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Lee Charnley exclusive: How Mike Ashley will run Newcastle United until somebody meets his asking price

Newcastle United is still very much on the market in the eyes of Mike Ashley – but until somebody can find £350million for him to hand over the keys at St James’ Park he will give Steve Bruce the time and money to rebuild the club.

Bruce stated in his first Press conference at United, during the trip to China, that no matter how much “s***” was set to come his way he was determined to give the job of his dreams a “real crack”.

Just one Premier League game into his reign, Bruce was reflecting on the reality of the job on Monday morning after a narrow defeat against Arsenal, in which his side has threatened at times, resulted in some stinging criticism from fans and sections of the media.

His appointment at the end of July was the first real sign that Newcastle were unlikely to be sold to the Bin Zayed Group, the Middle East company that released two promising statements before failing to complete the deal.

Both Press releases, which both landed in email baskets at the Chronicle, Press association and Sky Sports HQ in Isleworth, raised expectations high on Tyneside in May.

Back then the group’s managing director Midhat Kidwai said boldly: “We have agreed terms and are working hard to complete the transaction at the earliest opportunity.”

Sheikh Khaled Bin Zayed Al Nehayan, the man who wants to buy Newcastle United
Sheikh Khaled Bin Zayed Al Nehayan, the man who wants to buy Newcastle United

But Sheikh Khaled still hasn’t appeared on Barrack Road.

Nothing followed, apart from a “no comment” status from the Magpies, and with Ashley not understood to have seen what he considered a concrete or realistic bid of the full amount, hopes of a fresh start dwindled, Rafa Benitez’s future became uncertain and a full-blown crisis was back on the doorstep at St James’ Park in the eyes of the fans.

Putting Benitez’s situation to one side, the BZG takeover, which resulted in a host of social media accounts raising those hopes even higher, slipped off Ashley’s radar.

So why didn’t the Magpies or Ashley even comment on the excruciating situation at the time?

They should have because it all felt so disrespectful to fans in a city that eat, sleeps and breathes Newcastle United.

In short, they decided to stick to the non-disclosure agreement they’d signed with BZG, but while that seems churlish to some observers, they gave the Middle East company the fullest opportunity to show they were for real.

Kevin Keegan at Anfield for the Boxing Day clash between Liverpool and Newcastle
Kevin Keegan at Anfield for the Boxing Day clash between Liverpool and Newcastle

Fast forward to August and Ashley’s name is still above the door and not for the first time during his controversial tenure he is picking up the pieces after another high-profile managerial departure, just like the exits of Kevin Keegan and Alan Shearer between 2008 and 2009.

Ashley doesn’t need to be told by any of his PR staff what the majority of the Tyneside public think after Rafa’s farewell.

For all the talk of what Benitez wanted, for all the talk of BZG taking over and for all the talk of Ashley finally handing the keys over after 12 years, the transfer window is now closed.

It’s August and as the rain rolls down the face of the Sir Bobby Robson statue outside the boardroom at St James’, the reality is Ashley is still here, Bruce has taken the place of Benitez but around £65million has been spent on transfer fees alone and more still on agent fees signing on fees and stadium refurbishment.

Even the arrivals of Joelinton, Allan Saint-Maximin, Jetro Willems, Emil Krafth and an emotional return for Andy Carroll have not convinced some fans to return, although Joelinton and Carroll’s unveilings did at least create something of a buzz in the city last month.

Joelinton of Newcastle United arrives at the stadium prior to the Premier League match between Newcastle United and Arsenal FC
Joelinton of Newcastle United arrives at the stadium prior to the Premier League match between Newcastle United and Arsenal FC

Ashley spoke broadly when asked his views about Newcastle in an interview with the Angle News in July in what felt like an interview for the national audience.

But he hasn’t responded to further requests to discuss the range of subjects he covered and after 12 years is yet to sit down with the Chronicle.

After travelling to the training ground for the first time in two years the message to Bruce and managing director Lee Charnley has been to get on with the job.

Charnley has broken his silence after a turbulent summer for the club, speaking about Benitez’s exit and “a period of uncertainty for supporters”, but he also afforded the Chronicle an interview on the eve of the Premier League’s opening weekend.

The main question on the lips of the fans this summer has been talk of BZG’s takeover, but Charnley does not care to elaborate too much on the subject.

He said: “We carry on business as usual and if there is a development we will announce it.

“We aren’t going to get drawn into a running commentary (on the takeover or BZG).

“Mike talked about this in his interview with Martin Samuel.

“Our policy has been no comment and we will only say something on it if there is something definitive to say.”

It’s a frustrating response for fans, but when it came to the crunch did BZG have the £350million?

That is a question that is now wide open for them to answer – which is also the situation for Peter Kenyon and the US consortium that were linked with a takeover in late 2018.

