The mood inside the room had turned as gloomy as the dark clouds on view through the windows when someone attempted a joke. “It’s North Korea v the United States,” they said, deadpan. “Just without the nuclear weapons.”
It got a laugh, yet Mike Ashley v Rafael Benítez is a little bit different; less Kim Jong-un v Donald Trump and much more a particularly capricious brand of shortsighted parochialism against a worldly wise grasp of the bigger picture.
Benítez appreciates that the current Premier League transfer-market inflation is “crazy” but believes that if Newcastle United are to prosper on their latest return to the top tier, they must speculate to accumulate.
Very possibly disappointed at his failure to sell the club this summer, the owner is not prepared to banish the threat of a relegation battle by borrowing against future broadcast income. Cue an impasse that has left Benítez fearing a relegation skirmish.
“For us, this summer was crucial,” said Newcastle’s manager, whose side, supplemented by some motley-looking cut-price recruits, face Tottenham Hotspur at St James’ Park on Sunday afternoon. “We needed to bring more players in but we couldn’t get them. This has been a problem; now we have to find solutions.
“We cannot compete against some clubs. Players we were considering buying are going to bottom-of-the-table teams for £20m-25m. To me it’s crazy, but that’s the market. If you want to compete, you have to go into it. We’re in a worse position than I expected, but I still have confidence everything can be fine. I don’t want people panicking if we lose some games at the beginning. We’ll work hard and become better.”
Extraordinarily, Ashley has not spoken to the much-decorated former Liverpool, Chelsea and Real Madrid manager since the pair met in May for their first face-to-face chat of 2017, and this most dysfunctional relationship took another bizarre turn on Friday. While Benítez highlighted his concerns at Newcastle’s training ground, Sky released excerpts from an interview with the Sports Direct owner in which the billionaire said his money was tied up and a lack of “cash in the bank” dictated that he could not bankroll the team.
Benítez never imagined he would be given carte blanche, but did envisage being allowed to spend significantly more than the £30m profit he made on player trading – specifically from Moussa Sissoko’s sale to Spurs – last summer. So far, though, Javier Manquillo, Florian Lejeune, Jacob Murphy, Mikel Merino and Christian Atsu have arrived for roughly that sum, and the manager has been told he must sell before buying again.
Perhaps the biggest mystery is why the 57-year-old remains in his post, but while he is clearly “not happy”, Benítez says he remains fully committed to the challenge ahead.
For the moment at least, an amalgam of loyalty to players, staff and adoring fans is the tie binding him to the peculiarities of Ashley’s regime.
It is the owner’s good fortune that the determination of Benítez’s wife and two teenage daughters to live on Merseyside precludes a move abroad – and that a gifted coach has traditionally performed best when backed into corners.
Yet if his successes at Tenerife, Valencia and Liverpool came at clubs with appreciably smaller budgets and less starry squads than their principal rivals, Newcastle are starting from an infinitely more modest base.
Moreover the increased involvement of Justin Barnes, an abrasive lawyer and long-term Ashley ally, has disrupted the previously harmonious relationship between Benítez and Lee Charnley, the club’s managing director.
Matters came to a head when Charnley failed to secure a loan deal Benítez had arranged for the Chelsea striker Tammy Abraham. Briefly, resignation became an option. “I was working very hard and when we couldn’t do it I was asking why,” Newcastle’s manager said. “Then I said [to myself]: ‘We have this problem and this one and this one, so what do I want to do?’ And I said: ‘I want to stay.’
“We have a whole city behind me and the team. So I said: ‘It’s a pity, but we’ll try our best’ – and we’re still pushing, still trying to change things, to do things in a normal way.”
He is puzzled at Ashley’s lack of faith in his ability to ultimately bring success – and money – to Tyneside. “We want to replicate successful things we’ve done in the past,” said Benítez. “If I’m here and they pay me this salary, it’s surely because they trust me? It’s because I’ve won things and do things professionally.
“We’re not demanding crazy things – we’re just demanding to do things in a professional way, like we did with Liverpool or Chelsea. I was hoping it could be like that here, but, now, it’s not exactly what I was expecting.”
For the moment, though, Benítez’s loyalty remains undimmed – even if his frustration is palpable. “I don’t want to be egotistical,” he said. “But I had two or three players who came here because of me. I can’t let them down.
“I decided to stay in the Championship – a massive risk, because I wanted to be in the Premier League at a massive club like this one and compete at the top of the table. But I don’t know if we can do that now. It’s a problem that teams like Crystal Palace are spending more.”
When Benítez emerges from the tunnel on Sunday memories of a balmy May afternoon in 2016 will come flooding back. After replacing Steve McClaren, he narrowly failed to stave off relegation, but as his doomed side thrashed Mauricio Pochettino’s Spurs 5-1, St James’ serenaded him, nonstop.
“Rafa, we want you to stay,” they chorused as the watching Ashley prepared to give his Champions League-winning coach the same message. “It was a massive day,” recalled Benítez a tad wistfully. “It was the day I was talking with Mike about the future – and it was all so positive.”
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