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The sticking point for Mike Ashley with Rafa Benitez

5 years ago

As magicians of all ages know, before we revel in the Prestige – when the conjuror wins the audience’s wonderment and applause – we get the Reveal, in which the impossible occurs and the mystery is invoked.

I am now convinced that what is going on at St James Park is smoke and mirrors, and a wily operator like Rafa Benitez might well be an unknowing contributor to the fog of magic.

On the other hand, he might know perfectly well what is going on, but he still hopes, as do we all, for a happy outcome.

The American television illusionist David Copperfield made the Empire State Building disappear. We all knew it was still there but the applause was enormous.

Mike Ashley is making Rafa Benitez, by contrast, appear. We all know – I devoutly hope I’m wrong – he will shortly disappear, and the disappointment will be limitless. But for now, there he still is, on our television screens, doing interviews as Newcastle manager.

At the moment there are just enough titbits to keep cynicism at bay, and fans tantalised.

Apparently Lee Charnley had a ten-minute meeting with Benitez at Benton, and as a result of that meeting Benitez was encouraged enough to agree to future meetings (including a post-match one with Mike Ashley on Sunday).

Over the course of the next two weeks he will make his mind up, and in that time he will prepare for next season, to give himself or his successor a chance of putting out a competitive team in the Championship.

I am not alone in finding the notion of Ashley relinquishing control of a business – one in which he has a large business stake –  very difficult to swallow.

But when he appointed Benitez it seemed that that was exactly what he had done. I wrote a piece on The Mag the day after Rafa took the job in which I said, possibly over-emotionally, that there was no retreating from the logic of this astonishing appointment.

Ashley would give Rafa the reins.

But I observed that this would only happen at the end of the season, and in the meantime it would be the same old dispensation at Gallowgate.

Make no mistake, as the Daily Express used to say – if we had stayed up we would have reached exactly the point we are at now.

Benitez would have stayed, but only on condition that he had the run of the club. He would have demanded, just as he is now demanding, the right to sign his own players, the right to sack his own players, and the right to decide how the playing side runs.

Ashley has known this ever since Benitez was appointed. He has had plenty of time to get used to the idea. He will know just how far he feels able to agree to move in Benitez’s direction.

The cynics and the paranoid are saying the club, via its pathetically transparent public relations effort, is keeping a lid on discontent until the season is over. There might be something in that.

Ashley might have lied to Benitez about precisely what he would be prepared to negotiate over in the hope that Newcastle could somehow stay up.

But now we have gone down, Benitez might curiously have a stronger hand. And I don’t think Benitez would be interested in saying things he suspects to be untrue just to achieve the effect Keith Bishop is desiring.

Benitez is clearly under the impression that Mike Ashley might be thinking that the best way to run a club is to appoint a really good football professional to do it for him.

That’s why Benitez is describing himself as professional, and, crucially, why he is calling Charnley professional too.

It’s not money, Benitez says. It’s the club structure that has to be got right. And Charnley is professional, he says, and so am I.

Because what is about to be divvied up is responsibility for running the club, within a structure that Benitez finds convivial – not Charnley.

And Benitez’ tributes to Charnley’s professionalism are to mask the fact that Charnley is going to have to take more of a backstage role if Benitez is to remain in the spotlight.

That will be the Reveal. The Prestige will have to wait.

And how it’s all been done will, naturally, remain a secret.

And – yes! – it might not be done at all. That’s a trick we’ve seen before, isn’t it?



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