As Salomon Rondon fired home Newcastle United’s fourth goal in a rout at Fulham on the final day of the Premier League season, reality suddenly began to bite. Celebrations on the trains from Kings Cross to the north east that night were tempered somewhat; not just because of the lack of alcohol being served, but the looming tests that were undoubtedly to come over the summer. Twelve years into Mike Ashley’s ownership at St James’ Park, supporters have come to understand that, no matter how strongly they end the previous season, everything can be unravelled once the ball stops being kicked.
That is nothing new. In 2008, just a year after taking control on Tyneside, Ashley spent the off-season undermining the very man he had hired to get the fans onside: Kevin Keegan. It all ended in tears in September that year, and eventually with a tribunal proving the hierarchy had intentionally misled the manager, supporters and press. Less than 12 months on, following relegation to the Championship, another club legend was being shafted, this time Alan Shearer who – despite believing he’d be in charge of the subsequent promotion bid – never heard from Ashley again after his contract expired; Chris Hughton was then handed the reigns. The return of Joe Kinnear in 2013, this time as Director of Football, having initially stepped in to replace Keegan as boss five years earlier, was the peak of humiliation and embarrassment for many. Numerous other transfer windows without major spending and quick, proactive thinking have also soured the mood ahead of a new season, putting the club on the back foot and giving them a mountain to climb.
This summer is no different. Indeed, the feelings of dread and confusion are again all-consuming. Rafael Benitez is still in charge, with less than a month remaining on his current contract, and the inevitable questions about his future remain unanswered. The Spaniard has not hidden his frustration at the lack of ambition at boardroom level, and while the two parties have seemingly been on a collision course for some time, there was at least a willingness to talk and iron out the issues. Ashley had an opportunity to buck the trend – perhaps not to improve his dire reputation on Tyneside, but at least not make it worse – by coming to a fair and swift agreement and allowing Benitez work in peace. Of course, things were never likely to be that simple.
An explanation for the delay may come in the form of yet more takeover rumours. Another theme throughout the Ashley era has been false dawns over its ending, and though the club has officially been on the market since late 2017, only now does it seem like a genuine conclusion could be in sight. The Bin Zayed Group, headed by Sheikh Khaled bin Zayed Al Nehayan, a Dubai-based billionaire, have released two statements claiming to be well on the way to completing a £350million deal; initial excitement about a prospective buyer first reported to be the cousin of Manchester City owner Sheikh Mansour soon turned to scepticism and dread, as conflicting information about him and the deal itself emerged. While nothing has been denied, caution has been advised, and this summer is beginning to feel even more hyperbolic than before.
Only Benitez, Ashley and Managing Director Lee Charnley will know if takeover talk is really behind the lack of clarity on a new contract, but if it is, then there certainly needs to be a change in perspective. Whoever the owner might be next season, they would be advised to build their plans around Benitez, a man who has galvanised the club and fanbase in tough times, as well as having a track record of operating at a level Newcastle have only dreamed about for over a decade now.
— The Coaches’ Voice (@CoachesVoice) June 3, 2019
Not only is he the right man from an emotional and logical standpoint, but the alternative doesn’t bear thinking about. If, on July 1, he is not in charge – having recently been quoted saying he is “open to new possibilities” – and Ashley is still around, the club will have to build again, almost from scratch. A number of players already have uncertain futures, and sorting them as well as finding a replacement for Benitez and signing new players before August 8 will prove a mammoth task for a regime as passive as this one.
The outlook would be slightly better with new owners, especially if they are as wealthy as the Bin Zayed Group appear, but there have been whispers that they could go in a different direction, with Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger’s names linked this week. While supporters would jump at the chance of a fresh start even without Benitez, it has to be a priority to tie him down to a new deal. It would be a huge error in judgement if any interested party, of which there are said to be a number, did plan for life without a manager of his stature, even if any replacement would be markedly better than whoever Ashley could or would attract. Benitez’s approach is meticulous and flexible enough to work on the shoestring budget he has been afforded over the past two years, or the untold riches that could be on offer if the Bin Zayed Group take hold.
Talks over a new deal have been concluded and business is trudging along slowly, as usual. Benitez knows what is on offer from the current incumbents at Newcastle; but having admitted he rebuffed a return to Napoli last summer, he will be assessing his options, as well as watching on with everyone else as the takeover saga develops. There will be a lot of twisting, turning and contradicting as the club wonders whether a new dawn will be rising soon, but whatever happens will not be as exciting or as positive if the manager leaves. His should remain the priority, because if he does stay, there can at least be some continuity, whoever is paying his wages.
Harry De Cosomo – find him on Twitter