Rafael Benítez Open to Job Offers Amid Anger Over Newcastle Transfers

Rafael Benítez no longer regards his job at Newcastle as a long-term project.

Rafael Benítez has lost virtually all trust in Mike Ashley’s regime at Newcastle United and, no longer regarding his job as a long-term project, would be receptive to alternative offers of employment at similarly sized Premier League clubs.

Although Newcastle’s manager will not walk out in the wake of a disastrous transfer window, Benítez is angry, deeply frustrated and ready to contemplate life away from Tyneside.

He came extremely close to taking over at West Ham two years ago, only for the mooted deal to be hijacked by Real Madrid at the 11th hour, but remains much admired by the London Stadium board.

With Slaven Bilic under considerable pressure at West Ham, it is not inconceivable the post could shortly become vacant. Were this to happen Benítez would seriously consider relocating to London – although Ashley would be expected to fight hard to keep him at St James’ Park.

A clause in the 57-year-old’s contract stipulates that either Newcastle’s manager or the club seeking to employ him must pay £5m‑6m to trigger his release, and Ashley would be expected to play hardball over exit negotiations.

With the Sports Direct owner likely to force Benítez to resign rather than offer a rival club permission to speak to him, any departure is likely to prove anything but straightforward.

Ashley’s apparent determination to retain the services of a manager whose presence he believes not only boosts Newcastle’s brand value significantly but can also help him eventually sell the club, seems at odds with his failure to fulfil the former Liverpool, Chelsea and Real Madrid manager’s wishes.

Despite Benítez cutting the wage bill by around £200,000 a week in the last 10 days, Newcastle failed to sign anyone on deadline day, leaving a manager who no longer believes it will be possible to fulfil his ambitions of leading the team back into the Champions League under Ashley’s administration, without a fit specialist left-back.

Although Newcastle signed six players for a total of around £36m, 16 departures dictated their net spend on transfer fees was only around £20m – distinctly modest for a newly promoted club. Such apparent parsimony also left Benítez without an extra goalkeeper, striker, winger and central midfielder.

This failure to reinforce the squad represents a high stakes gamble on the part of Ashley who appears convinced Benítez’s stellar coaching ability can keep Newcastle in the Premier League.

A relegation skirmish was the last thing on the manager’s mind when, shortly after winning the Championship, Ashley promised him “every last penny” of available funds to spend over the summer, but now threatens to become a reality.

Concerns crystallized in June. By then Justin Barnes, a lawyer and long term Ashley confidant, had become heavily involved in club business alongside Lee Charnley, the managing director, and delighted in haggling over the fine details of transfers. Barnes’s determination to secure the best possible deal for his boss arguably led to Benítez missing out on a season-long loan deal for the Chelsea forward Tammy Abraham, who ended up joining Swansea.

A goalkeeper was always high on Benítez’s wish list but, early in the window, a similar failure to close the deal, saw him lose Manchester City’s Willy Caballero to Chelsea. Newcastle’s hierarchy questioned whether he needed a new keeper, leaving Benítez – who had thought that being given the title manager as opposed to head coach would confer a certain degree of autonomy – feeling let down.

If he became alternately puzzled and distressed over the board’s apparent refusal to fully trust his judgement, a general sense of dismay grew as it took almost two months apiece to complete the signings of Florian Lejeune and Mikel Merino respectively. That was despite the fact that Lejeune’s contract at Eibar contained an £8.8m release clause and Merino was arriving on loan from Borussia Dortmund.

As a Champions League winning manager who spent Wednesday at an elite coaches convention in Nyon, Switzerland, Benítez possesses peerless contacts but Newcastle’s peculiarly idiosyncratic modus operandi dictated he felt often unable to utilize them properly.

Aware the budget would be limited and the squad required pruning he was willing to wheel and deal this summer but now seems convinced Ashley will never finance an attempt to take Newcastle back into regular European combat.

More pressingly, a failure to recruit sufficient new faces has left Benítez – who only last week was adamant he required at least two signings before the window’s closure – needing to repair his relationship with Dwight Gayle. He had originally planned to sell last season’s leading scorer but, due to the lack of a suitable attacking replacement, instead ended up keeping him.

Similarly Benítez wanted to send Freddie Woodman, his gifted young England Under-21 goalkeeper out on loan but has been forced to ask him to stay put and serve as third choice keeper.

Individually and collectively it has turned into a summer of wasted opportunities which is ending with Newcastle’s much loved manager balking at what he now, reluctantly, regards as a strictly limited future on Tyneside.

(The Guardian)

Newcastle Are Testing Rafael Benítez’s Patience with Tardy Transfer Work

Rafael Benítez desperately wants high-quality reinforcements at Newcastle after winning promotion to the Premier League. Photograph: Owen Humphreys/PA

Shortly after 8am on Monday the security barrier at a deceptively nondescript‑looking suburban football training facility was raised and Rafael Benítez’s car entered the sometimes parallel universe known as Newcastle United.

A couple of minutes later the club’s manager was pictured smiling warmly while extracting a bag from the boot before heading in to his office and awaiting the arrival of first-team players reporting back for the start of pre‑season training.

Benítez’s body language seemed far from that of a manager supposedly close to quitting and club sources confidently expect him to still be in the post by the time the Premier League season kicks off next month.

There is, however, a growing acknowledgement that the former Liverpool, Chelsea and Real Madrid manager is becoming increasingly irked by the absence of new signings.

It remains very early days – and Benítez cautioned in May that it was not “always possible” to “do business early” – but a coach anxious to recruit between eight and 12 players had expected to welcome some fresh faces by now.

Instead the only purchase to date is the £6m acquisition of the winger Christian Atsu, who spent last season on loan at St James’ Park from Chelsea.

This perhaps explains why the past fortnight has seen a series of newspaper reports suggesting that Newcastle’s adored Spanish coach wants out. Written by highly regarded, high-profile reporters with no ostensible connection to the north-east, such pieces should probably be seen as part of a political manoeuvre intended to send Mike Ashley a not so subtle message.

Given that less than two months ago Newcastle’s owner promised that Benítez would be given “every last penny” of available funds to strengthen the squad, fans had hoped that the days of Newcastle being in seemingly interminable turmoil were behind them.

