Newcastle United fans are able to breathe a little easier after Manuel Pellegrini was installed as the new front runner for the West Ham vacancy. There was said to be little panic at St James’s Park yesterday regarding speculation linking Benitez to West Ham — but there is no smoke without fire.
The London club apparently spoke to the Spaniard in 2015 before he took on the snake pit at Real Madrid, and he would represent a significant upgrade on the fire-fighting job done by David Moyes at the London Stadium. It’s easy to see the appeal. With that in mind, it must be a source of frustration for all Magpie fans that their popular manager’s future is still up in the air — particularly when it would undoubtedly be the interest of all parties for him to remain in the North East.
A success story
For once Newcastle fans can reflect on a solid season in the top flight — on the pitch, anyway. Benitez has directed them to considerable comfort this season, after guiding them out of the Championship in 2017. The squad he has kept up is lacking Premier League quality and experience, making his 10th place finish even more impressive. Few managers would have coped with such a young and raw squad and the pressures of the Premier League.
Most Newcastle fans would have jumped at the prospect of a top half finish last August. Indeed, the fans on Tyneside appear to be universally behind their manager for the first time in a long time. Benitez was a real coup when he was appointed in 2016. For a club that had persevered with the likes of Alan Pardew and Steve McClaren, the multi honour-winning Spaniard with his wealth of experience and pedigree was a breath of fresh air, and proof to a lot of Geordies that their club can still attract decent names.
Anxiety off the pitch
However, much of Newcastle’s hard-earned progress hangs precariously in the balance. Uncertainty off the pitch, and Mike Ashley’s tight grip on the transfer dealings, has lead to hesitation from Benitez in committing his future to the club.
Understandably, he is calling for considerable investment in playing staff. If Newcastle are to improve on their decent form this season, this is sorely needed. They are short of talented strikers and real experience in the middle. Jonjo Shelvey’s roller-coaster form is not sufficient to build a campaign on as the manager will want someone orchestrating things in the middle of the park. The goalkeeper situation also remains unresolved.
If Ashley is unwilling to match Benitez’s demands for investment then it could end in acrimony for both parties. Ashley would also be creating further heat between himself and the fan base if he let the manager walk away.
The besieged owner has also won himself no friends with his efforts to sell up and leave. He has long been seen as a poison pill on Tyneside to put it lightly. The club have slipped from being top four outsiders under Sir Bobby Robson to a yo-yo club with little quality and diminished prospects, change and investment is needed from the top. His asking price of £400 million has caused outrage among the fans and put off a genuinely interest buyer in the PCP Group headed by Amanda Staveley.
No logic in loggerheads
The current situation on paper isn’t bad for Newcastle. They are not saddled with unworkable debt, they have a very good manager who has worked wonders with no money, and they received over £120 million in TV revenue for 17/18. These are attractive points to any would-be investor, however it appears that once again, Newcastle United’s future rests with Mike Ashley’s willingness to play ball.
If he yields, and allows Benitez more control over who comes to the club and lowers his asking price, they may find buyers and strengthen their position. The club is sellable with the Spaniard. With money he could build the club into a more sustainable position and maybe even push for a trophy. A smart investor will certainly see the potential.
The question Ashley should consider is who he could get in if Benitez’s head were turned. The fire-fighter option is there, most are now available as per a previous post on this site. There are also a few young managers in Europe looking to cut their teeth in the Premier League, such as Paulo Fonseca. In all probability though, he would not get someone as talented as Rafa Benitez.
If the investment on the pitch fails to materialize and the manager walks, the club risks being pulled into a relegation dogfight for the third time in a decade. If that happens, Ashley will be a lot further from his £400 million then he is at the moment and his asking price will come down whether he wants it or not.