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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 June 2018

Newcastle United prospering on the pitch despite uncertainty off it

Rafa Benitez's side sit comfortably in the top half of the Premier League as Mike Ashley announced this week he is trying to sell the club by Christmas

Under Rafa Benitez, Newcastle United have made steady progress lately. Matthew Childs / Reuters
Under Rafa Benitez, Newcastle United have made steady progress lately. Matthew Childs / Reuters

As owners go, Mike Ashley tends to fall into the enigmatic, silent camp. His few public pronouncements often take the form of statements which do not always stand up to scrutiny.

His May announcement that Newcastle could have “every last penny that the club generates through promotion, player sales and other means in order to build for next season” did not feel the case when manager Rafa Benitez spent the summer aggrieved at an apparent lack of funds.

Tuesday’s pronouncement that Ashley is trying to sell Newcastle may have only been a formal conformation of what has informally felt the case for years, but the intention to be gone by Christmas does not guarantee United will have a buyer by then.

Ashley can feel a businessman accustomed to getting his own way and some such always look for an especially good deal. A value of £380 million (over Dh1.84 billion) has supposedly been attached to the club. Amanda Staveley, chief executive of the UAE firm PCP Capital Partners, is reportedly willing to offer £300 million. Even an experienced negotiator like her may find dealing with Ashley an experience.

And yet if the end of the beginning of Ashley’s reign came the best part of a decade ago, when the heady days of excitement, investment and ambition gave way to distrust, this may be the beginning of the end.

Rafa’s Way, Martin Hardy’s book about last season, was subtitled "the resurrection of Newcastle United" and concluded: “It was increasingly looking like a proud club had a future.” The recent past has been mired in uncertainty: Newcastle have often been in limbo. More beckons. Ashley’s representatives have insisted Benitez will not be denied funds to invest in January if Newcastle have not been sold, but that claim might invite scepticism.

But for now, a manager who tends to get involved in club politics has prospered by simply working with the limited materials at his disposal. Newcastle host Crystal Palace on Saturday nestling in the upper half of the table. After their summer of discontent and the season-opening successive defeats, they have prospered.

Benitez’s organisational prowess and strategic nous have been apparent. Newcastle have defended especially well with centre-back Jamaal Lascelles a particular revelation. They have been, to borrow one of Benitez’s favourite words, compact.

Mikel Merino, acquired after higher-profile, costlier targets eluded them, has added composure to the midfield. Joselu, plucked from the bottom of the striking shortlist after more potent forwards went elsewhere, runs around gamely. Matt Ritchie, signed to secure promotion from the Championship, ranks among the Premier League’s most reliable crossers.

They look very capable of staying up, which should form part of the appeal to prospective buyers. So might Benitez. Ashley may be able to attach a greater value to Newcastle because of the presence of a Champions League-winning manager. The Spaniard’s capacity to draw such displays from what can seem a glorified Championship side prompts questions what he might do with a bigger budget.

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Benitez ought to be able to empathise with potential investors. A pragmatist showed his romantic side by signing a deal with a second-tier outfit. Former owner John Hall said Newcastle, whose average attendance is 52,067, have the potential to be a top-six club again. They, Aston Villa and Leeds represent the three great cases of unrealised potential in English football, but only one is in the top flight now.

“You have the possibility to build something but it has to be the right environment,” Benitez told Hardy.

The Ashley regime has not offered that environment. The hope for Newcastle is that a new owner would change that. If, that is, the Ashley era actually does end.

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