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.