For too many years the club’s inherent instability has left supporters feeling like inhabitants of a city situated above a major geological fault line, constantly living in fear of the next earthquake.

The good news now is that, despite some undeniable behind-the-scenes tensions, Benítez desperately wants things to work out and, ideally, envisages settling in for a long stay featuring the collection of a trophy or two. Having decided against taking a summer holiday he has spent recent weeks working busily behind the scenes and is happy to have seen the former all-powerful chief scout Graham Carr – with whom he did not always see eye to eye – replaced by a new head of recruitment in Steve Nickson, Newcastle’s former under-21 scout.

Benítez has fallen for both club and city and remains excited by the former’s vast, untapped potential. Meanwhile, Ashley is said to be equally keen to keep the much-decorated Champions League winner and believes his hopes of selling Newcastle for a high price can only be enhanced by having a world-class coach à la Benítez in office.

The bad news is that there is a disconnect between theory and practice. Rather like Alex Cruz, the controversial, cost-cutting-fixated chief executive of British Airways, Newcastle’s owner is so obsessed with getting value for money that the bigger picture is sometimes obscured.

Benítez broadly agrees with Ashley’s idea of signing mainly players younger than 26 with potentially high resale values but argues that there are exceptions to every rule and that, sometimes, you really do need to speculate to accumulate.

Caught between the two, Lee Charnley, Newcastle’s chief executive, must keep coach and owner happy while also coping with the attentions of Justin Barnes, an abrasive lawyer and long-term ‘fixer’ for the Sports Direct owner. Barnes, possibly priming the club for a sale, has made his presence felt at St James’ Park since the new year and does not like to see money wasted. Such minute attention to detail possibly explains why the transfer of Florian Lejeune, the Eibar centre-half, who finally arrived in the north-east for a medical on Monday, has become so protracted, despite Lejeune’s contract containing an apparently straightforward £8.6m release clause.

Barnes’s apparent mission is complicated by Newcastle’s £400m price tag. Tellingly a rather crude leak to the press about the club talking to potential Chinese investors was clearly designed to smoke out potential interest. Unfortunately it failed to take a recent, somewhat game-changing directive from the Beijing government, instructing speculators to stop “irrational investment” in overseas football projects, into account.

In the absence of a takeover any time soon – and if one does happen expect it to be unheralded, taking place overnight à la Manchester City’s transfer into Gulf Arab ownership – Ashley and Benítez need to find a way of making things work.

It is understood that the latter’s contract stipulates that he would have to pay Newcastle a sizeable sum in compensation were he to resign for certain reasons but few club insiders believe things will really come to that.

If second guessing Ashley remains a fool’s game, the most likely forecast involves a compromise guaranteeing the manager’s at least short-term contentment. Any such rapprochement would surely mean that, after 10 years in control, the owner will finally break Newcastle’s £17m transfer record. That was the sum it cost Freddy Shepherd, the club’s former chairman, to bring Michael Owen from Real Madrid to Tyneside in 2005.

If Ashley’s resistance to spending more than £15m on a single individual partly explains the team’s two subsequent relegations, the failure of Owen to live up to the attendant hype serves as a reminder that it is all too easy to waste money in the transfer market. And particularly one as inflated as this summer’s in which £30m appears to have become the old £10m.

Even so, Newcastle’s newly promoted, second-tier-winning squad desperately needs high-calibre reinforcements and after the club missed out on a few early summer targets including Chelsea’s Tammy Abraham, Ashley needs to reassure Benítez of his intent by getting a few deals over the line pronto.

With cash from the Premier League television deal to come, accounts in the black and the £30m accrued from selling Moussa Sissoko to Tottenham Hotspur last summer unspent, money is undoubtedly there. Indeed the club have made inquiries about several players, most recently including Hull City’s Kamil Grosicki and Tom Huddlestone, Arsenal’s Calum Chambers and Kieran Gibbs, Burnley’s Andre Gray, Villarreal’s Cédric Bakambu and Manchester City’s Joe Hart.

Talking about purchasing and actually buying are two very different things but Charnley is sufficiently emboldened to have told a recent fans’ forum that a breakthrough is “imminent” and new faces will shortly start appearing.

For the moment, Benítez very much wants to offer the chief executive the benefit of the doubt but is well aware that, ultimately, Newcastle need him much more than he needs them.

(The Guardian)

Sunderland Continue to Pay the Price for More than 10 Years of Mismanagement


Sunderland- During an often proud history, featuring the collection of six English league titles, Sunderland have variously been dubbed “the team of all the talents” and the “Bank of England club”.

These days the latter – attached in the 1950s – seems something of a sick joke. After a decade spent in the Premier League, the newly relegated Wearside club somehow find themselves at least £110m in debt, up for sale and managerless.

With 12, mostly out-of-contract, players having departed since the end of last season, the squad is looking skinny before the start of pre-season training next week.

A humiliating miscalculation dictated that rather than rubber-stamp the installation of Derek McInnes as David Moyes’s successor last week, Aberdeen’s manager had an 11th-hour change of heart, opting to remain at Pittodrie.

With Martin Bain, Sunderland’s chief executive, having spent weeks courting McInnes it was an embarrassing rebuff but the latter’s camp maintain that, rather then merely playing a game to secure enhanced terms at Aberdeen, the Scot was concerned that any prospective new owner might not have wanted him at the Stadium of Light.

It means that while Short continues to talk to both an unnamed German consortium and another fronted by representatives of Fulwell73 – a TV production company run by fanatical Sunderland supporters which envisages offering the former England defender Tony Adams a key role at the club – the football operation remains in limbo.

Sunderland were so confident of recruiting McInnes and his backroom team that they parted company with Paul Bracewell, Moyes’s former assistant, last week. His departure leaves Robbie Stockdale, the first-team coach, preparing to take the players to Austria for a pre-season training camp. Significantly, Stockdale is one of only three senior support staff –the others are the goalkeeping coach Adrian Tucker and academy manager Elliot Dickman – still in post.

There are shades of the chaos at Hull City last summer when fevered talks about takeovers which never materialised prompted a recruitment freeze which, in turn, prefaced Steve Bruce’s resignation as manager and ensured only nine first-teamers clocked on for a pre-season trip to Austria.

