Miles Starforth: Newcastle and Mike Ashley locked in a loveless marriage '“ can Rafa Benitez rekindle things?
So that's just the way it is.
Newcastle United and Mike Ashley are seemingly locked in a loveless marriage.
The club’s billionaire owner this week gave a rare interview against the backdrop of his stand-off with MPs over his reluctance to appear before a House of Commons committee to discuss employment practices at his Sports Direct empire.
Ashley, among other things, was asked if he would sell the club in even of relegation to the Championship.
“I have no choice,” said Ashley. “They’ve got me, and I’ve got them. That’s the way it is.”
So Ashley is going nowhere.
That’s the way it is.
But I think most of us already knew that, though I’ve lost count of the times over the past few years I’ve seen and heard people speculate that Ashley planned to sell.
As long as the club is in the Premier League, Ashley is on to a good thing.
The broadcast revenues are going up and up – next season’s new multi-billion pound Premier League TV deal is extraordinary – and the club is a giant billboard for Sports Direct, which is expanding into territories where the English top flight is keenly followed.
It works for him and Sports Direct.
Ashley’s claim that he “regretted” buying the club back in 2007 should be taken with a pinch of salt.
Sadly, it hasn’t worked so well on the pitch.
The Championship, however, is less well followed at home and abroad.
And far less lucrative.
That doesn’t work so well for his business, though why would that make Ashley sell?
If anything, Ashley would be even less likely to sell. After all, he’s made his vast fortune by buying low and selling higher.
The club has cost Ashley £262million. He paid the Hall and Shepherd families £133million for United, and he also loaned the club £129million.
Ashley won’t get anywhere near that for a second-tier club, and he’s not someone than has ever sold something at a loss.
Should the club stay up – bookmakers say Newcastle are odds-on to go down – then the TV windfall will allow it to carry on spending without needing any further cash from Ashley himself, who hasn’t put any money in in recent years.
Things are less certain in the event of relegation given the huge drop in broadcast money. The Premier League’s parachute payments won’t be enough to cover the deficit.
United, presumably, will need to hold a fire sale of players to avoid huge losses if Ashley is unwilling to pump cash into the club.
In any case, many players will want to leave the club, as happened when Newcastle were relegated in 2009
A core group, notably Kevin Nolan, Joey Barton, Steve Harper and Alan Smith, stayed at St James’s Park.
It’s hard to see the likes of Ayoze Perez, Andros Townsend, Georginio Wijnaldum and Daryl Janmaat hanging around.
And I wouldn’t blame them for wanting to leave.
United, however, would need to keep a similarly-strong spine on Tyneside in the event of relegation, but that’s expensive.
Ashley was also asked by The Mirror how much money was left the club’s bank account after an £80million spending spree in the last two transfer windows.
“Virtually nothing now – they have emptied it,” said Ashley.
Newcastle had been cash-rich until last summer – it had more than £34million sitting in its account at one stage in 2014 – and also made a £18.7million profit in the 2013-14 season.
The financial consequences of relegation are sobering, though while United are down, they are not out.
And the appointment of Rafa Benitez was an astute one.
The club has a far better chance of staying up with Benitez in charge, though the decision to prolong Steve McClaren’s tenure was less astute. McClaren should have gone sooner, and unwillingness of managing director Lee Charnley to act sooner and dismiss the man he had placed so much faith in last June could yet cost the cost dear.
Benitez – who will walk away in the event of relegation – doesn’t have nearly enough time and Newcastle are quickly running out of games.
Norwich City, their next opponents, have an opportunity to put some distance between second-bottom United and Sunderland over the next few games.
And Newcastle’s April 2 visit to Carrow Road has taken on a huge importance. A loss would be disastrous.
Charnley told the club’s Fans Forum last month, when McClaren was still in position as head coach, that he remained “confident” that United would stay up.
The meeting’s minutes read: “The club remains confident that it will remain in the Premier League at the end of the season.”
A month later, Ashley seems less optimistic that the club can secure its Premier League status.
“If there’s any hope of Newcastle staying up, let’s hope Rafa can do it,” he said. “Eventually, we’ll have some good times again.”
Every marriage has its good times and bad times, but the union between Newcastle and Ashley has been a particularly unhappy one.
Benitez has rekindled passions on Tyneside, but how long will he be here?