Newcastle United are on the brink of a £300m takeover by Amanda Staveley’s Saudi-backed consortium; which will include Yasir Al-Rumayyan, the head of the Saudi Public Investment Fund, becoming the club’s new chairman.
Inevitably, questions are already being asked as to whether current manager Steve Bruce is the man to lead the club forward; with former boss Rafa Benitez being heavily linked with a return to St. James’ Park.
It’s long been felt by the majority of Newcastle fans that Benitez was onto something special at the club, and could have achieved a lot more if he was given extra finance by owner Mike Ashley.
The Spaniard provided a sense of unity between the management, players and fans; playing on the distain that the latter had for Ashley, with countless interviews used as a political opportunity to put pressure on the club’s hierarchy to give him the financial tools which he deemed necessary to take Newcastle onto the next level.
However, it’s understandable as to why Ashley was unwilling to back him to the tune which was requested.
Goalkeeper Matz Sels was Benitez’s first permanent import; announced just before the return to pre-season ahead of the 2016/17 Championship season.
There’s no doubt that one of the hardest rebuilding jobs in professional football is selling high earners following relegation from the Premier League; whilst also bringing in players of the desired ability to leave England’s second division at the first time of asking.
Across the whole of the summer of 2016, Newcastle received just over £85m – much due to the sales of Moussa Sissoko (Tottenham, £30m), Gini Wijnaldum (Liverpool, £25m) and Andros Townsend (Crystal Palace, £13m).
On the incoming side, around £57.5m was spent. Despite being in the black by £27.5m, it was the type of players which were signed by Benitez which would have given cause for concern for Ashley – mainly because the vast majority had no sell on value.
Following Sels’ capture; Dwight Gayle (£10m), Matt Ritchie (£12m), Isaac Hayden (£4m), Grant Hanley (£5.5m), Ciaran Clark (£5m), Mo Diame (£5m), DeAndre Yedlin (£5m), Daryl Murphy (£3m), Achraf Lazaar (£3m) and Jesus Gamez (free) were signed.
From that list, it could only be argued that Hayden and Yedlin would have any resemblance of a future sell on value.
In fact, Sels (£4m), Murphy (£2m), Hanley (£3m) and Gamez (released) were out of the club within two years; while Diame left last summer for free, and Lazaar is currently on loan at Italian Serie B side Cosenza – after appearing just four times in a black and white shirt.
Ahead of playing Barnsley at home in the final game of their Championship title-winning season, Benitez wrote in his programme notes that “we have achieved what we wanted”.
13-days previously, an Ayoze Perez brace had helped Benitez’s side to a 4-1 win at home to Preston, which sealed promotion back to the Premier League at the first attempt – and sealed Benitez’s personal remit.
But Newcastle’s second Championship title within the last 10 years was confirmed after Brighton could only draw 1-1 at Aston Villa on the final day, after an 89th-minute strike from Jack Grealish crept under the body of ‘keeper David Stockdale.
Chris Hughton’s side had also faltered in the two games before that, losing at Norwich and at home to Bristol City, when the club needed just three points to clinch the title.
With the Seagulls falling at the final hurdle, Benitez secured the 10th major title of his career – but failure to do so would have been a massive underachievement.
Newcastle’s wage bill was up by £37.5m to £112.2m; which was almost three times of second-placed Brighton’s (£40.4m) and close to six times greater than play-off winners Huddersfield’s (£21.7m).
To put that into context, United’s wage bill would have put them mid-table in terms of Premier League wage budgets.
Ashley also saw the club’s wage-to-turnover ratio reach a staggering 130.9%, up from 59.4% in the Premier League, while Benitez’s £6m-a-year salary was part of the reason that the club eventually announced a £90.9m loss for the title-winning season.
In short, Newcastle’s team for the 2016/17 season is the most expensive in Championship history.
That season in the Championship was the last time that Newcastle have been under pressure to perform on a consistent basis, as playing against weaker opposition meant that winning each game was the base objective.
If, or when, this takeover is completed – an expectancy will once again follow the team due to the financial outlay which will accompany it.
Even with a relaxing of FFP, the club’s manager will have between £70-200m to spend this summer in order to challenge for the European places.
For those magical European nights to return to SJP, sensible signings will have to be made; replicating the likes of RB Leipzig, and to a lesser extent, Borussia Dortmund, by acquiring young players who can develop at the club (and either be kept or sold on at a profit).
Clearly, Newcastle’s current squad isn’t able to challenge for Europe – meaning there is a big turnover of players on the horizon.
In that Championship-winning season Benitez had his highest turnover of incoming players (12) in a season at the club, and with only five or six of them leaving a positive legacy; the club cannot operate at a 50% success rate if they are to push the limits of their financial capabilities and break into the top six.
It looks increasingly likely that a sporting director will be involved in the management set up; and for Benitez, a man who once rejected a contract offer at Liverpool in 2009 because he wanted more control over transfers, this only weakens his credentials for this monumental project.
The bottom line is that his success rate in the transfer market, and that’s not just at Newcastle, isn’t good enough for what the club needs this summer.
Reluctantly, sometimes it’s better to romanticise about the past than to return and tarnish your reputation.