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Newcastle has always been a big club – but it could be so much bigger

Is Newcastle United a big club?

Rafa Benitez thinks so. And the club’s fans know so.

There was a debate this week over the size of the club sparked by comments from former Liverpool midfielder Danny Murphy and a colleague of his at a radio station.

“Newcastle are well-supported, but they’re not a big club,” said Murphy.

Murphy has a point if you’re talking about silverware alone, though the club’s honours list is still impressive.

The size of a club can be measured in several ways, and United haven’t won a major trophy since 1969.

Lee Charnley and Mike Ashley.

Lee Charnley and Mike Ashley.

Yet only eight English clubs have won more trophies than Newcastle.

United used to be a genuinely big club – one which regularly challenged for titles, European football and cups – but if silverware, stature and support are all considered, then yes, it’s still a big club.

Newcastle, incidentally, was the 18th-best supported club in Europe last season with an average league attendance of almost 52,000 at St James’s Park.

That’s remarkable for a team which hasn’t won anything for 49 years.

I don’t know of a club that has been run as badly or with such disregard for people.

Kevin Keegan

Speaking last year, manager Benitez said: “If I decided to stay, it’s because the potential of the club, the fans, the city – it’s massive.”

The problem is that the club will never realise that potential as long as Mike Ashley remains owner.

It hasn’t thought big since Ashley took over 11 years ago.

Remember when Newcastle broke the world transfer record with a £15million bid for Alan Shearer in 1996?

Kevin Keegan.

Kevin Keegan.

The closest the club has come to signing a player for that much under Ashley was in 2015, when it paid £14.5million for Georginio Wijnaldum.

It wasn’t a bad investment, either. Wijnaldum was sold for a profit.

Keegan – who signed Shearer during his first spell as manager – has delivered a blunt verdict on Ashley in his forthcoming autobiography, “My Life in Football”.

“I don’t know of a club that has been run as badly or with such disregard for people,” said Keegan, who resigned as manager a decade ago after realising he wouldn’t be able to take the club forward under Ashley’s ownership.

And who came next? Joe Kinnear.

It’s exactly 10 years since a sweary Kinnear arrived on Tyneside – and we all know what happened next.

Rafa Benitez.

Rafa Benitez.

Tony Jimenez, the club’s vice-president (player recruitment) at the time of Keegan’s second spell as manager, responded to some of the transfer allegations in Keegan’s book in an interview this week.

Jimenez – who Keegan claimed had told him Luka Modric was “too lightweight for the Premier League – also claimed that Ashley could have sold the club to Sheikh Mansour 10 years ago before the multi-billionaire bought Manchester City.

“If he had played his cards right Mike could have sold Newcastle to Abu Dhabi before they bought Manchester City,” said Jimenez.

Just imagine.

Were Manchester City any bigger than Newcastle at the time? No. They’d won less trophies for a start.

But Sheikh Mansour, one of the richest men in the world, thought big.

The Abu Dhabi United Group has turned the club into a domestic force and a global brand.

Seven major trophies have been won since the takeover in 2008. Newcastle, meanwhile, have been relegated twice and find themselves again in the drop zone with six games played so far this season.

It’s hard to imagine what might have been had Sheikh Mansour bought United instead of City.

We know Ashley doesn’t have Sheikh Mansour’s wealth, but there has to be some ambition, some hope, on Tyneside.

Benitez – who had to sell to buy in the summer transfer window – is someone who understands the size, and potential, of the club.

The 58-year-old wants to commit his future to the club – and a long-term project at St James’s Park – but he won’t sign a new deal without a firm commitment on transfer funds and investment.

And that’s a commitment he’s unlikely to get from Ashley before his contract expires next summer.

There will be more protests from fans against Ashley before tomorrow’s home game against Leicester City.

The protests are getting louder and louder, but will Ashley listen?

Newcastle is a big club, but it could be so much bigger.