How has it come to this?
The new season is just over a week away, and Newcastle United is a club in crisis.
And it’s a crisis brought on by owner Mike Ashley’s stubborn refusal to listen to Rafa Benitez, the man who brought the club back from the brink after Steve McClaren’s disastrous tenure.
So what did Benitez get for guiding the club to a 10th-placed finish – and a £123million Premier League payday – last season? Nothing. He’s had to sell to buy this summer.
Other clubs are spending. Newcastle are not. Other clubs are improving. Newcastle are not. It’s not hard to see what happens next.
Benitez had hoped to push even higher up the table, and compete for Europe and in the cups, this coming season. Not now. It’s all about survival. And that’s depressingly predictable.
Benitez had just about kept a lid on his frustrations up to Wednesday night’s friendly against Braga in Portugal.
However, after witnessing a troubling 4-0 defeat at a sweltering Estadio Municipal de Braga, he boiled over in his post-match press conference.
Benitez didn’t say much, but he said more than enough.
The 58-year-old strode into an auditoriam deep in the bowels of the stunning stadium, built on the site of a former quarry, and delivered a blunt, and damning, verdict on the club’s efforts in the transfer market with just over a week of the window remaining.
“When things are not going well off the pitch, you can see a reflection on the pitch,” said Benitez.
Was he worried?
“I’m really worried,” said Benitez. “We will try to change things in the next 10 days. I don’t know how. We will try to do our best.”
Asked about fan concerns back on Tyneside, he added: “They have to be concerned. We are concerned.”
Newcastle are in profit so far this summer following a number of departures, notably those of Aleksandar Mitrovic and Mikel Merino.
Is there any money to spend?
“I have no idea,” said Benitez, who added that he speaks to managing director Lee Charnley every day.
Benitez didn’t sound hopeful of much happening. After all, how can the club do in seven days what it has failed to do in three months?
A few short months ago, everything was seemingly in place at Newcastle – apart from a new owner.
And that’s the thing. This crisis, and the tranfer and contract stand-off which preceded it, was both predictable and avoidable.
How could Ashley expect Benitez to extend his contract without knowing what he would get to strengthen his squad?
Ashley issued a statement at the end of last season pledging to back Benitez with “every penny generated by the club”.
That was taken to mean that Benitez would get to spend the club’s profits, which, for the last financial year, could run to tens of millions of pounds.
Yet here we are, with less than a week of the window remaining, and the club, which will have its first four games screened live on TV, has made a £20million-plus surplus from player trading.
Will that be spent? What’s going on? Why gamble?
There are more questions than answers at the club. Only Benitez is speaking.
Even the players, again in dispute with the club over their bonus scheme, are reluctant to speak to the media until the issue is resolved.
If you want anyone to be motivated at the club, it’s the players. It’s another own goal.
Ashley, the founder majority owner of Sports Direct, is prepared to take a punt on House of Fraser, but not on Benitez and United. Why? Isn’t Benitez a safer bet?
Benitez won’t walk now, and but he will almost certainly leave the club when his contract expires next summer.
Can he keep Newcastle up in the meantime?
We’ll see, but there’s a danger the club could lose it’s Premier League status as well as its manager next May. And many supporters have had enough.
Ashley’s stubbornness could cost him far more than the kind of budget that would have persuaded Benitez to extend his contract a couple of months ago.