What happens behind closed doors at Newcastle United will decide the club’s fate on the field
It was a big day at St James’s Park – on and off the pitch.
Yes, the three points Newcastle United took from Cardiff City were significant.
But what happened long after the final whistle at an empty stadium was arguably more significant.
Ashley, flanked by associates Justin Barnes and Keith Bishop, met Rafa Benitez in his office for informal talks after a 3-0 win which saw the club climb out of the Premier League’s relegation zone.
The transfer window is at the top of Benitez’s agenda with 11 days left before it closes.
Benitez has kept a lid on his frustrations by refusing to speak about the transfer window.
But they have been simmering away since he said he was “worried” after the Boxing Day defeat to Liverpool at Anfield.
Sources close to Ashley indicated months ago that there would be money available to Benitez if Ashley was still owner when the window opened.
Ashley is still owner, but not a penny has been spent. Yet.
Benitez doesn’t have a budget of his own. United’s manager – who submitted lists of potential targets last month – has had to put what has been described as a “business case” forward for signings.
Ashley’s preference, it seems, is again for younger players with a re-sale value.
Benitez – who has long wanted a budget which he can spend how he pleases – is more fixated on ability than age.
Will Ashley, having seen his decision to cut off funds in the summer imperil the club, now let Benitez take back control of transfers?
Benitez, forced to sell to buy in the summer after refusing to sign a new contract, wants a No 10, a winger and a left-back to strengthen a squad which has been found wanting up to now.
Newcastle, however, weren’t found wanting against a poor Cardiff team.
And it was an astute Benitez signing who made the difference on a bitterly cold Tyneside afternoon.
Fabian Schar was signed for just over £3million last summer.
Ashley saw for himself what good business that deal was against Cardiff.
Schar, a technically-gifted defender, took the ball just inside the visitors’ half with 24 minutes on the clock.
Schar looked up – and started running with the ball. He wasn’t challenged or stopped, and the 27-year-old didn’t stop running until he reached the box, where he rolled the ball past Neil Etheridge with his weaker left foot.
It was a superb goal, but there was more to come from Schar.
Unusually, a Neil Warnock team found itself being bullied at St James’s Park. United stood up to Cardiff and more than matched them physically.
Isaac Hayden and Sean Longstaff dominated the midfield, and Ayoze Perez caused problems for Joe Bennett all afternoon.
Cardiff themselves offered very little in the final third of the pitch.
Newcastle’s second goal came from a set-piece. A Matt Ritchie corner was flicked on by Jamaal Lascelles – who had recovered from injury in time to line up against Cardiff – towards Schar, who poked it past Etheridge to become the first United defender to score two goals in a game since Philippe Albert in 1996.
Schar put a header over later in the half.
Perez – who had netted in the club’s FA Cup win over Blackburn Rovers four days earlier – netted a third from close range after Salomon Rondon delivered a low cross.
Schar and his team-mates, beaten eight times on home turf this season, left St James’s Park with smiles on their faces.
So too did the club’s fans.
But was Benitez smiling after his first meeting with Ashley since October?