Short, who has been wanting to sell Sunderland for quite a while, appreciates the potential to cause enduring damage and has set a deadline – thought to be early July – by which time a purchaser must have reached an agreement in principle. Should no deal be on the table by then the American financier will abandon talks and accept he is stuck with the club for the foreseeable future.

This deadline, intended to determine whether the consortiums are serious, could fire the starting gun for due diligence. A routine process likely to take some weeks, it would involve the would-be buyer going through Sunderland’s books with the help of forensic accountants. Should there be no nasty surprises, the new owner would then have to be approved by the Football League before completion, suggesting that, realistically, nothing is likely to be signed and sealed until early autumn.

More immediately, a price has to be agreed. Short – who has invested around £200m of his personal fortune in Sunderand since 2008 – is understood to have rejected a £50m bid from the German consortium and remains resolute that he will not sell for less than £85m, a significant reduction from last season’s £170m asking price. Fulwell73’s interest is believed to be bankrolled by wealthy American backers and they, too, are said to value Sunderland at around £50m.

If Short, who has hired the renowned football takeover specialist Dr Keith Harris to assist him, stays on, he is currently minded to allow Moyes’s successor no more than £15m-20m to invest in the squad. Considering Sunderland have just sold Jordan Pickford to Everton for £30m and will receive £47m worth of parachute payments this season alone, it seems a bit penny-pinching.

Short, though, has become fed-up of the transfer calamities his club specialised in as he worked his way through seven managers in five largely chaotic years. The latest example features last week’s court of arbitration for sport ruling that Sunderland must pay Internazionale £9.2m for Ricardo Álvarez.

Álvarez, signed by Gus Poyet, joined Sunderland on a season-long loan in August 2014. Ill-equipped for English football, the Argentinian winger made only made five Premier League starts but his contract stipulated the club would have to sign him permanently providing they avoided relegation. Sunderland claimed the clause became void, citing a knee problem which they said Inter had neglected to address, but CAS effectively dismissed that argument.

Even so, it seems hard to credit precisely how Sunderland are in such a mess after 10 years in the world’s wealthiest league. As their Sweden Under-21 striker Joel Asoro recently put it: “Sunderland received £93m for finishing bottom of the Premier League. It’s crazy. Why don’t they have the money?”

The answer resides amid a catalogue of appalling buys by assorted managers. Damningly, Sunderland sold no player on for a profit between August 2011 and January 2017 and have made money on only five of the last 48 they have traded. As Asoro added: “Sunderland have had a lot of money, it’s just they haven’t used it properly.”

Repairing the resultant mess at a club where attendances somehow remained above the 40,000 mark last season seems daunting. At least the takeover talks-induced hiatus has bought Bain time to consider the candidatures of, among others, Preston’s Simon Grayson, Nigel Clough of Burton, Barnsley’s Paul Heckingbottom, Sheffield United’s Chris Wilder and the unattached Paul Lambert.

Those names may fail to excite Sunderland fans in the way that the former CSKA Moscow and Russia coach Leonid Slutsky has enthused their Hull counterparts or the newly appointed Garry Monk is galvanising Middlesbrough. Indeed the suspicion is that Bain – advised by his fellow Scots Walter Smith and Graeme Souness – lacks imagination in the recruitment sphere.

The former male model turned chief executive of Rangers and Maccabi Tel Aviv is smooth and suave but needs to demonstrate that his undoubted style is underpinned by the sort of substance urgently required to rebuild Sunderland.

The Guardian Sport

Steve Gibson’s Bad Call Cost Boro – He Must Get the Next One Right

London – Steve Gibson is frequently, and usually quite rightly, presented as exhibit A when it comes to listing the properties required to run a football club properly. There are valid, enduring reasons why Middlesbrough’s owner and chairman is regarded as a role model in his field but this season even Gibson’s feet turned to clay.

Loyalty is normally to be applauded but in this case it proved self-destructive as he waited way too long to replace Aitor Karanka as manager and when he did, turned to Karanka’s assistant, the untested Steve Agnew, instead of appointing an experienced alternative. Agnew has collected only six points from a possible 27. If his elevation seemed like a cheap option at the time, it has proved to be appallingly costly.

There is talk now of Boro turning to Nigel Pearson or Alan Pardew, or maybe Ryan Giggs – Gibson, who is advised by Peter Kenyon, the former Manchester United and Chelsea chief executive, knows his club lack box office appeal right now and has had past success with Old Trafford alumni in Bryan Robson and Steve McClaren. Unfortunately, such promises of jam tomorrow cannot erase the sense of an opportunity wasted.

A combination of Karanka’s cautious tactics and Agnew’s struggles to reboot the team’s mindset has brought Boro only five Premier League wins – Sunderland (twice), Bournemouth, Hull City and Swansea City – and 26 goals in 36 games.

Gibson should arguably have sacked José Mourinho’s Real Madrid sidekick straight after promotion last summer. The Basque, remember, had been told briefly to stay away from the club by officials, missing a defeat at Charlton in March 2016, after a bitter dressing-room row with players.

Although he returned, deep-seated fault lines remained and all the airbrushing in the world could not repair damaged relationships. The fallout dictated that Karanka persistently sidelined Stewart Downing – one player who might have made a difference – and the mood at Rockliffe Hall, Boro’s well-appointed training ground, never seemed quite right.

To varying degrees all managers are control freaks but Karanka took things to new heights, eschewing sensible delegation and creating an oppressive working environment which quite possibly ended up inhibiting certain players. Gibson, inexplicably indulging him, turned a blind eye until it was far too late.

If Karanka was a brilliant defensive coach – Boro have conceded only 48 League goals this season while Hull and Swansea have let in 69 apiece – man-management was not the former Real Madrid central defender’s forte. He underestimated the importance of goalscoring, moreover, and arguably made a critical error in persistently refusing to pick Jordan Rhodes, a prolific scorer at Championship level who he moved on to Sheffield Wednesday in January.

The Teesside club somehow managed to win promotion having scored only 63 goals last season – Newcastle United rattled in 85 on their way to winning the second tier this month – but Boro’s safety-first tactics all too often left Álvaro Negredo, the £100,000-a-week loanee from Valencia, horribly isolated up front. Indeed, it is to Negredo’s credit that he registered nine league goals for a team who, during a particularly depressing six-game run between January and March, managed only one league goal, and that from the penalty spot.