Ashley’s own view on it was: “The day someone buys Newcastle, they’ll do their due diligence – and finished.

“It will happen like Manchester City.

“By the time the media find out, it’s already complete.”

Charnley won’t answer any more questions on the situation now, but it is understood that the deal to buy Newcastle is simple for anybody who’s got the money.

There is a price, a process and a willingness from Ashley to sell IF he sees the asking price (believed to be around £350million), providing his family retain the right to hire their executive box in the Milburn Stand.

BZG’s interest, which prompted screaming back page headlines in the Sun back in May, was not even watered down by Newcastle at the time though.

Speaking to the public regularly is a criticism Newcastle United can’t escape from.

Charnley – who has often opted against on the record interviews – reflected: “We accept we need to communicate more.

“Will I do it in every programme? No.

“But as a minimum I will do it at the end of each window and at the end of the season.

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Lee Charnley interview

“This is just one element though of our commitment to communicate more regularly.”

When Ashley first took over he appointed lawyer Chris Mort to do his talking for him back in 2007 and this actually went down well with fans.

Mort was replaced by Derek Llambias in 2008 but the former casino owner’s words were not always met with same enthusiasm by the Toon Army.

Llambias walked out in 2013 on the same day that Ashley’s bizarre choice of director of football Joe Kinnear branded his star player “Yohan Kebab”. 

Charnley has not always stepped up to do interviews, but has taken part in more and more as the years have gone by during his stint as managing director.

He said: “Improved communication is something we have been discussing with our Fans Forum for some time and something we are committed to.

“That will involve the Fans Forum, me doing some interviews with the local press and other media outlets/channels.

“But it will also involve other members of the team.”

Steve Nickson, Newcastle United's head of recruitment
Steve Nickson, Newcastle United’s head of recruitment

There’s talk of head of recruitment Steve Nickson taking part in an interview at some stage this season while other voices will also be heard.

Nickson had a non-speaking public role during the Benitez era but Newcastle chiefs like him a lot, and his role on the cast list was a condition that had to stay in place this summer regardless of who replaced the ex-Liverpool boss.

Benitez, like Steve McClaren, John Carver and Alan Pardew, was often the sole public speaker at St James’ Park – a situation that caused a lack of balance in outgoing communication.

Ashley said in July he felt “cornered” and “out-manoeuvred” by Benitez’s political agenda.

Some Toon fans will argue now it is too late to start communicating, but Charnley said: “We will be opening our doors to give people some behind the scenes access and a greater understanding of other departments within the club.

“We have done that with Eddie Rutherford at the stadium and Jamie Harley (fitness coach) at the training ground and I thought they were very informative .

“I accept that only hearing from one voice, from a club point of view, is not the right thing to do.”

The 2018/19 season kicks off amid a backdrop of protests and a boycott that resulted in the crowd being 4,000 fans down against Arsenal at the weekend.

When asked his thoughts on the fans that have decided to walk away, either for good or for the time being, Charnley said: “All I would ask is the supporters that are inside the stadium – home or away – get fully behind Steve and the players on the pitch.

“I am delighted that those that came on Sunday did exactly that.

“I thank them for that. They do make a difference.”

Newcastle’s turbulent summer, however, has tested the patience of supporters – and pushed some of them to the limit.

So much so that the Wor Flags group decided to abandon their very successful operation after years of trying to improve the atmosphere at home games.

It’s believed that measures have been made by the club to keep them onside.

Charnley said: “I would like to see them back. They were a fabulous addition to the match day experience.

“They did an incredible job and if they wanted to come back, we would be delighted.”

What happens between now and the next Premier League home game against Watford will be crucial in terms of the atmosphere in the city.

But Charnley is eager to try to turn the page on the summer.

His public stance on Benitez was consistent and he did not want to answer further questions on the record.

Charnley’s view is: “We understand and expected the disappointment that Rafa’s departure caused.

“We strongly believe we went beyond what could reasonably be asked in order to keep him.

“But let’s be clear, he moved to China for money.

“The offer he received was too tempting.

“We understand that and there is nothing wrong with that.

“It was not something we could compete against.

“We wish him well for the future and thank him for all he achieved.”

Bruce is on a fraction of Benitez’s salary but his desire to succeed on Tyneside is as big.

Ashley insists he did not want to lose Benitez but a 50% pay increase and other demands made the deal – in Ashley’s own words – “impossible”.

Bruce will now get the chance to succeed despite being, again in his own words, not “everybody’s cup of tea”.

For many the words of Ashley, Charnley and Bruce will not be satisfactory and the results on the field will dictate the agenda for the supporters who have decided to stay in their seats.

There are still big questions on the record that deserve big answers, but unless a budding oil-rich tycoon or a tech giant can tick the three boxes Ashley is asking for, the struggle continues to feel real for Newcastle fans.

 



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