Mike Ashley insisted on Friday night that it was ‘impossible’ for Newcastle to have kept Rafa Benitez – and that the former manager was determined to take a lucrative deal to China from the start.
Ashley revealed he even floated the idea of an eight-year contract with Benitez at a meeting on May 16, and that the manager’s refusal to commit could have cost the club record signing Joelinton.
Newcastle’s owner spoke out following criticism of the breakdown in talks with Benitez – who he admits did an ‘excellent’ job – and criticism from the former boss following his appointment at Dalian Yifang in a deal worth £12million-a-year.
Mike Ashley claimed manager Rafa Benitez was determined to move to China from the start
Ashley (pictured) has revealed all in an exclusive interview about his ownership of the Magpies
And he said: ‘If you come out and say the things he did you would think it was football club first, Rafa second, money third. I’d say it was money first, Rafa, then the club last. He took the totally soft option, took the money and went to China. That disappoints me. If he’d gone back to Real Madrid, or a top six club in the Premier League, I get it. But it was about money and all he had to do was say that from the beginning.
‘My view always was we had to keep Rafa. For my own personal safety we had to keep Rafa. I thought he had us offside, he had us cornered, it wasn’t fair, it wasn’t right, I’ve been totally out-manoeuvred, I probably shouldn’t own a football club, it’s ridiculous, but I’m a big boy.
‘Yet every time with Rafa it was impossible – there was always another thing, and the next thing, and the next thing. He asked for a 50 per cent pay increase and I think he did that because he knew it couldn’t work. And if we had agreed to that, I think it would have been something else. And everyone thinks we lost him because we wouldn’t pay a couple of quid more. He had the microphone and we didn’t.
‘I’m not disappointed in him as a manager – he did an excellent job. It puzzles me why any fan thinks I wouldn’t want him. I’m not the thickest person on the planet. Why wouldn’t I want excellence? Why wouldn’t I want this manager? Accuse me of many things, but not that. We couldn’t have done any more.
The under-fire Newcastle owner said Benitez cared about ‘money first… then the club last’
‘At one stage they were talking about a one-year extension and I said my preference would be for an eight-year contract. That’s what I have to do in business when I invest. I have to take a medium to long-term view. I don’t worry about my takings on a Saturday. And we are now talking planning and strategy. So if you really want me involved, I need time from you, too. And that was the idea. I did it before with Alan Pardew.
‘Looking back, though, it doesn’t really matter what Rafa asked for because I think the Chinese thing was done. He had talked about what he could earn in China previously. We were not even slightly surprised by that move.’
Ashley claims the club suspected there would be problems with the Benitez negotiation when he declined to sign off on the £40m deal for new striker Joelinton in February. As manager, Benitez had the final say on all transfers, but would not give the go-ahead on Joelinton even though Newcastle had the fee and personal terms agreed, and the player had passed a medical.
Ashley revealed: ‘We delivered Rafa’s number one target in January, Miguel Almiron, but Hoffenheim wouldn’t sell Joelinton. Then in February they said we could get him early, but it would cost £40m. He was a name we had discussed with Rafa, and our recruitment people had him top of their list. I thought it was one of those that would keep drifting away, but no, we had it done.
Benitez had the final say on all transfers but would not give the go-ahead on Joelinton (middle)
‘I was so excited to tell Rafa we’ve got another one coming, but when Lee Charnley, our managing director, had the conversation, his view was that he didn’t want to commit to the transfer until he knew what his position was with the club next season. And I didn’t get that. Is this the bloke who had given it to me for the last 12 months?
‘Proper given me bucketfuls – which I may or may not deserve, but I don’t deserve it on this one, because I’ve done it. I’ve got his first choice, Almiron, and this other player who was so exciting we thought he’d be out of our range. When we first sat down with Rafa, we didn’t think we would pay this much for a player. We’d never done that before.
‘From there, the relationship deteriorated very quickly. I was personally very disappointed, and that’s putting it politely. I was freaked out. I’m thinking, “I clearly don’t understand anything about football” because I’m all for celebrating and going mad and suddenly it’s, “No – you’ve got to sort my deal out first.” So we had another few weeks of correspondence and then it wasn’t just his deal, it was that he thought the £40m for Joelinton wasn’t worth it. It’s too much and the club shouldn’t spend it.
‘And very occasionally, I get to be me in this world. So here’s the deal. I’ll pay £20m of it personally. Nothing to do with the club. Above and beyond the budget. Rafa valued him at £20m. So that’s what would come out of the club budget. The rest, £23m – I’ll pay. And he still didn’t sign it off. Looking back, I think he knew for a long time he was going to China because it was like we couldn’t do anything. Joelinton was the test.
‘Why on earth would you not want that? As a football manager, with all the things you have said, why wouldn’t you want Joelinton? It wasn’t even as if it was him or Salomon Rondon. And we told him that. We just wanted Joelinton secured.’
Benitez was recently appointed as Dalian Yifang manager in a deal worth £12million-a-year
Newcastle have a record of their correspondence with Benitez which includes the openness to an eight-year deal, and a pledge of £20m to improve training facilities. There is a revised financial offer in June and talk of a three-year contract. It is only on June 23 at 12.45pm that Benitez announces he will not be signing a new deal.
‘He did an amazing job,’ insists Ashley. ‘Promoted, first year tenth, 44 points – next year, 45 points. Now we’ve got a solid base to build up and the firepower to have a go. “Right Rafa, it’s over to you – hold on, he’s gone. Where’s he disappeared to? What’s happened there?”
‘Rafa talked about things he knew we couldn’t do and then, when we were in a position to finally do them, and launch the big surprise – no. It’s not the money he asked for that upsets me. What if we hadn’t got Joelinton? People don’t realise Rafa had the say and we couldn’t conclude the deal while he was still our manager. When he left he knew we were signing Joelinton. So he can’t say we lacked ambition.
‘I’m saying this now because you have to draw a line. Otherwise people are entitled to keep asking – August, September, October, November, why did Rafa leave? I’m not here to defend myself. I’m here to defend Newcastle United; because Newcastle United could not have done any more to keep Rafa Benitez. I can look anyone in the eye and say that. It was impossible to do more.’