Last Saturday at Selhurst Park, Mike Ashley attended his first Newcastle match in eighteen months. It was one that won’t live long in the memory.
In fact for most owners it should have been a stark wake-up call for just how desperately investment is needed in their football club. Mike Ashley is not most owners though. Despite twice being relegated and a string of managerial departures he has systematically starved Newcastle of the required quality to blossom in the Premier League.
Most managers would likely have thrown in the towel by now. But then, Rafa Benitez is not most managers. He is one of the most loyal and genuine head coaches at this level and no doubt will feel a sense of duty to the Newcastle fans. He will want to at least try and stick it out for as long as possible rather than abandon the supporters. Ashley, shrewd as he is, will be all too aware of this.
With just two points and four goals to their name so far, its been a pretty bleak start for The Magpies. Nothing is fatal at this stage, but the early signs have been far from encouraging for their beleaguered supporters.
Two of the three promoted clubs look strong and the two sides immediately above them in the table have at least shown flashes of good quality in their early exchanges. Newcastle have not.
Short of goals, creativity and confidence, they were left to cling on for a point at Palace. It was not enough to get them out of the bottom three, and with Leicester and Manchester United on the horizon, you wouldn’t bet on a quick turn around at St James’s Park.
With Rafa in charge, they at least have a coach with experience and quality, it may be their only lifeline this season. However, even that has looked frayed in recent weeks.
“I have to take this as a positive. If he has come to see the team, he can see the players, he can see what we have got and he can be sensible. Hopefully he will be ready to do something to help.” Benitez told reporters at Selhurst Park.
To hear such a talented manager sound so desperate and defeated is a tragic sign of the times in the North East.
For eleven miserable years, Ashley has constricted Newcastle and led them with such little ambition, that the club are now being out spent and out fought by almost every club in the league. When you consider Michael Owen is still their all time record signing, you get an idea of just bad things have gotten on Tyneside.
Building on a strong 10th place finish from last season would surely have been the better course of action for the London based owner. He is actively seeking a buyer and would be more likely to find one if he was selling a club that was solidly placed in the top tier.
Instead he has opted for a self-harming, nonsensical policy of closing the purse strings and leaving his manager to beg, steal and borrow players for this campaign.
If indeed he is gambling in the knowledge of Rafa’s well documented loyalty and rapport with the fans, then surely this is a stupid and outright dangerous policy. Benitez will only tolerate so much and will ultimately not want another relegation to soil his name. They are staring down the barrel this season and look severely short of the required quality to get out of trouble, Rafa knows all too well just how limited his players are.
If Rafa walks, and Ashley’s loses his game of Chicken, what then for his club and his ambitions of selling up? They are no longer an attractive proposition for decent managers, who would want to go to a club in such a mess? This is surely something Ashley must ponder and is perhaps what Rafa was hinting at when he urged his boss to be sensible and invest.