WE are not yet out of September, and Newcastle United have already entered their winter of discontent.

Supporters’ protests, a team stranded in the relegation zone, apathy blending with anger on a match day at St James’ Park. Things haven’t been right on Tyneside for quite a while now, but in the last few months, they have definitely taken a turn for the worse.

The root cause of the crisis is obvious. Mike Ashley’s ownership has been so catastrophically toxic that the only real surprise about the current situation is that is has taken so long to unfold. Ashley, an absentee owner who has lost any interest he once had in his footballing plaything, is refusing to invest in an asset he would like to sell, and is involved in a counter-productive stand-off with Rafael Benitez that wrecks any chance of a harmonious working relationship at the top of the club’s executive structure.

Nothing meaningful will change until Ashley leaves, hence the growing protests directed at the sportswear magnate. Newcastle’s support base has never been particularly good at speaking in a unified voice, but the anger at Ashley’s ownership has brought various fans’ groups together and sparked a sense of solidarity that is making their demonstrations increasingly difficult for the hierarchy to ignore.

That said, however, even if the pressure on Ashley and his Sports Direct empire increases, the chances of a swift resolution to Newcastle’s ownership crisis are slim to non-existent. Even if this week’s reports suggesting the asking price for the club has been lowered to £300m are to be believed, potential buyers are hardly queueing up outside St James’. And even if they were, the need for a thorough process of due diligence means it is unlikely a deal would be completed before the January transfer window. By then, it might be too late to save the Magpies’ season.

There are mitigating factors behind Newcastle’s poor start, not least the quality of opposition they have faced in their first five matches and the injuries that have sidelined key players such as Jamaal Lascelles, Florian Lejeune and Jonjo Shelvey for long spells.

Nevertheless, the bare statistics make for grim reading. Newcastle head to Crystal Palace tomorrow sitting in 19th position in the table, with only goal difference separating them from bottom spot. They have picked up one point from a possible 15, and scored just four goals in their opening five matches.

It is more than that though. Having played Tottenham, Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal, Newcastle’s poor start wouldn’t be as much of an issue if there was a sense that everything else around the club was rosy. Patently, that is not the case. Newcastle feels like a club on an increasingly inescapable downward spiral. Supporters are unhappy, players are out of form, performances are inferior to those from last season. Somehow, Benitez has to turn that around.

I certainly don’t subscribe to the Richard Keys and Andy Gray theory that Benitez should be grateful to work under an owner like Ashley, but by the same token, if Newcastle’s position has not improved after the next two matches against Crystal Palace and Leicester, I would also argue that Benitez cannot be immune from blame.

He helped create the current air of negativity by constantly bemoaning the lack of depth and quality in his squad throughout the summer, and while he has attempted to move on from the failure of the transfer window, he has discovered it is extremely difficult to flick a switch and expect the prevailing mood to suddenly be transformed.

There is a danger that Benitez’s warnings about the consequences of a lack of investment are becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the Spaniard has to find a way of moving on the narrative if he is not to preside over a season that could quite easily end in Newcastle’s third relegation on Ashley’s watch.

Clearly, if that happens, the owner will have plenty to answer for. But having guided his side to an admittedly-fortuitous tenth-place finish last season, Benitez cannot simply use under-investment as an excuse if this season’s failings continue.

Yes, Newcastle’s squad is light on both numbers and quality. But it was not that long ago that Lascelles and Shelvey were being touted as candidates for England’s World Cup squad, Kenedy was being hailed as one of the most exciting youngsters in the country and Ayoze Perez was being linked with a possible move to Barcelona.

Kenedy has been atrocious in the majority of his outings this season, but is he really inferior to Ryan Fraser, who has been so devastating for fifth-placed Bournemouth? Clearly, there is an onus on the player to ensure his performances are at an acceptable level, but Benitez also needs to make sure he is doing all he can to get the best out of him.

Similarly, having pushed to sign Salomon Rondon all summer, and agreed to the departure of both Aleksandar Mitrovic and Dwight Gayle to create space for the Venezuelan, Benitez needs to come up with a way of maximising his main striker’s assets. Thus far, Rondon has looked significantly less effective than the likes of Troy Deeney and Glenn Murray, not to mention Mitrovic, who was sacrificed because he did not fit in to Benitez’s preferred system.

That system has been criticised this season, but Benitez can rightly claim a degree of negativity was justified when facing Chelsea and Manchester City. Newcastle successfully avoided a heavy defeat to either team, and last season, their goal difference was a key factor in their favour.

Now, though, the emphasis has to change. Damage limitation cannot be the name of the game against Palace or Leicester – Benitez has to prove he can get his side back on the front foot and inspire a series of performances that are much more positive and aggressive than anything we have seen so far.

He also has to convince that his heart is still in it. Last year, there was obvious fire in his belly. This season, with his contract due to expire in less than nine months, is there still the same sense of desire and passion?

Given the circumstances he is working under, few could blame Benitez if he opted to walk away next summer. Until then, though, it is his job to make the very best of the position he finds himself in.