Sports Direct review - why now?

Mike Ashley Image copyright PA
Image caption Mike Ashley founded Sports Direct in 1982

In football, like most sports, timing is everything. Mike Ashley, the billionaire owner of Newcastle United and controlling shareholder of Sports Direct, knows this all too well.

The release on Tuesday morning of the independent review of working practices at the company comes only a day before he faces irate shareholders at the annual general meeting.

They, and trade unions, are baying for blood and while the report may not mollify them, it changes the nature of the headlines the day before the showdown.

The investigation is surprisingly hard on the company. Many had predicted a whitewash, as the law firm involved, Reynold Porter Chamberlain, does other work for Sports Direct.

Instead it has found "serious" shortcomings and a "hierarchical model that placed workers in an uncertain and difficult position".

Zero-hours contracts will be cut - but for retail staff rather than for agency workers at the giant warehouse in Shirebrook, Derbyshire, that has been the centre of most concerns.

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In its statement to the Stock Exchange, the company also promises a review of its corporate governance and to engage with shareholders.

That olive branch will probably come too late to change the tally at Wednesday's meeting, where chairman Keith Hellawell will almost certainly face the ignominy of having a majority of independent shareholders vote against his appointment.

But the concessions on working practices and corporate governance show Ashley's well-known scorn for his critics is slowly softening - perhaps because it has dawned on him that there is no other way to stem the tide.

The share price tells its own story; having peaked at just over 900p two years ago, Sports Direct now trades at 350p.

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