Part of the problem was that of the nine players Boro signed last summer only one (the Arsenal loanee Calum Chambers) was British and most needed time to adjust to their new Premier League habitat. Whereas the former Atalanta midfielder Marten de Roon has improved over the campaign it quickly became clear that others, most notably the Denmark and former Ajax winger Viktor Fischer, were floundering.

If offering the gifted but flaky Uruguayan playmaker Gastón Ramírez a permanent deal proved a mistake, so too was swapping Albert Adomah for the erratically raw Adama Traoré.

The good news is that the majority of the players who won automatic promotion in 2016 and reached the play-off final the previous year remain and should, once again, be effective at Championship level.

George Friend, Adam Clayton, Adam Forshaw, Dani Ayala and Downing know how to win second-tier games. Similarly, Karanka’s January signings, Rudy Gestede and Patrick Bamford, may not be quite good enough for the top flight but they could prosper a division lower.

Víctor Valdés, the former Barcelona and Manchester United goalkeeper, will almost certainly depart but Connor Ripley – the son of the former Boro, Blackburn Rovers and England winger Stuart Ripley – has attracted rave reviews on loan at Oldham, keeping more clean sheets (18) than any other League One keeper.

If Ripley starts next season in goal he is unlikely to have Ben Gibson in front of him, with the owner’s nephew, impressive at centre-half this season, likely to be the subject of a Premier League bidding war.

Gibson Sr has indicated that any money raised from sales will be reinvested in the team and such a cash infusion will surely be necessary in what promises to be an ultra-competitive division, with Sunderland, Aston Villa and Leeds United among those desperate to finish in the top two.

Having money is one thing, spending it astutely quite another, so Boro’s owner needs to ensure he gives it to the right manager. If Gibson is to restore his sure-footed reputation, he must imminently make a very big decision – and this time get it right.

The Guardian Sport

David Moyes’ Old-School Ways Helped Drag Ailing Sunderland over the Edge


London – Within hours of becoming Sunderland’s manager last July David Moyes boarded a privately chartered plane. He and the team were bound for a French training camp but an ominous grinding noise from the engines and slightly tense looks exchanged among the cabin crew soon confirmed they would be making a detour.

Engine failure had prompted an awkward emergency landing. With the benefit of hindsight, it seemed an ominously emblematic portent of an impending season destined to conclude with the club bumping down hard into the Championship and Moyes’s carefully burnished reputation in ruins.

The harbingers of trouble ahead did not end there. About to touch down at a small Austrian airport before a pre-season friendly, Sunderland’s plane subsequently endured a further drama. With a safe landing deemed impossible, the engines throttled ferociously, the aircraft’s noise pitched violently upwards and a shaken Moyes realized they were, in aviation parlance, “going round”, in other words taking off again.

Although it set lights flashing and alarms buzzing while briefly electrifying the atmosphere in the air traffic control tower, the pilot landed at the second attempt and always seemed to have a potentially high-risk situation under control. In sharp contrast Sunderland’s manager never really had a grip on a toxic Wearside inheritance.

With relegation confirmed by Saturday’s 1-0 home defeat against Bournemouth, Moyes has dropped heavy hints he could well shortly part company with the club and, if so, there will be few tears. The former Everton, Manchester United and Real Sociedad manager may be only 54 but his strangely dated mind-set has arguably exacerbated Sunderland’s long-standing stasis.

If, off the pitch, his observations that two of his African players, Papy Djilobodji and Didier Ndong, required more “Britishness” in their football jarred, on it, Sunderland’s tactics have frequently seemed somewhat binary for a division filled with kaleidoscopic positional rotation and ever shifting systems. Some players reputedly found training slightly old-fashioned.

The impression this may be a man stuck in his ways and reluctant to challenge received wisdoms was reinforced when Moyes claimed teams “don’t win things” with back threes.

Further question marks appeared when a manager who spent £30m last summer set about signing several players he had previously worked with at Everton and Manchester United, including Victor Anichebe and the United loanee Adnan Januzaj.

Having failed properly to address the squad’s chronic lack of pace and creativity, Sunderland’s seventh manager in five turbulent years consistently sidelined the gifted Wahbi Khazri, a playmaking success under Sam Allardyce last spring.

Sunderland fans cannot comprehend why Allardyce’s successor failed to acquire the former France midfielder Yann M’Vila, outstanding on loan last season, and available for £7m from Rubin Kazan, but Moyes was fast discovering that, to echo Kevin Keegan, the job “wasn’t like it said in the brochure”.

If he possibly did not fight hard enough for M’Vila, Sunderland’s dismal recent performances should be assessed in the context of some significant managerial mitigating factors.

Last July Moyes was unaware that Ellis Short, the owner and a man initially delighted to secure the Scot’s services at the fifth attempt, hoped to sell the club. Neither did he appreciate the scale of the debt – currently £110m with wages representing an alarming 78 percent of turnover.

After a series of grueling relegation battles Sunderland were an established bottom-five Premier League club shouldering a top-10 wage bill. Had Allardyce, highly impressive on Wearside last season when his sports science regimen raised fitness levels dramatically, not been lured away to, very briefly, coach England, he may conceivably have broken this cycle of struggle. Yet well before his departure the current Crystal Palace manager’s relationship with Short had become severely strained, with the transfer budget a sore point.

Privately Moyes – who considered resigning last autumn – feels similarly let down. His critics, meanwhile, argue that his limitations, particularly in the recruitment sphere, have been horribly exposed by Hull City’s Marco Silva. The Portuguese, after taking over in January and immediately selling his two best players, Robert Snodgrass and Jake Livermore, for a combined £20m, revitalized the club with seven eclectic imports, five on loan.

Whereas Hull recruited cleverly Sunderland have bought very badly in recent years, with only four of their past 47 signings sold on for a profit. Short has acknowledged this in a written apology to supporters.

It dictates that, despite crowds frequently in excess of 45,000 and a very well-appointed training facility – Allardyce said it was the best he had worked at – Sunderland and success have long been strangers.

Whoever is in charge next season will preside over radical change in an unforgiving Championship. With nine senior professionals, including Jan Kirchhoff, John O’Shea and Seb Larsson, out of contract in June a squad overhaul beckons.

