Next chief Simon Wolfson has become the master of managing expectations.

While this year few retailers, particularly in the tough middle market, have been able to over-deliver on promises, the good weather has helped Next once again beat expectations.

Next surprised the City by bringing forward its update – something that this time last year was seldom being done by any listed retailers except those issuing profit warnings.

The sun helped brighten a tough preiod for many retailers – Next said it had around a 2 to 3 per cent positive impact on sales – and with more summer stock shifting, some fashion retailers faced much cleaner positions heading into the Sales.

Looking at the latest Next fashion ranges from the autumn/winter season, they seem strong. With the introduction of the more fashion-led Runway range, and the success of the more premium Signature collection, Next looks set to widen its appeal and open the wallets of a greater range of customers without forgetting its existing ones.

However, Wolfson has raised concerns that swine flu could hit sales if it grows to pandemic proportions – again managing expectations and making sure he is prepared for the very worst.

This sort of preparation would perhaps have been warranted by Wolfson’s mentor, Sir David Jones, who has faced many challenges in his career, but little could have prepared him for the force and determination of Mike Ashley.

The sports retail pantomime has taken new twists this week with revelations about meetings between the men regarding the suspension of Ashley’s mate and former right-hand man Chris Ronnie and Jones’s use of Dave Whelan’s helicopter and private jet.

Ashley has also vowed to either attend or send representatives to tomorrow’s JJB AGM, which should set the stage for an interesting showdown.

So far, JJB shareholders have been steadfast in their support of Jones. However, there will be many questions for the retail veteran to answer and the likelihood that Ashley will let the issue lie seem as likely as his Newcastle United football team surfacing from the doldrums any time soon.

Ashley has little, it seems, to gain from the continued bulldozing of Jones’ reputation but, as some who have dealt with Ashley before tell me, he just loves “the game” of it all.

Jones will hope that this particular game reaches full-time soon. The eventual victor still remains unclear. 

I hope to be reporting live online from the AGM. It starts at 11am tomorrow.