Newcasatle are only one point above the drop zone and discontent is rising as they prepare to face Manchester United on Super Sunday.
But is there any hope of resurrecting Amanda Staveley’s proposed takeover? What are the club’s prospects of keeping Rafa Benitez? And what happened in the January transfer window?
We asked Sky Sports News’ man in the north-east Keith Downie for the lowdown ahead of Sunday’s clash at St James’ Park.
Is Amanda Staveley’s takeover bid dead in the water?
My opinion is that it is dead until the end of the season – or at least until Newcastle’s fate is sealed one way or another regarding which division they will be playing in next season. That’s pretty much the reason it fell through in the first place.
If Newcastle get relegated, then the club is worth significantly less than it would be in the Premier League. So when they won a few games in a row earlier this season, the value of the club increased. But when they went on a run without winning – as they did between November and December – then the value of the club decreased because relegation looked more likely.
I think that’s why there was such a delay over the deal and why there was a discrepancy between Mike Ashley’s valuation of the club and Staveley’s. I can’t see her buying the club in the Championship. She wants to be in charge of a Premier League club. So that’s why her bids were not quite at the level that Ashley wanted.
She wanted to insert relegation clauses in the event that they went down, so she would then be owed some money back by Ashley. But being the businessman that he is, Ashley wanted a straight sale with no clauses. He would have taken instalments, but he didn’t want any caveats or clauses.
If Newcastle had been sitting in the top 10 and looking safe, I think the sale would have had a real chance of going through before Christmas. They were in a healthy position when the club was put up for sale in October, but by the time December came around, they were struggling. With that, the value and attractiveness of the club went down.
What are the chances of resurrecting the deal?
When we broke the news that the deal was off, Ashley said in his statement to us that he had walked away from the deal and that negotiating with Staveley had been a waste of time. But she disputed that in her interview with The Times. But I don’t think it’s 100 per cent off.
What I do think, though, knowing Ashley and the way he operates, is that she will have to increase her current bid. From what I’ve been told by certain people involved, he is looking for around £300m, but her last bid fell around £50m short of that.
I cannot see the sale going through unless she increases it. From Ashley’s perspective, Newcastle are self-sufficient. He wants to sell, he has had enough of it after 10 years, but they are not losing money, so he is not in a rush. He still gets the free advertising for Sports Direct every time they play.
I can see the takeover being revived at the end of the season, but only if Newcastle are able to stay up and Staveley increases her bid. Another sticking point may be that there is too much water under the bridge after the last couple of months.
How much did it impact their January transfer plans?
There’s no doubt that the takeover had a massive impact on the January transfer window. Staveley promised she would spend money if she had taken over, but Ashley didn’t want to spend a lot of money on something he might not own in four months’ time.
That’s why they only ended up bringing in the three loan players. For Ashley, I think it was a case of doing just enough to stay in the Premier League. They brought some players who can help, but without going all out.
Ashley did try to sign Nicolai Jorgensen from Feyenoord, but they were asking for around £25m and Newcastle’s final bid was a long way short of that. So it was kind of a half-hearted attempt to sign him. It didn’t really seem that realistic.
Does Benitez feel let down?
He’s not happy. He’s got Kenedy now, but he wanted him in the summer, not halfway through the season. Slimani, I understand, was on his list of possible striker signings for January, but he wasn’t his priority. He was fourth or fifth choice.
I think he is satisfied to have at least got those players in, but he feels it should have been done a lot earlier rather waiting until the end of the window. He could have had them in for three or four games already. And right now, with so few games to go, every game and every point is massive.
So he is frustrated. I think he just feels the club drag everything out and make it hard. He gave them his list of targets at the start of the month, but they didn’t get them in until deadline day. He had already done the checks and background work on them himself, so why not get them in earlier?
How is the relationship between Benitez and Ashley?
Benitez’s day-to-day dealings are with Lee Charnley, the managing director. He’s essentially the middleman between Benitez and Ashley.
Benitez did have a discussion with Ashley a couple of days before the window closed, when he made it clear that they needed to get some players in, but other than that there is not much relationship to speak of. They have only met face-to-face once or twice.
Charnley is the go-between and Benitez is at pains to stress that at most news conferences. I think it’s fair to say that Ashley doesn’t have as much of a hands-on role as he did in the past, but when it comes to the big decisions and the money decisions, he obviously has the final say.
What are the club’s chances of keeping Benitez?
My prediction is that if the takeover doesn’t happen, Newcastle will struggle to keep hold of Benitez. He has other suitors elsewhere, other clubs who know what he is capable of. He came to Newcastle wanting to improve the team, to get them into the top half of the table and compete for honours.
He knows he is not going to do that with the current squad, and the only way he can improve that squad is if the takeover happens and there’s someone at the top of the club who is willing to put money into it to progress it.
Ashley’s lack of investment means Newcastle are flirting with a third relegation in 10 years and he’s relying on the managerial nous of Benitez – who he pays handsomely – to keep them up. This is essentially the same team that won promotion out of the Championship, remember. So it’s a good Championship squad playing in the Premier League.
It’s also worth noting that Benitez played a big part in bringing Staveley to the table in the first place. He knows that for the club to progress in the way that he wants it to, it needs new ownership. He won’t want to do another year in the Championship, and relegation would mean no takeover from Staveley.
Are West Ham still interested in him?
They have always held a torch for Benitez. I imagine that remains the same under those owners. The difficulty there would be that his family are based in the north-west in the Wirral, just outside Liverpool. When he took the Newcastle job, it was not too far away. That was a big factor.
We’ll see what happens there, but I think the fact that other clubs are interested in Rafa works to his advantage and strengthens his hand.
Is the mood among the fans at an all-time low?
It’s pretty low at the moment. The banner against Burnley showed that the atmosphere is very edgy. They got their hopes up with about the takeover happening, which obviously made it even more disappointing when it didn’t.
They feel like they are treading water and they can’t see any progress under Ashley. He has said he doesn’t have the resources to compete with clubs like Manchester City, but they consistently say they just want to compete with Huddersfield, Burnley and Brighton.
While all those clubs have broken their transfer records recently, Newcastle have not broken theirs for 13 years. The fans just want them to sign big players and compete with the clubs around them.
But at the same time, they are trying to stay behind the team, because they know how imperative it is to any takeover that Newcastle stay in the Premier League. So they are trying to keep their discontent under wraps for the most part, because they don’t want a negative atmosphere to get through to the players and for the team to go on a downward spiral.
I think they just feel like it’s a waste. Newcastle have 52,000 fans there every other weekend, they could probably fill the stadium twice over, but they are just treading water when there is potential there to really build something.