There’s an old joke that the quickest way to become a millionaire is to start as a billionaire and buy a football club; Mike Ashley’s dwindling returns from Newcastle United have been more evident than ever in recent times.
The Premier League table makes grim reading after the 3-2 defeat to Manchester United. Throwing away a two-goal lead last Saturday leaves Rafa Benitez’s men buffered at the bottom only by Cardiff, winless after nine games, having suffered seven losses.
On some of those occasions, including in the first 70 minutes at Old Trafford, they have played well. Why, then, is there such an inevitability about the Magpies’ recent woes?
This is their worst ever start to a season in the wake of a summer in which they spent just £23.6million, the third-lowest outlay in the top flight. They ended the summer with a profit of £21m thanks largely to the sales of Aleksandar Mitrovic and Mikel Merino.
Ashley will argue that despite their lack of spending, the club still managed to sign seven players – Ki Sung-yueng, Kenedy, and Salomon Rondon all came in on loan, while their most expensive arrival came in the form of Yoshinori Muto, who cost just £9.5m from Mainz.
That level of under-investment is where the buck has to stop, the controversial owner then compounding his team’s misery with a number of ridiculous gestures. First, taking the squad out to dinner, announcing he will start attending games again, and promising the players a free holiday if they manage to avoid relegation.
A low aspiration for a club of Newcastle’s stature, but a realistic one yet again thanks to events off the pitch, which have inevitably affected dynamics and performances on it.
Benitez, with what little resources he has, tries to adapt. In the 2-1 defeat to Manchester City, his tactics were criticised for being overly defensive, including by his own players.
That reportedly led to a furious training ground row between Jamaal Lascelles and Matt Ritchie, with team-mates having to physically intervene.
Were the circus not so predictable, there might be even more spotlight on a state of affairs that has left Benitez torn between loyalty to the fans, the players, a city he loves, and an increasingly impossible job.
The popular Spaniard’s frustration has made resentment towards Ashley all the more fervent. The higher the calibre of manager, the angrier the supporters are going to be if and when he eventually walks away.
It begs the question of what is going to change. Newcastle feel at breaking point, though they have been here before several times since Ashley took charge in 2007.
His decision to buy House of Fraser for £90million in the same week as Deadline Day rubbed further salt into the wounds, but as protests have become a regular feature at St James’ Park, hope is declining that they will have much influence.
Their latest focus point came outside the restaurant where Ashley and Benitez met for talks, a night which ended with accusations the former had deliberately made a V-sign at fans who sang ‘Ashley Out’ and ‘Where’s the money gone?’. Flyers are regularly distributed around pubs listing the reasons for supporters’ grievances.
The 2018/19 campaign is far from unsalvageable, with winnable games against Brighton, Southampton, and Watford following the international break. Crystal Palace stayed up last season despite losing their opening seven games, so there is a precedent for survival after such poor starts as Newcastle’s.
At present, however, they remain stuck in a battle of wills that seems most likely to end with Benitez’s departure, whether that is in the coming weeks and months, or in January if he is not backed financially. The former Liverpool boss’ contract expires in June regardless.
In the aftermath of the team dinner, Benitez and his players were reportedly left optimistic about the next transfer window. Funds were promised, and talk once again centred on the possibilities of redeveloping the training ground and stadium.
In the meantime, the club is still up for sale, but with no interested buyers as Ashley continues to render the company unsellable. There remains very little light at the end of the tunnel.
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