Newcastle United must keep Rafa Benitez as top priority after takeover
Richard Jolly puts down a list of to-dos for the new owners at Tyneside after end of Mike Ashley's reign
Newcastle, new owner? If and when Sheikh Khaled bin Sultan(??) completes a takeover at St James’ Park and ends Mike Ashley’s long and unpopular reign on Tyneside, the probability is that fans will be happy. The reality is that there will be much to accomplish, some of it urgent.
Keep Rafa Benitez
It is part of the quixotic way that Ashley has run Newcastle that an Uefa Champions League-winning manager’s contract has been allowed to run down.
Newcastle have run the risk of losing their greatest asset. Benitez’s deal is up at the end of June and talks are yet to result in an extension.
There is no doubt that the Spaniard wants an improved transfer budget and a change in the recruitment strategy. Benitez also tends to want control.
Given his popularity with the fanbase, he is in a strong bargaining position, but any new powerbroker should be keen to keep him.
Change the transfer-market policy
Ashley did not become a billionaire by accident. A man who is forever looking for a profit has taken the same approach into football.
Yet it has been a cause of frustration to managers that he is reluctant to buy players with a limited resale value. He does not believe in the concept of a loss-leader or an ageing player who can improve the team.
Salomon Rondon, at 29, is a case in point. The excellent on-loan Venezuelan would cost £16.5 million (Dh77m). It is a deal Newcastle should do.
Benitez has also done well as a bargain hunter, getting defender Fabian Schar for just £3m and goalkeeper Martin Dubravka for a mere £4.5m, but he cannot keep finding fine players on the cheap.
Show ambition to win the fans over
Long-suffering fans need something to celebrate. Newcastle’s wait for a trophy dates back to 1969.
While Ashley has prioritised staying in the Premier League, it has felt Newcastle’s only aim was grim survival. Some 64 other clubs have played in the last 16 of the FA Cup since they last did. A cup run, even if not all the way, would be a sign of a new ethos and help restore a feel-good factor that was lost a decade ago.
Ambition can also be demonstrated in other ways. When Newcastle bought Miguel Almiron in January, he replaced Michael Owen as their club-record signing. Owen joined in 2005.
It is an indication of how everyone else outspent them. Even now, Bournemouth’s biggest buy is costlier than Newcastle’s.
Increase the revenue
There is a sense that Ashley has held Newcastle back.
Attendances remain high, with an average of 51,121 this season, but Newcastle’s commercial revenue, which was £27.6m in 2005/06, was only £28m in 2017/18, partly because advertising hoardings have been given to Ashley’s Sports Direct company.
Perhaps that low figure also reflects Ashley’s unpopularity, but it also suggests that there is untapped potential, given the size and loyalty of the support.
Catch up with the best of the rest – and then the best
Benitez has done wonderfully to take Newcastle to 10th and 13th but, given their budget and calibre of players, they have been punching above their weight.
Ashley has taken the pragmatic view that it was not worth spending a fortune to go up a few places, but the problem is that a gulf may be emerging between the best of the rest – Wolverhampton Wanderers, Everton, Leicester City and West Ham United, all of whom have benefited from greater investment – and many of the bottom-half sides.
There is obviously a bigger gap to bridge from the next four to the top six and, since Leicester in 2016, no one has broken into that dominant group. It is no simple process.
Updated: May 28, 2019 03:32 PM