A clause in Jermain Defoe’s contract permits the England striker to depart for free but Jordan Pickford’s excellent goalkeeping, featuring some brilliant footwork, will prompt a high-price transfer and the center-half Lamine Koné should also command a decent fee.

Talented as that trio are few disagree with Moyes’s oft-repeated assertion that, collectively, the squad is “limited”.

The Guardian Sport

Newcastle are Back in the Premier League – What Happens Now Depends on Mike Ashley


Why did it take so long to confirm promotion?

Given that Benítez invested £55m in 12 players last summer (although he achieved a £30m transfer profit after raising £85m in sales from his newly relegated squad) many neutrals expected Newcastle to be up by March at the latest. In contrast, those with intimate knowledge of the Championship believe Benítez has worked wonders, fully earning his £5m-a-year salary.

They point out that, during the previous five seasons, only one side, Burnley, have secured immediate automatic promotion the year after dropping out of the Premier League. Chris Hughton, who has taken Brighton up and also won the Championship with Newcastle in 2010, ranks among those who believe the second tier is infinitely tougher than seven years ago, with players considerably fitter and, thanks to advances in match analysis techniques, managers better prepared tactically.

The Tyneside challenge was further complicated by the reality that opponents viewed trips to St James’ Park, with its invariable 52,000 full houses, as “cup finals” and raised their game accordingly. Visitors also tended to turn up in packed defence mode, which does not suit either Newcastle’s or their manager’s preference for playing on the counterattack.

Will the club be sold in the coming weeks?

Watch this space. It is quite possible that nothing will happen and Newcastle simply continue under Mike Ashley’s ownership but senior club sources acknowledge that there has been discreet interest from assorted parties in recent months. If – and it is only an if – a takeover does happen, expect it to be as sudden and unexpected as Manchester City’s switch to Emirati control.

Possible buyers? Well, the state of Qatar is reportedly weighing up purchasing a Premier League club and rumours of Chinese interest refuse to disappear. Ashley would demand a high price, and is sufficiently contrary to suddenly decide to keep the club, but purchasers are attracted by those 52,000 crowds, Newcastle’s international reach – the former chairman Freddy Shepherd may have exaggerated slightly when he once claimed his was the world’s eighth most popular team but the club are undeniably high profile – their rare city-centre location in a regional capital and, of course, the transformative presence of Benítez.

Will Benítez stay?

The million-dollar question. In January – when Ashley refused to allow his manager to buy the winger and central midfielder he craved – the former Liverpool and Real Madrid manager indicated he could well depart this summer.

Benítez, long admired by, among others, West Ham United, would not lack offers but the January frosting of relationships has long since thawed. Indeed, harmony is said to now be restored, with two recent transfer summits to discuss summer spending having proceeded “positively”.

Critically, the manager appears to have regained charge of recruitment, with the influence of Graham Carr, the once powerful chief scout who has Ashley’s ear, much diminished. The big concerns are that Benítez and Ashley rarely speak directly and that the former is keener on buying the odd player older than 25 than the latter.

Benítez’s affection for the club and the city runs deep and he would like nothing better than to stay at St James’ Park, win a trophy and take Newcastle back into the Champions League – but he is not a complete romantic and will walk if things are not to his liking.

The problem is Ashley and the Spaniard like to be in control, and Benítez is perhaps far too practised a political operator for the owner’s comfort. Last summer Ashley’s edict to club staff was: “What Rafa wants, Rafa gets” but the mood music is no longer quite the same.

How important is the manager staying to the club’s future?

They say no one is indispensable but Newcastle fans would tell you that Benítez is the exception to the rule. His amalgam of tactical shrewdness, smart man management and genuine warmth – (long term “Rafaology” students say he is revealing his “human side” much more these days) – have helped re-connect previously fractured bonds, between club, supporters and city.

A regular at football related community events on Tyneside, Benítez has invested the job with the sort of class and dignity not seen since Chris Hughton’s days at St James’ Park. Significantly his CV dictates he possesses the sort of “pulling power” capable of attracting some of Europe’s best players to Newcastle but will Mike Ashley facilitate a top tier “Rafalution”?

The Spaniard is clearly not quite sure as, with promotion secured, the politics have begun in earnest. “You never know,” he said when asked on Monday night to confirm he would still be in charge come August. “That is football. I’m really pleased to be here. Hopefully we can put in the foundations for something that will be a guarantee for the future. I am sure if we do the right things, we can prepare everything to be strong enough for the Premier League.”

The subtext will not be lost on Ashley.

Does the squad need overhauling?

Most definitely. Benítez bought players specifically to win promotion but if he is to keep the team in the top division, let alone achieve his ambition of taking Newcastle back into Europe, major surgery will be required. It has been agreed that a minimum of six recruits are needed, with a centre-half, a left-back, a holding midfielder, a creative midfielder, a winger and a couple of strikers looming large on the managerial shopping list.

Who might Benítez buy?

Time will tell but there are a few clues to be going on with. Bas Dost, the prolific Sporting Lisbon player, is a striker he tried to sign last summer and could do with now – but the Dutchman would not come cheap. Carr, incidentally, is also a Dost fan, having urged Ashley to buy him for years.

Swansea City’s Gylfi Sigurdsson is another at the pricey end of the radar, while Crystal Palace’s Andros Townsend returning to Newcastle seems a real possibility. Hull City’s midfielder Sam Clucas and their centre-half Harry Maguire have been scouted by Newcastle and Benítez is said to also like the Stoke City defender Ryan Shawcross as well as Middlesbrough’s Ben Gibson.

Further forward, a move for Liverpool’s Daniel Sturridge has been discussed and Newcastle have conducted background checks on the character of Burnley’s principal striker, Andre Gray.

Benítez remains very enthusiastic about the creative midfield talents of Fulham’s Tom Cairney and Manchester City’s Fabian Delph has been mentioned but the second ruptured cruciate ligament sustained by the Bournemouth striker Callum Wilson may remove him from the equation, scuppering a long-mooted move.

Who from the existing team should prosper in the Premier League?

Jonjo Shelvey, Matt Ritchie and Ciaran Clark. Isaac Hayden could also develop into a useful top-flight midfielder and Karl Darlow surely deserves a chance in goal. After scoring so many goals, Dwight Gayle, too, should play a part but it is not entirely inconceivable that he could be sold on for a profit to fund signings. Expect plenty of departures, however.

