BY DAVE BLACK
It wasnâ€™t supposed to be like this. This could have been the summer Newcastle United finally took some steps towards fulfilling their undoubted potential, but instead it is turning into a farce. Again.
After guiding Newcastle to promotion in his first full season in charge, Rafael Benitez took Newcastle to a 10th placed finish. It wasnâ€™t always pretty but after being messed around in both the summer and January transfer windows, achieving 10th with largely the same squad that won the Championship plus a couple of well-timed loans was nothing short of incredible. Benitez should have been backed to the hilt this summer but has instead been reduced to â€œwheeling and dealing.â€
Thatâ€™s a Champions League winning manager reduced to scrapping around for free transfers and loans. A man who recognises where Newcastle United could be with a little bit of spending, a man who has fallen in love with the area and reconnected the fans to the club despite a relegation and the looming shadow from the boardroom who is on a one man sabotage mission.
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How is it possible in this era of clubs receiving over Â£100m just for being in the Premier League that there is seemingly nothing available for Benitez to spend? Newcastle United were the first club in the world to spend Â£15m on a single player but look well placed to be the last Premier League club to spend Â£20m. The transfer record of Â£16m for Michael Owen has stood since 2005. Mike Ashley bought the club in 2007, so that one explains itself.
As Benitez enters the final year of his contract, fans are preparing themselves for the worst. Benitez wonâ€™t sign a new contract without assurances that he will be allowed to spend. Ashley wonâ€™t allow Benitez to spend unless he signs a new contract. Itâ€™s a game of chicken and egg where nobody will win.
Particularly frustrated fans, whose identity has remained anonymous as of this time of writing, have set up the movement @IfRafaGoesWeGo with nearly 10,000 followers after less than 24 hours suggesting that there is some appetite for rebellion. As the title suggests, the idea is to organise a boycott of the club should Benitez be forced out and with Ant and Dec even throwing in their support, local media are all over it. Watch this space.
Can this end well for Newcastle United? Here are some scenarios that could play out over the next 12 months.
- Benitez signs new deal
During the January transfer window, local press revealed the club were keen to get Benitez tied down to a long-term contract. It has been widely rumoured that the takeover deal discussed in late 2017 included a clause that said the deal was only on the table if Benitez was manager. It therefore seems prudent for Ashely to tie down his greatest asset to increase the value of the club. Benitez has openly stated he can see himself being at the club for the next 5-10 years, for whatever reason the Spaniard has taken Newcastle to his heart and is keen to build on an already promising young squad. Heâ€™s not a miracle worker though and canâ€™t be expected to battle relegation every season due to a lack of investment, especially when most other Premier League clubs are throwing money around like confetti. It is unlikely that Benitez will relent without assurances from Ashley about how much he will have to spend, especially as Ashley famously said Benitez would get â€œevery penny generated by the clubâ€ to spend after promotion. This is obviously vague and as current spending this summer stands at -Â£10m, it is clearly not true.
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- Mike Ashley sells Newcastle United
If only. The club was put up for sale last year but the common consensus has always been that the club was for sale at the right price â€“ unfortunately this almost certainly extends to the playing squad and probably the manager. The most serious interest seemed to be from Amanda Staveley and her consortium, but Ashely dismissed the bid as not being serious and said there would be no further negotiations. Ashley is notoriously difficult to negotiate with and unless somebody is willing to meet the asking price and then some it seems hard to believe Ashley will sell. There is the added complication of the money owed the MASH Holdings, a company set up by Mike Ashley that paid the debt he inherited upon buying the club (without due diligence, leaving some hefty bills to pay). Youâ€™d presume anybody who bought the club would realise Rafa Benitez knows what he is doing and give him the keys so to speak, along with a contract. Let the good times roll. If only we can find someone willing to stump up Â£400m.
