Miles Starforth’s analysis: So much at stake at Newcastle as Mike Ashley mulls over options

Mike Ashley and Lee Charnley
Mike Ashley and Lee Charnley

Better the devil you know?

That was the reaction from some fans to news that Mike Ashley was considering selling Newcastle United.

That’s not to say those supporters necessarily want Ashley.

After all, Ashley’s tumultuous 10-year ownership has been punctuated by calls for him to sell up and leave.

But fans want Rafa Benitez.

And they don’t want anything to jeopardise his position at St James’s Park.

The club is seemingly in a good place in the wake of a title-winning campaign in the Championship.

Benitez turned a losing team into a winning one, albeit in a lower division. And you’d back him, with the right backing, to more than keep United up next season.

Ashley promised him “every penny” that the club generated through promotion a month ago.

There was no indication then that the billionaire was considering a sale – or even looking for an investor. None at all.

A couple of years ago, he was unequivocal about his intentions.

Asked about his ambitions for Newcastle, he said: “To win something, definitely.

“And, by the way, I shall not be selling it until I do.

“When I say win something, if we ever get in the position of a Champions League place, that also qualifies as winning something.

“To be categorically clear, I’m not going anywhere until we win something.”

The Championship title, surely, doesn’t count either.

So what’s changed?

Maybe Ashley – who has made his fortune buying low and selling high – feels this is the right time to sell.

United will benefit from the Premier League’s lucrative TV deals next season.

These deals have gone up and up over the past two decades, but will they keep going up?

The talks, of course, could come to nothing.

Also, we could see the Chinese – or another investor – instead take a stake in the club. That would be sensible.

The news that Ashley was considering a sale came as a shock.

Talks, however, have been going on for a number of weeks, with a key associate of Ashley’s having been drafted in to speak to interested parties.

The club was not for sale last year. And potential buyers, looking to buy into the English game, were told Ashley wasn’t interested in selling.

Newcastle has its uses for Ashley.

St James’s Park resembles a giant Sports Direct billboard at a time when Ashley’s firm is expanding aggresively overseas.

The club, controversially, didn’t get paid for these adverts in the years after they were put up, though Ashley has not charged any interest on the loans he has made to the club.

Given the Premier League’s global following, the Sports Direct brand will get a lot more exposure over the coming campaign.

It is likely that more potential investors and buyers will come forward after news leaked out of the Chinese interest.

That would presumably suit Ashley, always someone to look for the best deal.

United have made no comment on the talks, though the story has not been dismissed by sources at the club.

In the meantime, we’re told it’s “business as usual” behind the scenes.

But can Benitez and managing director Lee Charnley carry on regardless?

That’s the key question.

Benitez and Charnley have a lot of work to do, both in terms of signing players and moving others out.

There’s no time for a pause. They must press on.

Let’s hope the Chinese group – and any other parties interested in the club – want to buy into the stability that Benitez has brought to St James’s Park.

That’s worth an awful lot.