As sure as night follows day and a hosepipe ban follows a heatwave, Mike Ashley’s reign of terror at Newcastle United lurches towards its latest flashpoint. The theme is the same as it ever was, that the sportswear tycoon who made his fortune in buying cheaply and stripping down a business to the bare bones to make profits will not be opening the purse strings for his manager.
The key statistic is this: the club’s record transfer fee continues to be the £16m paid to Real Madrid for Michael Owen in 2005 by the previous regime of the late Freddie Shepherd.
That Newcastle finished last season tenth in the Premier League despite such parsimony might be viewed as a triumph of careful financial management and, more credibly, a tribute to the excellence of manager Rafa Benitez, but it is a strategy founded on little more than a wing and a prayer.
A glance at the three teams relegated from the Premier League season, Swansea, Stoke and West Brom is a triptych of previously established top-division clubs who tried to maintain a status quo and paid heavy prices for their inertia. Breathing a sigh of relief in 17th were Southampton who had attempted much the same, while in 13th place but in danger for the majority of the season were West Ham.
All five of those clubs changed management during last season, something which would be near-fatal to Newcastle. Benitez’s importance to Newcastle does not lie merely in the alchemy of melding together obscure imports, players of Championship pedigree or those discarded by bigger clubs, with Jonjo Shelvey and Kenedy as leading examples.
Instead, it lies in his status as a unifying figure. Were Benitez to take his leave of Tyneside, then Ashley and his henchmen would again be targeted in a wash of insurrection.
Ever since taking on the job towards the end of the 2015-16 season, and in spite of failing to avert relegation that year, the former Liverpool manager has been a human shield for Ashley.
The Toon Army’s dream of supporting a club where Benitez is the manager but Ashley is no longer controlling the boardroom is dead for now. Amanda Staveley, one-time consort of Prince Andrew, and the fixer for the deal that landed Manchester City an Abu Dhabi bonanza, wafted into the picture last season as a potential new buyer, with the promise of Middle Eastern funds to back her, but no transaction was able to be completed.
The reasons for the deal’s collapse lie somewhere between Staveley not being able to find the requisite funds and Ashley, typically, driving a hard bargain. The current cost of its failure lies in a growing fear of relegation and the loss of the manager.
How long might Benitez linger? A new contract is yet to be signed and his current deal has one year to run, with the word being that any prospective employer has to negotiate with Ashley to release golden handcuffs said to value compensation at a sum over £6m.
For now, Benitez is at a club where he is loved even more than he ever was at Liverpool. Newcastle fans’ support for him is almost unconditional, perhaps as a result of disbelief that even under Ashley’s no-frills regime, they have a manager who has won three European trophies, and two Spanish league titles. Rafa is doing them a favour with his presence.
Before taking up residency in lodgings looking over the Tyne, Benitez was managing Cristiano Ronaldo rather than Dwight Gayle, Sergio Ramos rather than Paul Dummett, but it could convincingly be argued his reputation has not been so high since winning the Champions League in 2005 with Liverpool. In England, where his approval ratings were by no means high across the board, he gains fresh respect for the job he has done in stabilising Newcastle amid such constraints.
But working for a penny-pinching cottage industry cannot be sustainable. Of Newcastle’s putative peers, the squeezed middle of clubs like Everton, West Ham and Leicester, there is money to spend and lessons to learn in the demise of similar clubs last season, and the plight of Aston Villa in the Championship. Ashley, committed to both gambling and keeping his businesses tightly financed, is not in the business of punting £50m on Richarlison, as Everton have done, or Felipe Anderson for £41.5m, as the Hammers have committed to.
Instead, Benitez has scrabbled around to sign Kenedy on a further loan from Chelsea, Ki Sung-Yueng on a free from Swansea and secure goalkeeper Martin Dubravka’s permanent signing from Slavia Prague, with Fabian Schär added at a discount price in recent days.
Meanwhile, a deal for West Brom’s Salomon Rondon has stalled, his price stated at £16.5m, beyond the threshold that Ashley seems unprepared to break. Inertia remains Newcastle’s state of play.