It’s good to talk. And Mike Ashley and Rafa Benitez are finally talking.
So it’s a start, but where will it end?
Ashley, Newcastle United’s owner, met Benitez and his players at an Italian restaurant in Ponteland on Wednesday night.
The billionaire spent more than three hours with Benitez and his squad before leaving, but not without controversy.
By the time Ashley left, members of The Magpies Group, which had held an open meeting earlier in the evening, were waiting outside the restaurant, and the founder and majority owner of Sports Direct appeared to raise two fingers from inside a waiting car.
However, Ashley, in a statement issued last night, said it was “inaccurate and irresponsible” to suggest he had made a “V-sign” outside Rialto, where a happy hour pizza or pasta costs £5.95.
Newcastle’s players just missed the happy hour, but was Benitez happy with what he heard from Ashley?
It was reported that Ashley reiterated his backing for Benitez – who is now in the final year of his contract – and also suggested that a sale was unlikely this season.
But will Ashley back Benitez – who had to sell to buy in the summer after refusing to sign a new deal – in January’s transfer window?
Benitez had said Ashley’s appearance at the club’s last two games was a “positive”.
I met Steve (Nickson), I met Lee (Charnley) at different times, but just talking about in general everything, and we will have this meeting with the scouts just to be sure that we know what we are looking for, and that’s it.Rafa Benitez
However, the 58-year-old – who has been diplomatic in recent weeks – will need convincing that Ashley has any intention of investing in the club’s squad and facilities.
Actions will speak louder than any words in an Italian restaurant.
Still, the fact that they have spoken is, at least, a positive. They need to talk. They have to talk. It’s a start, and they need to continue talking.
Ashley has sanctioned spending in previous Januarys when the club has found itself in relegation trouble.
In 2013, Moussa Sissoko, Mathieu Debuchy, Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa and Yoan Gouffran all arrived in January.
Three years later, the club signed Jonjo Shelvey and Henri Saivet.
January, however, isn’t a great month to do business, though Benitez and head of recruitment Steve Nickson have already identified a number of potential targets. They will continue to meet with scouts and sift through names between now and the New Year.
Speaking last week, Benitez said: “You have meetings at the end of the transfer window. Normally the scouts need some time, some holidays, and that has to be in September, because they finish and that’s when they go.
“When they come back is when you have a meeting and start talking about the future.
“I met Steve, I met Lee (Charnley) at different times, but just talking about in general everything, and we will have this meeting with the scouts just to be sure that we know what we are looking for, and that’s it.”
What the players make of the meal with Ashley is another thing entirely.
After all, they had been involved in another bonus dispute with the club in the summer. It was eventually resolved, though had the damage been done by then?
A year earlier, the squad had only wanted a bonus scheme comparable with their rivals.
They had been offered a pool of £1million for finishing 18th in the 2017-18 season. This was eventually raised to £4million. The squad went on to share a pot of £11million for finishing 10th.
At the restaurant, Ashley, reportedly, offered to pay for a holiday if they kept the club in the Premier League. But will that make any difference? And why didn’t he just offer the squad a better bonus scheme to start with?
After Saturday’s 2-0 home defeat to Leicester, I wrote that only Benitez and the players can get the club out of the mess that Ashley, largely, created at St James’s Park by withholding money in the summer.
Yes, signings would help in January, but any incoming players would need to be fit and ready to make an immediate impact at United.
Benitez needs more Premier League experience, and, above all else, more goals.
Just where are the goals coming from this season?
Newcastle didn’t look like scoring against Leicester and also failed to find the net against Crystal Palace a week earlier. Ashley – who didn’t attend a single game last season – watched both games.
Benitez will wait and see what Ashley lets him do in January before making any decisions on his future at the club.
Actions really do speak louder than words.