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Newcastle Are Testing Rafael Benítez’s Patience with Tardy Transfer Work | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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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)