Mike Ashley needed to grasp what Rafa Benitez was telling him at Newcastle – not the Premier League’s millions

Mohamed Diame.
Mohamed Diame.

So near, yet so far. Again.

Newcastle United did everything but score against Brighton and Hove Albion.

They were better, much better, than they were on their last appearance at St James’s Park, but it still wasn’t enough.

So what does that say about the club’s prospects this season?

A deflected goal from a disputed corner condemned the club, beaten 1-0 by Brighton and Hove Albion on Saturday, to a seventh Premier League defeat.

With nine games played, Newcastle are in trouble. Deep in trouble.

Back in May, when the club finished 10th, Ashley had an opportunity. He didn’t grasp it. Instead, the billionaire chose to grasp the club’s Premier League windfall.

There were some boos at the final whistle, and when Rafa Benitez took off Yoshinori Muto in the second half, from frustrated fans.

Yes, the club has had its worst start to a league campaign, but no, Benitez isn’t the problem.

Owner Mike Ashley was at the game – he has attended the club’s last four matches having previously stayed away for more than a year – along with managing director Lee Charnley and associate Justin Barnes.

Former chairman Chris Mort, intriguingly, was sat elsewhere in the directors’ box.

There was another protest against Ashley before the game.

Does Ashley regret the needless stand-off with Benitez in the summer? It’s that stubborn stand-off, and his failure to back Benitez in the transfer window, which, ultimately, has led us to where we are today.

Back in May, when the club finished 10th, Ashley had an opportunity. He didn’t grasp it. Instead, the billionaire chose to grasp the club’s Premier League windfall. It was revealed at the last Fans Forum that the amount owed to Ashley had fallen.

That, however, could prove a costly and short-sighted move.

Other clubs, like Brighton, invested. Newcastle didn’t.

And Benitez, forced to sell to buy in the summer window, was left with a squad which looked short of goals.

United weren’t short on chances against Brighton – they had 26 shots – but visiting goalkeeper Mat Ryan only had six saves to make.

There were positives.

Kenedy was better, so too was Mohamed Diame. Jonjo Shelvey also impressed, but when it came to the final third, the team was missing a cutting edge.

Ayoze Perez set the tone with an early shot, which was pushed away by Ryan.

Then came a long stop in play after Glenn Murray clashed heads with Fernandez. Murray was carried off on a stretcher to applause and taken to hospital, where he was given the all-clear.

Newcastle struggled to regain their early momentum after that stoppage, and Brighton took advantage from a bad error from one of referee Andre Marriner’s assistants, who awarded a corner when the ball came off one-time United trialist Solly March.

Jose Izquierdo’s shot from the resulting flag kick went in off Beram Kayal to give Chris Hughton’s side a 29th-minute lead.

Newcastle rallied late in the half chances came and went.

It was the same story after the break.

United probed and prodded a resolute Brighton, but they couldn’t get a breakthrough.

Shane Duffy and Lewis Dunk, Brighton’s central defensive partnership, were superb. Their team was organised and disciplined, just as United had been under Hughton.

Benitez, with few options on the bench, only sent on Joselu.

Ashley saw it all.

What will be his next move? Does he back Benitez in January – or fire him?

The next transfer window is still a long way off from opening, and Benitez and his players are on their own until then.

One win, however it comes, could change everything.