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- The standoff continues
It is entirely possible that Benitez will continue trying to fight the good fight and make the best of a bad situation. Ashley will continue to keep the purse strings tight and Newcastle will head into the season with a couple of budget buys and loans in the hope thereâ€™s enough there to keep heads above water for another year, or at least until January when the pressure will crank up again. Sadly, the result will be the same. If Newcastle have been in relegation trouble in previous seasons the chequebook has been opened to bring in the likes of Moussa Sissoko, Andros Townsend and Jonjo Shelvey but January only saw the arrival of Kenedy, Islam Slimani and Martin Dubravka on loan. Kenedy and Dubravka were huge successes and will be back for the 2018/19 season and beyond in Dubravkaâ€™s case. Why will Ashley back Pardew and McClaren with big money when they needed it but not somebody with a much better track record like Benitez? The recent accounts published for the 2016/17 season showed what a huge financial strain relegation and the subsequent overhaul had on the club, which may go some way to explaining last seasonâ€™s relatively low spend but is not an excuse for the current season.
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- Benitez walks out, new manager arrives
The worst case scenario. Benitez is the best thing to happen to this club since Sir Bobby Robson and to lose him would be unforgiveable. Previous appointments during Ashleyâ€™s tenure have included Joe Kinnear, Alan Pardew and Steve McClaren. The chances of someone of Benitezâ€™s calibre being convinced to have a go in the hot seat given how the Spaniard (and previously Kevin Keegan) has been treated seems very unlikely, so where would we go from here? A whole new backroom team would be needed too, which would come at a cost if done properly and would be detrimental if done on a shoe string. That doesnâ€™t seem to bother Mike Ashley, who has never been one to speculate to accumulate. Then thereâ€™s the squad overhaul. It would be more galling if Ashley backed another manager whilst making Benitez scrap around for every penny. Then thereâ€™s the dissention in the standsâ€¦
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- If Rafa Goes, We Go
Tempers are frayed. The consensus amongst the fan base is that if Benitez was given a moderate amount, letâ€™s say Â£40m plus anything he can bring in from player sales, that would be acceptable. There are no delusions of grandeur about expecting to spend hundreds of millions, nor are we expecting to challenge Man City and Liverpool. It would however be nice to compete with Huddersfield, Fulham and Southampton, all of whom are currently outspending Newcastle. The urge is to get Newcastle fans to start voting with their feet and simply not giving Mike Ashley another penny.
This poses an obvious dilemma. Fools like myself have already renewed the season ticket for another year and the manager himself has spoken of the need to have everybody at the club united. From a personal perspective, I donâ€™t like Mike Ashley (obviously) but if Rafa was happy to work for him I was happy to let bygones be bygones and with a world class manager in the dugout, the chances of success should in theory have increased. Getting a season ticket was an easy decision. Finishing 10th lead to an obvious renewal. Not backing the manager to the point where he leaves a position he clearly enjoys would be the final straw for many people. There probably wouldnâ€™t be a whole lot worth renewing for. The IfRafaGoesWeGo group say on Benitez they â€œwill do everything possible to keep him hereâ€ but add â€œfailing that â€“ if he goes, we go.â€ Quite what their plans are remain to be seen but they are not alone in their quest.
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A protest was spearheaded by AshleyOut.com in April 2015 which saw thousands of fans stay away from a game against Tottenham. With the match broadcast live on Sky the boycott got plenty of media exposure and two months later saw a net spend of nearly Â£80m, by far the highest of the Ashley era. Protest groups will point to these figures as evidence that voting with your feet can have an effect. Whether AshleyOut remobilise in the coming months remains to be seen, but if they are as ruthless as SackPardew were then it may be a rough patch ahead for Newcastleâ€™s much maligned owner.
The Mike Ashley era has been filled with yes men and curious incidents that should never happen at a Premier League club. Despite suffering two relegations, the board havenâ€™t learned a thing. Weâ€™ve had Joe Kinnear â€“ once as manager, once as director of football. Weâ€™ve had 8 year contracts for Alan Pardew, 8 games for Alan Shearer, Zurab Khizanishvili, replacing Yohan Cabaye with Jack Colback, playing Dan Gosling over Hatem Ben Arfa, Kevin Keegan being undermined by Dennis Wise, losing 6 derby games in a row, an owner being sick in a fireplace and a club actively trying not to win cup games. Yet somehow Rafael Benitez still wants to manage this great club and make it far more valuable than it is today. As a successful businessman you would think Mike Ashley would know when heâ€™s on to go a good thing but instead the club teeters on the brink of disaster again. Surely this is not the time to gamble, Mike?