NEIL REDFEARN has emerged as a surprise contender for a senior position in Newcastle United’s new managerial set-up, with the former Leeds United boss set to play the lead role when the club’s senior players begin to return to pre-season training this week.

Redfearn, who was promoted to the position of Under-23s head coach last month, is set to take control of the early part of Newcastle’s pre-season programme and could well find himself presiding over the club’s campaign in the Premier League Asia Trophy later this month.

If he impresses there, he could find himself handed the managerial reins on an interim basis, with Mike Ashley and Lee Charnley yet to make any meaningful headway in the hunt for Rafael Benitez’s permanent successor.

With his contract having formally ended on Sunday, Benitez broke his silence yesterday morning to issue a statement in which he questioned the ambition of those in charge at St James’ Park.

The Spaniard is close to agreeing a £12m-a-year deal with Dalian Yifang – he could be officially confirmed as the Chinese club’s new boss as soon as this morning – and the Newcastle hierarchy had hoped to make progress in their search for his replacement over the weekend.

However, a number of their leading options have either distanced themselves from a move to Tyneside or would prove extremely expensive to recruit because of the terms of their current contracts.

Patrick Vieira became the latest figure to rule out a move to the Magpies yesterday when he reaffirmed his commitment to French club Nice.

Vieira, who began his managerial carer with MLS side New York City, guided Nice to a seventh-place finish in Ligue 1 last season.

He was interviewed by Newcastle officials prior to the appointment of Steve McClaren in 2015, and is understood to figure prominently on the club’s list of potential recruits this summer.

However, with British businessman Jim Ratcliffe poised to complete a takeover at Nice’s Allianz Riviera stadium, Vieira wants to remain in his current post for the new Ligue 1 season.

Speaking to the French media on the opening day of Nice’s pre-season training schedule yesterday, the former Arsenal skipper said: “I am at OGC Nice long term. I have no intention of going elsewhere. I’ve always felt good here and, with the people around me, I can’t see myself anywhere other than OGC Nice.”

Mikel Arteta and Roberto Martinez continue to top the bookmakers’ markets, but the former is employed on the coaching staff at Manchester City and the latter is contracted to the Belgian FA as the head of the national team.

There were more takeover rumours yesterday, with a number of media outlets in the Middle East reporting that the Dubai-based Bin Zayed Group remain confident of completing a buyout before the start of next season, but as things stand, Charnley and Ashley remain in charge of the managerial recruitment process.

If there is a realistic chance of a takeover being completed in the next couple of months, that would increase the likelihood of Redfearn being asked to hold the fort on a temporary basis.

When Ashley announced he was selling Newcastle in 2009, he promoted Chris Hughton to the role of caretaker manager on an initial temporary basis. However, Hughton remained in charge for the whole of the 2009-10 season, leading the Magpies to the Championship title.

Benitez’s reign formally came to an end on Sunday, although the Spaniard insists he would have signed a new contract had Ashley been willing to share his vision for Newcastle’s future development.

His statement, which was directed at Newcastle’s fans, said: “Thank you for three fantastic, exciting and, at times, challenging years.

“What we have had here – your support, your affection and your passion – has been unbelievable for me. St James’s Park has been always special, the 5-1 win against Tottenham was so emotional that since that day I have always felt as though I belonged at Newcastle, and thank you for making me feel so welcome and at home.

“Thank you to everyone at the club who has helped the team, and, of course, to the fine players who grew and fought with us and to the staff (one of the best I have shared time with).

“From winning the Championship to our two seasons in the Premier League, fans, staff and players have all been United. I wanted to stay, but I didn’t just want to sign an extended contract. I wanted to be part of a project. Unfortunately, it became increasingly clear to me that those at the top of the club did not share this vision.

“I’m very sad about that, but I do not regret for one moment my decision to come to Tyneside and I’m very proud about what we have achieved.”