AS someone who is hardly a stranger to the inside of a casino, Mike Ashley likes a gamble. Sadly, for Newcastle United, it looks as though the Magpies owner is hell-bent on taking one of the biggest punts of his life.

Ashley is clearly gambling that the current Newcastle squad, embellished with a couple of cut-price additions, is good enough to avoid relegation next season.

While the rest of the Premier League is spending money like it is going out of fashion, Newcastle are shopping in the footballing equivalent of the Sports Direct bargain bin that offers ten pairs of sports socks for a fiver. Cheap, if not very cheerful.

Yes, the Magpies are spending today completing the £12m double capture of Swiss defender Fabian Schar and Japanese striker Yoshinori Muto. Yes, the two players boast a decent pedigree having spent last season with Deportivo La Coruna and Mainz respectively, and yes, their arrival addresses long-standing problems in key areas.

But Schar effectively replaces Chancel Mbemba – at half the price – while the signing of Muto could well be a precursor to Aleksandar Mitrovic’s anticipated departure to Fulham. This is not Ashley investing from a position of strength, it is more a case of him desperately trying to plug gaps in the squad while simultaneously squirrelling away a million here and a million there to improve the balance sheet and make his club more appealing to potential purchasers.

By adding wages over the course of a contract and payments to agents to the headline transfer fee, Ashley can probably juggle the figures to claim he is sticking to his pledge to give Rafael Benitez “every penny generated by the club”. Deep down, though, he must know that is questionable semantics at best.

Premier League clubs have never been richer – Newcastle banked £123m in prize money and television payments last season – yet the Magpies’ net spend continues to be lower than it was more than a decade ago. To Ashley, however, there is seemingly no need to spend when Premier League safety is regarded as a given.

Perhaps, in nine months’ time, the absentee owner will be proved right. Newcastle finished in the top half of the table last season, and might have been even higher than tenth had they not run out of steam after their safety had been assured.

None of the club’s key players have left this summer, and despite the ongoing speculation about his long-term future, Benitez, one of the best managers in the Premier League, remains in place. Why shouldn’t more of the same be good enough to secure another season in the top-flight?

Well, where do you want to start? If you try to stand still in football, you quickly find yourself going backwards at an alarming rate, and there are a host of reasons to think that Newcastle have already dropped down the Premier League pecking order since the end of last season.

They’ve lost the momentum that accompanied them out of the Championship 12 months ago for a start, and with the fans’ ‘If Rafa goes, we go’ campaign gaining a large amount of traction, the atmosphere around the club has become increasingly toxic. A couple of poor results, and St James’ Park could become a poisonous environment in which to play once again.

Newcastle overachieved last season, but they also got lucky. They hardly had a single serious injury to any of their key players, but that is unlikely to happen again. We are only a couple of weeks into the pre-season programme, but Benitez is already concerned about the knee injury that will prevent Florian Lejeune from travelling to Portugal tomorrow.

There were a lot of poor sides in the Premier League last season, so after a shaky start, Newcastle didn’t really have to do too much to haul themselves away from trouble.

Things are unlikely to be so simple this time around, and while throwing money at a problem is not a guarantee of being able to solve it, Benitez is clearly worried at the improvements that are being made at the majority of the Magpies’ top-flight rivals this summer.

“All the Premier League teams are spending big money, and they know how important it is,” said a clearly frustrated Benitez, in the wake of this week’s friendly at Hull City. “I said last year, and I am saying this year again, that when you are talking about so much money from the TV, it is crucial to stay in the Premier League if you want to compete. If you go down, the next year is even more difficult because the difference in money is massive.”

Benitez can accept that Newcastle are unable to keep pace with the likes of West Ham and Everton, with the former having spent £42m on Felipe Anderson and the latter having this week agreed a deal that could eventually be worth £50m to prise Richarlison from Watford.

With their 52,000-strong crowd and lucrative commercial revenue streams, not to mention their billionaire owner, Newcastle should be able to compete with those clubs, but Benitez has grudgingly accepted that they can’t.

However, he is understandably baffled at the Magpies’ supposed inability to pay the transfer fees and wages that are being offered by Huddersfield Town and Brighton, not to mention Wolves and Fulham, who did not benefit from the riches of the Premier League’s television deal last season.

Wolves have signed Portugal internationals Rui Patricio and Joao Moutinho this summer, while Fulham pulled off quite a coup this week when they landed experienced Germany international Andre Schurrle from Borussia Dortmund, having already completed the £35m signing of Jean-Michael Seri from Nice.

Once upon a time, Newcastle would have been in the market for those players, but the fact they are not even mentioned as potential suitors under Ashley is a damning indictment of the lack of ambition that characterises the modus operandi of the current regime.

No ambition, no vision, no hope. With Benitez at the helm, Ashley might get lucky and see his side scramble to safety to secure another nine months in the Premier League. But what then? More underinvestment, more stagnation, more misery.

Newcastle are locked into a cycle of decline, with relegation eventually the only logical conclusion. It might not happen next May, but unless the current model is modified, it will come to pass in the end. As every hardened gambler knows, you can’t beat the odds forever. It is folly for Ashley to try.