If this summer is Mike Ashley's final roll of the dice at Newcastle United it could be his biggest gamble yet

Location: Fifty London casino, Mayfair, London. Date: May, 2008.

Thursday, 20th June 2019, 11:59 am
Updated Thursday, 20th June 2019, 12:58 pm

A year after buying Newcastle United from the the Hall family and Freddy Shepherd, Mike Ashley puts cash on the table, bets placed, the croupier spins the wheel. Lucky number 17.

Half a million pounds staked, just 15 minutes propped against the table. The Sports Direct tycoon walks away that night, according to reports in the national press at the time, with a cool £1.3million pocketed.

This man does not fear consequence - he's a poker-faced, high-roller. And anyway, what's half a million here or there to a man who is ranked as not only one of the richest businessmen in the UK, he's also still up there with the wealthiest football club owners in the lavish, richest league in the world, the Premier League.

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Owner of Sports Direct and Newcastle United, Mike Ashley (L), arrives at the High Court on July 10, 2017 in London, England. Mr Ashley is defending himself against a lawsuit filed by former business associate Jeff Blue. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)

Gambling seems to come as second nature to Ashley.

If this summer proves to be gambler Ashley's final roll of the dice at Newcastle United - the stakes could not be higher.

Sensible gambling is about risk and reward - only risk what you can afford to lose. What Ashley fails to realise is, Newcastle cannot afford to lose Rafa Benitez this summer. And to lose him at this stage, with so little done and so little time, seems like Premier League suicide in the making.

Ten days to the end. June 30 and Benitez's deal end date is all everyone is talking about. But what does the landscape look like when the flamenco stops in post-Madrilenos, apocalyptic Tyneside?

Newcastle United fans protest against chairman Mike Ashley prior to 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 Mark Runnacles/Getty Images)

Just five days after Benitez's contract ends, the first-team squad, yet to know who will coach them, who their paymasters will be, and if they will get any new team-mates this summer, are back for pre-season training.

A little more than a week later United will embark on a trip, 5,000 miles across the planet for two games, the first against Wolves as the Nanjing Olympic Sports Centre on July 17.

In the world of Ashley's Newcastle, where Joe Kinnear can get a job twice in one season, the blinking contest taking place with Spaniard Benitez is by far the most bizarre.

If the two go their separate ways, Benitez will walk away, nose bloodied but will live to fight another day - a man of his ilk and calibre will work again, and will succeed, probably at a higher level than the lower end of the Premier League.

Rafael Benitez Manager / head coach of Newcastle United during the Premier League match between Arsenal FC and Newcastle United at Emirates Stadium on April 01, 2019 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

Ashley fails to see that this battle could well leave United mortally wounded. Football, results and hopes may not mean a lot to the man, but money does. The realisation may only come if United are again staring down the barrel, without Benitez, ready to sweep across the screen his magic wand and save the slide. It is only when the prospect of dipping back into the Bank of Ashley is real, that things ever seem to happen on Tyneside.

At this stage, Newcastle are the least well-armed and equipped side in the top flight ahead of the start of the 2019/20 Premier League season. Fact. There is no guaranteed constant at St James's Park. While that is unsettling to fans, is equally unsettling to employees.

This could all be changed in an instant, though - that's the frustrating thing.

It's been said before and will no doubt be said again over the next 10 days - but Newcastle have it all on a plate for them.

They have a world-class manager, with a proven pedigree at the very highest level, who wants to stay. The reason he wants to stay is because he knows he can take United back to the top table of English football, given time and trust, as well as resources.

Using any normal thinking football logic this would be a no-brainer.

But Ashley has proven time and time again he has absolutely no grasp on football, what it means to the people who love it and what it means to be the custodian of not only a proud club, but also a city's dreams.

What next for Newcastle United if the doomsday scenario for fans - Ashley does not sell and Benitez walks - plays out?

Will there be protests? Will fans not buy tickets? Boycotts?

This is Newcastle United, Ashley's Newcastle. His actions, coupled with results, have divided fans so widely they might well have been conquered.

Fans remember what happened when things got toxic in 2008/09. Many are scared the same could happen again. We're at risk of a similar power vacuum now.

To act or not to act, it is one of the hardest decision any fan has to make. Support the team, not the regime has always been the mantra - but even that's hard when it feels like the regime, in the view of many fans, does not support the team at all.

Benitez, like Kevin Keegan and Alan Shearer before him, was a glimmer of light in the darkness for the Magpies.

Like the fireplace at the Green Dragon pub, near Alfreton, after sinking a dozen pints and some vodka chasers, Ashley has it within his grasp to shower the dying embers of Benitez's reign. He could also light the touchpaper, if he so chooses. That though, given his form, seems the least likely of all the outcomes.