SOMETIMES, in a game of poker, it all comes down to who blinks first. As they eyeball themselves across the table while Dan Ashworth settles into his gardening leave, neither Newcastle United nor Manchester United want to be the club that backs down. At some stage, though, the resolve of one or the other will almost certainly begin to crumble.

Who has most to lose by the current impasse? On the face of it, it would be appear to be Manchester United given that Sir Jim Ratcliffe clearly wants Ashworth to be the figurehead of his planned overhaul of the club’s footballing operation.

If this was a game of poker, then Manchester United’s incoming co-owner was in no mood for bluffing when he addressed the press for the first time on Wednesday.

“I think Dan Ashworth is clearly one of the top sporting directors in the world,” said Ratcliffe. “I’ve no doubt he’s a very, very capable person. And he’s interested in the Manchester United job because it’s probably the biggest sporting director job in the world just now, with the biggest challenge.”

No attempt at obfuscation there then. ‘We want Dan Ashworth and he wants us’. The problem, of course, being that he is currently contracted to Newcastle.

Ratcliffe went on to address that, describing the current situation as “a bit silly” and branding Newcastle’s insistence that their current sporting director completes a period of gardening leave that is set to stretch to around 20 months as “absurd”.

Be that as it may, it is the reality of the position Ashworth finds himself in, and by revealing just how much Newcastle’s stance is niggling him, Ratcliffe inadvertently conveyed the weakness of his own hand. If Newcastle continue to dig their heels in as a point of principle, there is absolutely nothing Manchester United can do about it. If the Magpies continue to demand a minimum of £20m in order to release Ashworth from his contractual obligations early, Manchester United will have to come up with the money if they want their number one choice of sporting director to be able to influence a transfer window before 2026.


The noises coming out of Old Trafford are that they are prepared to sit tight, and the parameters of exactly what Ashworth is or is not able to do during his gardening leave remain somewhat unclear. As the situation becomes increasingly acrimonious, though, the 52-year-old will have to be careful. Breach the terms of his arrangement with Newcastle, and things could rapidly get very messy indeed.

So, does that mean Newcastle hold all the aces here? Not necessarily. Contractually, they are unquestionably calling the shots. But as time passes, will they come to view their current position as increasingly untenable?

It has been suggested that Ashworth is earning around £1.5m a year with Newcastle – that’s an awful lot of money to pay someone to prune their roses. Given the constraints they are attempting to work within in order to stay on the right side of the Premier League’s Profit and Sustainability rules, can the Magpies really afford to shell out that kind of sum just to make a point?

And what happens when Newcastle identify and recruit Ashworth’s successor? The suggestion coming out of Tyneside is that the club’s ownership group do not want to be without a sporting director for too long. Michael Edwards, Richard Hughes, Paul Mitchell and Tiago Pinto have all been touted as potential replacements for Ashworth. None would command quite the same sums as the man they would be replacing, but their annual salary could still stretch to eight figures. Would Newcastle really want to be paying £2.5m a year for two sporting directors, one of which was offering absolutely nothing to their business?

It seems unlikely, especially when a swift resolution over Ashworth, even for a compensation payment significantly lower than £20m, would still benefit Newcastle when it came to making signings this summer while remaining on the right side of FFP regulations.

Thanks to the backing of their Saudi Arabian owners, the Magpies can afford to sit out the next 20 months in order to prevent Ashworth working with Manchester United. Ultimately, though, it would be a counter-productive move if it limited their own ability to spend in the next two or three transfer windows. There’s not much point damaging a rival if you end up shooting yourself in the foot too.

It feels like a resolution is inevitable at some stage, and once the dust settles, you would imagine some intense negotiating will begin. For now, though, while the cards have been dealt, no one is willing to fold just yet.