Well, Mike Ashley certainly knows how to pick his moments. For the first time since Newcastle United lifted the Championship title against Barnsley in May 2016, the owner attended a football match, at Crystal Palac on Saturday. It was important for the Magpies to stop the rot after three successive defeats, and they did that in unspectacular fashion. Rafael Benitez, as conservative as ever, was happy enough to take the 0-0 draw from Selhurst Park.
There was speculation that Ashley, who has had his fair share of negative headlines and is far from popular with the fans or Benitez, would be there, but once it was confirmed with photographic evidence, the away support took the opportunity to make their feelings known. Ashley was sat with Newcastle Managing Director Lee Charnley, his PR man Keith Bishop and someone whose role at the club is not clear, Justin Barnes. It has got to the stage, because Ashley has stayed away for so long, that whenever he does appear, people automatically assume there is a sinister reason behind it, but he didn’t meet Benitez at full time, which is completely normal. The manager works closely with Charnley, with a meeting ahead of the January transfer windows set to be scheduled in the coming weeks.
Ashley remained unmoved by the chants against him throughout the game, but if he needed any convincing that his approach to ownership, particularly with Benitez since promotion back to the Premier League, doesn’t work, he came to the best game possible. Newcastle, yet again, offered very little going forward, and only Benitez’s organisation and tactical nous, as well as a hefty chunk of luck, salvaged a point. Amazingly, the manager is often criticised for setting up defensively, but even against a team such as Palace, whose starting eleven cost almost double the price of his own, he couldn’t attack too much without fear of defeat. That statisic doesn’t even truly reflect Wilfried Zaha, one of the best players in the league and certainly their talisman, because he came the through their youth system and later re-signed from Manchester United after a short spell at Old Trafford for around £3million.
Simply put, Newcastle have to pick their moments when it comes to attacking because they lack quality, and those moments will more often than not come at home. Benitez‘s plan was to push the club on this season, and make them competitive in every game; Crystal Palace away should have presented them with an opportunity, with just one defeat their in the Premier League and their own poor form. Roy Hodgson‘s men had lost their last two at home, but because of the restrictive brief Newcastle are working to under Ashley this season, any away game is likely to be safety-first, especially one against a player in the form of Zaha. An awful miss by Mamadou Sakho in the second half saved his side in the end, but it is easy to see why Benitez was pleased with the point. He knows he doesn’t have the quality at his disposal, but always makes sure Newcastle are hard to beat.
Only Ashley will know how much he learnt from the game, or if he will act upon it when the opportunity arises, but it perhaps served to best illustrate just how dire the future would look if Benitez were to leave. The Spaniard insists he is happy to work at a club and for a fan base that he understands and respects, but with his contract running out in May, that will no longer be enough. A new one will need to be signed, and he has already alluded to viewing his job differently to when he arrived two-and-a-half years ago, because of broken promises and miscommunication. It would be easy for him to accept the end is coming; that even if Ashley was willing to compromise and offer more assurances, he cannot trust him anyway. Yet still, publically at least, Benitez seems willing to talk about extending his stay.
He turned down a five-year contract offer in the summer, citing more important issues at the time such as transfers and preparing for the season, but he will lay his demands out for Newcastle when a decision needs to be made. It is up to the club to come to an agreement, but it shows how Benitez thinks and feels about his current job that he is even considering continuing a working relationship with people that have treated him so poorly for so long. Make no mistake, Newcastle need him more than he needs them and he does not have to put up with the stress, worry and frustration that comes hand in hand in working for Ashley.
Salomon Rondon was substituted at half time on Saturday, and there are doubts over his fitness for the visit of Leicester City to St James’ Park next weekend. Benitez will need to release the shackles ahead of the first home clash with a side outside of last season‘s top six, and he will do, but as questions remain over whether Ashley will return to Tyneside after witnessing all the issues first hand, it must be remembered exactly why Newcastle United are in their current predicament. Every bit of responsibility, specific or general, lies at his feet.
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