NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 29: Newcastle United fans display a banner in support of manager Rafael Benitez (not pictured) before the Premier League match between Newcastle United and Leicester City at St. James Park on September 29, 2018 in Newcastle upon Tyne, United Kingdom. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

This June, Newcastle United fans will be ‘celebrating’ 12 years with Mike Ashley at the helm of the club. During this time, nine managers have held the reins, with two relegations coming in 2009 and 2016. This tumultuous period has seen the Magpies go from challenging for European football year-on-year to perennially fighting relegation. There has been a disillusionment from fans towards the owner for years now. Many cite the lack of investment in the club’s facilities and playing staff as a reason for Newcastle’s downfall. Now, with Rafael Benítez at the helm, the club seemed geared for a return to its former glory. Something remains seemingly anchoring them down, though; their very own owner.

The Battle That Will Determine Newcastle United’s Future

In Rafa We Trust

In March 2016, Steve McClaren was sacked as Newcastle head coach, the club facing their second relegation in seven years. What happened next was unprecedented; the Newcastle board pulled off a coup by appointing Rafael Benítez, sacked by Real Madrid the same season. The manager’s track record speaks for itself, a Champions League trophy being the highlight. Benítez would go on to become the most loved manager on Tyneside since Sir Bobby Robson. Fans recognized their luck with him at the helm, even willing to stay on for a season in the Championship, despite countless offers from abroad.

The prospect of reviving a sleeping giant and building a dynasty in the North East drew him. The fans undoubtedly played a huge part themselves. Step one of this revival was achieved rather swiftly; bounce back to the Premier League at the first time of asking, doing so as champions. On his return to the top division, Benítez would have expected substantial backing to avoid yearly relegation dogfights, and to lay the groundwork on his project of a return to Europe.

Yet, Ashley only allowed a net spend of £20 million, supported by the sales of various deadwood players. Ashley favoured signing younger, cheaper players with the potential to grow. £12 million was allowed for the signing of Jacob Murphy, an unproven Championship winger. Newcastle signed Joselu for £5 million, their fourth choice for a new striker. Clearly, Benítez was scouring the bargain basement. Islam Slimani came through the door from Leicester City, though only on a loan deal. Benítez’ outrage was well-documented, so Mike Ashley took to the media himself, something all too rare over his tenure.

Show Me the Money

In August 2017, Ashley took to Sky Sports in a short interview named, ‘Mike Ashley Speaks Direct’. He stated he could not compete with the likes of Manchester City and Chelsea. That, evidently, would be a Herculean task, but competing with the likes of Brighton & Hove Albion and Crystal Palace was what the fans demanded. Surely, this was achievable?

January came, and Ashley greenlit two more signings, two loanees in Martin Dubravka and Kenedy, who proved crucial to the Magpies’ strong finish. With the help of these new players and some spirited performances against Manchester United and Arsenal, Newcastle finished tenth in the league, a far cry from their nine-game winless run which left them 18th in December. Spirits were high after a 3-0 crushing of Chelsea on the final day, Benítez had his launchpad for this Newcastle side.

The next transfer window was nigh, and Benítez’ ire from the year before was clear for all to see. Newcastle spent even less than the summer before, but what irked Benítez the most was their pursuit of Salomón Rondón. The club was too slow to activate his £16 million release clause, thus having to resort to a season-long loan. Finishing the summer with a net profit, the sales of Aleksandar Mitrovic and Mikel Merino were not readily reinvested.

Ashley Out?

At this stage, the club had been on the market since October 2017, providing some reasoning behind this reluctance to invest. Interest from Amanda Staveley came and went, and it was clear that Benítez was pivotal to any potential sale. Around the same time a year later, Peter Kenyon fronted a bid to purchase the club. Yet again, negotiations with Ashley proved a significant hurdle. The timing of these two bids, both before the January transfer window, was opportune for him, with his focus more on any potential sale than sanctioning potential incomings.

It was only until this January that Newcastle broke their long-standing transfer record, signing Miguel Almirón for £21 million from Atlanta United, the most spent on one player since Michael Owen in 2005 (£16 million). This brought much-needed optimism to the club, with an upturn in form after the arrival of Almirón.

Though, despite this important arrival, Ashley has reportedly expressed his desire to return to the former risky transfer policy of signing young players with the potential to grow. Benítez claims the ‘ball is in their court’ with him no doubt wanting assurances of financial backing and more autonomy in the transfer market. Dreams abound among Newcastle fans of what Benítez could do given proper financial support.

With the two stuck at a stalemate, French clubs are waiting to snap him up. Neither party wants to budge, pointing to bad news for Newcastle fans. It would seem the only thing that could save the Geordies from this terrible reign would be a new owner. With Kenyon and Staveley now a distant memory, it seems this giant’s sleep will be prolonged at least another transfer window.

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