Will Benítez be able to take Newcastle back into Europe?

Why not? Europe represents the Spaniard’s natural habitat and an arena he feels Newcastle should be competing in. But, barring a takeover, it all depends on the scale of Ashley’s vision.

The Guardian Sport

Toxic Mood at Relegation-Threatened Sunderland Is Helping Nobody


Managerial stability is supposed to promote reassurance, a sense of safety even, but its belated advent at Sunderland has merely prompted widespread insecurity.

Last July David Moyes became the club’s seventh manager in five turbulent seasons as Ellis Short vowed to end his seemingly interminable cycle of hirings and firings. Subsequent results may have tested the owner’s resolve – paradoxically, Moyes appears in acute danger of being the first of the American financier’s appointments to lose a relegation skirmish – but even if Sunderland do go down, the Scot will be allowed to rebuild in the Championship next season.

By then, though, as many as 60 familiar faces may have disappeared from club corridors. In February, scores of employees received emails from Martin Bain, the chief executive, warning that their jobs were at risk. This has created a somewhat toxic atmosphere, particularly among those staff members who had never spoken to Margaret Byrne’s successor in the wake of his installation last June and suspect the former Rangers and Maccabi Tel Aviv CEO might be a bit hazy as to what their roles actually entail.

The latest issue of Private Eye reflects wholesale shock that Rob Mason, the erudite, highly respected editor of Sunderland’s multiple-award-winning program Red and White features in the at risk category. It points out that with it having either won, or been runner-up, in Program of the Year for each of the past nine years, Mason is the club’s only proven winner.

In mitigation Bain and Moyes – whose bottom-placed team face key games at Watford on Saturday and Leicester on Tuesday – have inherited considerable problems at a club currently around £140m in debt. If recording such staggering losses during an era when Premier League clubs are rich beyond belief seems almost incomprehensible, one particularly damning statistic explains Sunderland’s plight. Of the past 46 signings made by assorted managers only four, Darren Bent, Simon Mignolet, Patrick van Aanholt and James McClean have been sold on for profit.

The collateral damage caused by such chronically poor investment has not only spread to Sunderland’s back offices but also community projects in Africa and the club’s once flagship women’s team. It is not so long ago that Sunderland Ladies, inspired by Beth Mead’s goals and Carlton Fairweather’s astute coaching, threatened to rival Manchester City and Chelsea at the top of the Super League.

Mead is now at Arsenal and Fairweather unemployed after the team’s reversion to part-time status. Aware that a nucleus of the current England side – including Steph Houghton, Lucy Bronze and Jill Scott – began their careers on Wearside, Byrne had made Fairweather’s side a priority before resigning in the wake of her failure to suspend Adam Johnson before the winger’s conviction and imprisonment for sexual activity with a 15-year-old girl.

Almost a year later, Bain’s judgment was questioned when he announced the impending wholesale redundancies shortly after sanctioning an extremely expensive bonding trip to New York in February enjoyed by Moyes and the players.

The manager and chief executive, both Glaswegians, have established a bond so strong that some insiders suspect they may have talked each out of resigning last autumn, when it became apparent that Short wanted to sell – he is now apparently resigned to the reality that it may be some years before a buyer is found – and Moyes realized the January transfer kitty was empty.

As winter bit, Bain accepted the resignation of Gary Hutchinson, the previously influential commercial director, and Moyes proved increasingly unsparing in his descriptions of the squad’s limitations.

If there is little doubt that he has been dealt a horrible hand, some fans are concerned the former Everton, Manchester United and Real Sociedad manager harbors too many old-fashioned notions.

More specifically, the 53-year-old’s recent claims that he dropped Gabon’s Didier Ndong, Sunderland’s record£13.5m signing, because he wanted “more Britishness” in midfield and needed to “put more Britishness” into his £8m Senegal center-half Papy Djilobodji’s game raised concerns about his ability to breathe new life into a side badly missing the injured winger Duncan Watmore.

Indeed, with Watmore’s energies diverted into saving the lives of three pensioners after a boating accident off Barbados, where he was on a convalescent holiday, the only man who looks capable of resuscitating them is Jermain Defoe.

Without the newly recalled England striker’s goals Sunderland would probably be in the second tier already, but the bad news is that a clause in Defoe’s contract grants the 34-year-old a free transfer in the event of relegation.

Moyes clings to the hope it will not come to that. “We’re not down,” he says. “And we’re not planning to go down. We’re planning to stay up.”

(The Guardian)

Middlesbrough Control Freak Karanka Pays Price for Conservatism, Clashes


The rationale behind Steve Gibson’s long-standing reluctance to sack Aitor Karanka and the reason he ultimately felt impelled to dismiss Middlesbrough’s first foreign manager were, paradoxically, both encapsulated by the Basque’s handling of Adama Traoré.

A force-of-nature type winger, the former Barcelona prodigy turned Aston Villa flop was invariably instructed to switch flanks at half-time by Karanka. This, Boro’s manager revealed, was to ensure Traoré always operated within earshot of the home technical area so he could receive coaching throughout the game.

Such micro-management succeeded in producing a startling turnaround in Traoré’s game and, most specifically, his decision-making, but it also sometimes unbalanced a team whose improvisational instincts were quashed by an ultra-controlling coach.

The detailed managerial instructions stemming from the mind-boggling 80-page dossiers Karanka compiled on opponents left Boro playing with the handbrake on and go a long way towards explaining why they have won four Premier League games this season and scored only 19 goals. They are set up to play on the break and their conservative formation has left them lacking attacking outlets.

Debates behind the scenes between the manager and senior players anxious to adopt a more attacking approach are understood to have led to dissension between José Mourinho’s former Real Madrid assistant and, among others, Álvaro Negredo, Gastón Ramírez, Antonio Barragán, Stewart Downing and Patrick Bamford.

Matters came to a head after last Saturday’s 2-0 FA Cup defeat at home to Manchester City when Karanka was asked why Downing and Bamford had been excluded from the squad and replied he “only wanted fighters” playing for him.

