7.7m to £30.2m. Last year, prior to the Covid pandemic hitting, the South West club turned an annual profit for the first time ever.
A big part of that was the club’s ability to sell players for big fees. Adam Webster, Josh Brownhill, Aden Flint (all bought and sold for profit), Lloyd Kelly, Joe Bryan and Bobby Reid (all produced by the academy) went for a combined £65m over a three-year period.
Over the last five years, Ashton Gate has undergone major developments, a new High Performance Centre has opened, the club's academy has produced a stream of first team players, while community work has expanded via the Robins Foundation.
Lee Johnson, who spent four-and-a-half years working under Ashton as manager, said in a recent interview with ‘The Coach’s Voice’ that he is ‘a fantastic CEO who I had a very strong relationship with’.
Bristol City have finished 18th, 17th, 11th, 8th and 12th in the Championship during Ashton’s five years working under owner Steve Lansdown.
And yet the Bristol Post reports that ‘few Bristol City men have proved as divisive to the Robins’ fan base’.
Why is that?
In December 2019, Ashton said: “It’s quite dull and boring when I talk about progression but look at all the clubs I’ve been to in the past, they’ve all got promoted, every single one, that is my expertise.
“Each season that we’ve been here it’s been about progression. My model that I’ve used in slightly different ways at every club is based on progression. And if we keep progressing the way we are, ultimately we’ll be promoted. But I can’t tell you when.”
Expectations rose, but then things went backwards.
The tide of opinion on Ashton appears to have turned last summer. After sacking Lee Johnson for failing to make the play-offs, the club took weeks to appoint a successor. Several experienced managers were interviewed, reportedly including Paul Cook, before eventually the job went to Johnson’s former assistant Dean Holden. Fans were left underwhelmed.
City, who replaced Holden with Nigel Pearson in February, are currently 14th in the table and 21 points adrift of the play-offs.
The £40m worth of signings that have been made in recent years have, by all accounts, been hit and miss.
There is a fear that contracts for key men like Famara Diedhiou and Liam Walsh have not been sorted.
The club's crippling injury record has been scrutinised.
An accusation levelled at Ashton is that he was front and centre when things were on the up, but disappeared when things got tough.
In January, he was grilled on all of the above by BBC Radio Bristol.
Ashton said: “We can all improve our communication and I have to hold my hands up and say maybe I could communicate better. I could always communicate better.”
Ashton is reunited with his long-term mentor Mike O’Leary at Portman Road.
The duo worked together at West Brom, Oxford United and at investment firm Alycidon Ltd (formerly Ensco 1070).
O’Leary, who will largely advise from afar as Ashton drives the day-to-day operations of the club, said: “We are delighted to welcome Mark Ashton to Portman Road. It is difficult to envisage anyone having better experience for a CEO job than Mark.
“He is a high energy, demanding, loyal, commercially savvy, well-connected and high integrity leader and we look forward very much to him making a major contribution to our journey here at Ipswich Town.”