ON Monday afternoon, Rafael Benitez spent a couple of hours at Newcastle United’s training ground. Nothing unusual about that you might think, he works there. Yet once pictures of him walking through the main entrance began to emerge on social media, the conspiracy theorists went into overdrive.

He was meeting Lee Charnley to sign a new contract. He was refusing to sign a new contract and so was gathering together his belongings and saying his goodbyes. He was demanding a new round of talks because he wasn’t sure whether to sign his new contract or not. For two or three hours, Newcastle fans were in a state of collective meltdown.

The reality was thoroughly unremarkable – Benitez had needed to pick up a few things from his Newcastle apartment and so had called in to the training ground to address a few loose ends before returning to his family base on the Wirral. But when you are operating in the kind of vacuum that Newcastle United are inhabiting at the moment, even the smallest of actions can create an extremely loud noise.

Take the creation of Monochrome Acquisitions, the company that was registered at Companies House last week in the name of Sheikh Khaled Alnahyan, the head of the Bin Zayed Group, and Midwat Kidwai, the group’s legal representative.

Most city experts agree the creation of the Special Purchase Vehicle is a significant step on the route towards taking over a football club, but is by no means a guarantee that a sale to the Bin Zayed Group is either likely or imminent.

That didn’t stop some of the wilder pronouncements that followed though. The optimists seized on the fact that monochrome means black-and-white as irrefutable evidence that the Bin Zayed Group are serious bidders. The pessimists noticed the new company’s initials – MA – and immediately claimed it was a joke initiated by Mike Ashley at the supporters’ expense. Actually, it was simply a routine piece of corporate housekeeping.

And what about those pictures that have been flying around the internet showing the Sports Direct advertising boards being ripped out of St James’ Park? Proof that Ashley is finally leaving according to some. A planned upgrade of the current boards according to those who know.

In part, the desperate clamour for any kind of information simply reflects the depth of feeling that Newcastle supporters have for their club and the scale of the desire for a change of ownership. On the other side of the coin, the cynicism and bitterness that is also apparent is a direct result of the lies and misinformation that have been spread in the past. Don’t forget, this is a regime that, in a legal battle with former manager Kevin Keegan, admitted to “repeatedly and intentionally misleading the press, public and fans”.

The current anxiety is being exacerbated by the wall of silence that has been built around St James’ Park though, and the club’s refusal to make any kind of comment about the takeover situation or Benitez’s future is proving increasingly damaging. It is fuelling anger and resentment, and driving an even bigger wedge between the current ownership and the fanbase.

This is season-ticket renewal time, yet it is hard to think of any other business that would treat its most loyal customers with such utter contempt.

Despite repeated requests from a range of media companies for an update on ongoing developments, Newcastle’s only public comments since the end of the season have been to confirm the authenticity of the statements from the Bin Zayed Group. Not that they were correct or a realistic assessment of where events currently stand – simply that they came from where they said they were coming from.

That is simply not good enough. If financial negotiations are at a delicate position, a day or two of silence might be justified. But the Premier League season ended more than a month ago, and despite so much hanging in the balance, Newcastle have said nothing.

That directive has clearly come from the top – the press team on the ground at St James’ Park has previously been extremely proactive in trying to rebuild relationships with the media and supporters – and provides yet another example of the complete disinterest and disdain that Ashley displays towards the fans and the institution he is supposed to be a custodian of.

Even in the most delicate of times, other football clubs manage to remain a family. Newcastle is like a dystopian dictatorship, with the all-powerful leader locking himself away as the peasants desperately try to separate fact from fiction.


THE Nations League finals proved something of a damp squib, with England’s matches against Holland and Switzerland highlighting some of the weaknesses that still exist within Gareth Southgate’s squad.

Midfield is a key problem area – Fabian Delph isn’t good enough for international level, Eric Dier’s limitations have been well and truly exposed and Dele Alli has been badly out of form for a year now – while the heart of the back four remains in a state of flux with Joe Gomez having nudged himself ahead of John Stones.

If Euro 2020 was taking place tomorrow, around a third of the places in the England squad would be up for grabs, which means this summer’s European Under-21 Championships could yet prove crucial in determining who is involved in next year’s senior finals.

Southgate has fast-tracked players from the Under-21 set-up in the past, and unlike some of his predecessors, who would have been on the beach, the England boss will spend a chunk of his summer at the Under-21 finals in Italy.

James Maddison and Mason Mount have already featured in senior squads, and offer the kind of midfield assurance that was missing against the Dutch. Phil Foden and Jack Grealish could easily put themselves into contention for the senior squad if they impress in the Premier League next season, while Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Ryan Sessegnon also boast huge potential.


RAFAEL NADAL’s 12th French Open title was an incredible achievement – but what does it say for the state of men’s tennis that the sport is still being dominated by Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, all aged 31 or over? The next generation shows no sign of being able to catch up.