Whereas Bamford, a £6m January signing from Chelsea, has clearly been struggling, the omission of Downing – a Teessider the manager never really wanted to sign last season – stemmed from a training-ground row with the former England winger. Downing, a popular and influential dressing-room figure, proved the wrong man for Karanka to fall out with.

All-round relations had been deteriorating for some weeks, months even, with the new year seeing Karanka turning on fans for shouting “attack, attack” and the board for failing to sign Robert Snodgrass in January, and even blaming a member of the club’s medical staff for confusion over the fitness of the left-back George Friend.

As grudges festered results declined to the point where Boro have gone 10 league games without a win, scoring only three goals during that run.

Somewhere during the transition from autumn to winter the stubbornness that served the former Real Madrid defender so well in winning automatic promotion last season changed, almost imperceptibly, into an increasingly self-destructive force.

One of Karanka’s favourite motivational slogans is: “Tough situations don’t last; tough people do.” But his mistake was to see compromise and delegation as signs of weakness.

Intensely proud of his Basque heritage, the 43-year-old has a volatile side that led to the 2014 departure of Craig Hignett after nine months as his assistant, when the former Boro midfielder crossed him once too often.

Almost exactly a year ago a managerial tantrum led to his suspension by the club after a training-ground disagreement on the Friday before a Sunday defeat at Charlton. Briefly placed on gardening leave and denied admittance to the club, Karanka remained at home while his team played. Dismissal was widely expected but instead Gibson offered him the benefit of the doubt and was rewarded with automatic promotion.

Although the squad was strengthened appreciably during the summer – Negredo, Barragán, Marten de Roon and Traoré were among the arrivals – and the boardroom harboured hopes of a mid-table finish, Karanka consistently maintained finishing 17th would be a triumph.

Resisting repeated calls to field two strikers, he persisted with one up front, resulting in a litany of draws and one of the division’s best defensive records. In reality the system itself was not so much a problem as his rigid, low-risk interpretation of it, which often left Negredo isolated and led to his team-mates being censured for attempting to “mix things up” by sometimes unleashing long, early balls.

This purist philosophy drew admiration. “Boro are so sophisticated,” enthused Alan Pardew, the then Crystal Palace manager, but it was Sean Dyche’s highly direct, distinctly non-frilly, fellow Premier League new boys, Burnley, who cantered into mid-table security.

Hints of tensions had emerged last summer when Steve Agnew, Hignett’s replacement, appeared tempted to join his friend Steve Bruce at Aston Villa. Ultimately Agnew stayed but there were strong suggestions the respected coach was not consulted and confided in as much as he should have been by a manager whose controlling characteristics were possibly made more pronounced during those seasons in Madrid spent studying the Mourinho mind games songbook.

Agnew was disappointed to see Jordan Rhodes, his nephew, sidelined by the manager and offered no chance to show whether his Championship goalscoring feats could be replicated in the top tier. Part of the problem was Karanka felt Rhodes, now at Sheffield Wednesday, did not fit into his 4-2-3-1 system and could not operate as a lone striker. Although Rudy Gestede and Bamford, Rhodes’s January replacements, theoretically fitted the configuration, both have proved alarmingly ineffective.

Tellingly Ben Gibson, the nephew of the owner, Steve, recently indicated a flawed philosophy was costing Boro dear.

“We might have a very good defensive record but it’s hard to defend for as long as we defend sometimes,” said the centre-half. “It takes 11 people to be working their socks off and pulling in the right direction.”

The Guardian Sport

Dilemmas Mount for Clubs Engaged In Premier League Relegation Dogfight

After guiding Leicester City to the Premier League title in his first season with the club, Claudio Ranieri is in danger of taking them down in his second. Photograph: Ashley Crowden/CameraSport via Getty

Sack the manager? Keep the manager? Sell your best player and import seven new ones, five on loan? Go warm‑weather training in Dubai? Cancel the Gulf trip?

Switch to a sweeper system? Revert to a flat back four? Play two up front? Keep the faith with a lone striker? Go cold‑weather training in New York? Go lukewarm‑weather training in Benidorm? Abolish days off? Start regretting Champions League progress?

Relegation battles are full of dilemmas and the Premier League’s bottom six have played at least one of the above cards as they strive to stay out of the Championship in this season’s particular game of “stick or twist”. Leicester City face the hardest decision of all, whether to dispense with Claudio Ranieri, last season’s title‑winning manager.

Changing managers mid-season has worked for Sunderland during each of the past four years when Paolo Di Canio, Gus Poyet, Dick Advocaat and Sam Allardyce presided over “great escapes”. Accordingly it would be somewhat paradoxical if Ellis Short, the owner, were to keep faith with David Moyes this term and the division’s bottom‑placed side were to be relegated.

Such short-term fixes are expensive, though, and have contributed to Sunderland’s £140m debt, something their manager is hardly easing by taking his squad to the Big Apple for a diet of daily runs in Central Park, sightseeing and male bonding. Coaches invariably delight in extolling the benefits of transporting players somewhere warm and vitamin D rich at this time of year, so this Moyes “masterplan” seems a little left field – to say the least.

Allardyce has always been a big believer in the sun’s healing properties and maintains that February trips to Arabia with previous clubs represent a big reason why he has never endured relegation from the top tier. Unfortunately for the new(ish) manager at Crystal Palace, amid relentlessly dismal results, a proposed Dubai trip did not get off the ground, thereby dictating that this season is so far very much the exception to his tried and trusted rule.

With Palace arguably worse now than under his predecessor, Alan Pardew, some fans fear Allardyce may have lost his touch but, after succeeding Advocaat in October 2015, he started slowly at Sunderland, too. Indeed, at one point, the Wearside club endured five league defeats in succession before perking up on returning from the United Arab Emirates and losing only one of their last 11 games. It ensured they finished last season fourth bottom, two points clear of Rafael Benítez’s then convalescent Newcastle United, who were unbeaten in their final six games. Newcastle, though, had almost certainly paid a very high price for lingering a little too long before replacing Steve McClaren with the transformative Benítez.

By acting much earlier Palace, Hull City and Swansea City have avoided that trap, with the latter two achieving a near instant “new manager bounce” as results improved markedly under Marco Silva and Paul Clement respectively.

In Hull’s case it helped that, without collecting many points, Silva’s predecessor, Mike Phelan, had got his team playing arguably the best passing football of any in the bottom six. It meant Silva, the former Sporting Lisbon and Olympiakos coach, had a decent framework and broadly similar philosophy to build on as he endeavored not only to integrate those seven new faces but cope with Robert Snodgrass’s much-lamented defection to West Ham United.

By common consensus, Silva – who has temporarily abolished days off – is sharpening Hull’s attacking edge, something he will be further honing during a training/bonding camp in Portugal this week and which offers a stark contrast to Aitor Karanka’s survival strategy at Middlesbrough.

Karanka’s side rarely concede more than a goal per match but are the division’s lowest scorers with the fewest wins – four. Fans, thoroughly ticked off by their Basque manager for recently chanting “attack, attack, attack”, are increasingly frustrated by his refusal to play two up front.

If the recent, spectacular, improvement in Adama Traoré’s wing play emphasizes Karanka’s very real coaching talents, he is possibly too intransigent for his own good in believing a squad warmed by the sun in Benidorm last week can inch their way to safety through of a series of ground-out, low‑scoring, draws.

With Gylfi Sigurdsson around, Swansea have threatened going forward but Clement – who, counterintuitively is keeping his squad at home this month – has performed wonders in tightening a defense in which Federico Fernández looks reborn and Alfie Mawson’s form means supporters are no longer missing Ashley Williams quite so badly.

Swansea’s latest win – 2-0 at home against Leicester on Sunday – has left the champions 17th. Ranieri, with his side a point clear of the drop zone and without a goal in six league games, must be cursing the distractions of Champions League involvement.

The Italian has been badly let down by his now fuzzily focused players but might this be the time for Leicester’s owners to decide the manager has lost too many dressing-room “hearts and minds” and take the “nuclear” option? But with whom would they replace Ranieri? Dilemmas, dilemmas …

(The Guardian)

Adama Traoré: ‘At Barcelona There Was not as Much Focus on Defending’

Adama Traoré, left, breezes past Christian Fuchs during Middlesbrough’s recent draw at Leicester City. Photograph: Nigel French/PA

Adama Traoré arrived in England trailing a reputation as an astonishing hybrid of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Perhaps predictably, it did not take him long to disappoint his new public.

“It was good to hear that from Tim,” says Middlesbrough’s elemental winger, diplomatically recalling the moment when Tim Sherwood, the manager who brought him from Barcelona to Aston Villa for £7m during the summer of 2015, described his game as “a bit of Messi and a bit of Ronaldo”.

He added: “But when people think it’s possible that I can play like this, and then I don’t, those people question you.”

Considering that Traoré is still only 20 and arrived at Villa Park having made only four appearances for Barcelona’s first team, it seems no surprise that he struggled to marry extraordinary pace and dribbling ability with an end-product.

As the relegation-bound Villa entered a tailspin and Sherwood was replaced by Rémi Garde, Traoré became a scapegoat for the club’s wider problems. With his £40,000-a-week wage depicted as a millstone, there was barely concealed glee when, on last summer’s transfer deadline day, he was dispatched to Teesside in exchange for Albert Adomah.

After a slow start, Traoré has begun Boro’s past five games, swiftly becoming a crowd favorite and lending Aitor Karanka’s side a more attacking, improvisational, pace-suffused dimension which has not only upset full-backs but also helped improve results. While everyone acknowledges that the elemental, force-of-nature aspect of his game needs balancing with increased tactical discipline, Hull City’s defense will not relish facing Traoré when they visit the Riverside for the “relegation six-pointer” on Monday night.

“Aitor tells me I need to work on my tactics and the way I sometimes play the game because here in England it’s different to Spain,” he says. “If the team’s playing on the counterattack, I have to go back and defend. At Barcelona, it was a bit different. There wasn’t as much focus on defending and ‘doing your job’ when you didn’t have the ball. Aitor takes me to one side a lot and tells me the things he wants to work on. I don’t want to become a totally different player, but I know there are things I have to improve.”

After coaching him in Spain’s national junior teams, Boro’s manager always appreciated Traoré’s true potential, always suspected that, supported by the right tactical scaffolding, he would flourish. “It was difficult at Villa because they’d struggled for two years and I’d come mainly from Barcelona B in the second division in Spain,” says this Catalan born-and-bred son of Malian parents. “I needed time to adapt but Tim Sherwood and Rémi Garde had to win games; they didn’t have time to think about little things about my game. It was a bad moment, it was such a hard, sad experience.”

One point ahead of Hull, Boro have won twice all season but recent draws at Arsenal and Manchester City offer real cause for optimism. It helps that Karanka now possesses not only one of the Premier League’s fastest individuals, but also Europe’s leading dribbler.

The latest statistics suggest Traoré has completed the most dribbles of anyone in the continent’s principal leagues, pushing Barcelona’s Neymar into second place as assorted defenders were dodged or simply bounced off his astonishingly muscular 5ft 10in frame. “People tell me I’m the first in dribbling,” he says, impressive biceps straining the material in his tight, short-sleeved T-shirt. “But it’s important that, after dribbling, I cross or pass or score. If I don’t, then dribbling is pointless.”

Although others, notably Southampton’s Shane Long and Sunderland’s Lynden Gooch, have recorded faster on-pitch speeds in England’s top tier this season, few would relish racing him. “When I was at Barcelona Pep Guardiola told me: ‘You’re the fastest in the club,’” he says. “Maybe I’ll be the fastest in the world but it’s only good when you cross or shoot at the end. With the ball I can run 37kmh but I’ve never been timed without it because my job is to play football. I’m not an athlete.”

Occasionally his feet seem to outpace his brain. “I sometimes make the wrong decisions but it’s because I haven’t started many Premier League games,” he counters. “I need to work hard on my technique but I think I’ve shown what I can do in my last performances.”

In the process the name Messi has shifted from representing a weight on his shoulders to a shining light. “In training at Barcelona Messi worked hard all the time,” he recalls. “People would say ‘This game will be easy for you, they’re not a good team’, but he ignored them. Messi could maybe get away with not trying 100% because he’s the best player in the world. But he’s the first at training. He’s very professional. He was very good to watch and learn from.

“A lot of players in his position would relax sometimes. But, because of how he works, he’s won the Ballon d’Or five times. I need to learn from this.”

(The Guardian)