In the last week, NUFC have released their accounts and the start of their positioning around what is their most important negotiation in a life time; the re-signing of Rafael Benitez.  The message was pretty straight forward.  In line with previous Fans’ Forums “we have what we have”, I’d argue however that ambition is a two-way street.

Let’s apply some context to this.  In March 2016 NUFC lost 3-1 at home to Bournemouth, prompting the club to take action and sack the manager, at least that’s the official line.  It’s been widely reported that at this stage, Rafa’s representatives contacted the club to say that he’d be interested in talking about the Manager’s job if McClaren was to leave.  In turn this prompted the club to act swiftly and they negotiated a deal which expires on 30th June 2019 with break clauses linked to NUFC retaining their Premier League Status.  When the club were then relegated, Benitez took the decision to stay to get the club back to the Premier League because he saw the potential of what the club could be.

If you look at the Premier League now, there is a Big Six which is going to be tough for anyone to break down, but outside of that there are not a multitude of clubs with the potential of this one.  Benitez’s family live on the Wirral in Merseyside and this is surely huge motivation for him to remain in the Premier League.  He’s been in the area for 3 years now so understands what the club means to the city and what the club could be with a little bit of ambition.  This has been his message from day one, and the club need to listen to him to allow this to happen.

So which other clubs that are ‘available’ would be attractive to Benitez?  Similarly of those clubs who would be looking to attract him?  I believe that list is small to non-existent in reality.  As much as I rate the manager, I can’t see a Top Six side going for him.  Looking down the league Watford and Wolves look pretty settled, and Rodgers has just moved to Leicester.  West Ham although have great potential, are pretty unstable (even by our standards!) and although they throw budget at their team they’re a perfect example that money doesn’t solve everything.  Realistically where would be a better fit for Rafa in the Premier League?  Yep I’m struggling too……..

The problem is the Club know their value to the Manager.  It’s an open secret that all parties want to make this work.  NUFC want Benitez but he absolutely wants to stay at NUFC.  The question is can he risk his professional reputation if the Club wont compromise to an extent on their stringent model.  It’s well known the Owner likes to gamble which quite frankly worries me but my feeling is that this is an opportunity we won’t get again.  If we can’t secure his signature I’m not sure where we can go from there.  Could the fans really get back behind the club after this opportunity was squandered?  What’s beyond daft is the Club could easily have their cake and eat it.

I personally agree that the Club should aspire to live within their means.  Very few clubs globally could afford to make continual losses each year, and this takes a commitment from Owners who are happy to lose money (such as City Football Group).  Financial Fair Play is here to stay and although it ultimately helps the bigger clubs, we need to accept it’s the future of the game.  Living within our means also means we’re more secure as an asset which means we’re more likely to attract external investment.  Chelsea are an interesting example of a club who have over the last few years moved towards a ‘self-sufficient’ model and their performance on the pitch has suffered as a result because for 10-15 years prior to that they were operating on a “bottomless pit” model and the club has struggled to adjust.  Portsmouth are an example of a club which haemorrhaged money unsustainably and are now further down the football pyramid as a result.  Ultimately self-sustainability makes sense.

What frustrates me is the potential of the additional revenue that we’re not bringing in.  Commercially there is more that can be done around Sponsorship without a need to name the ground.  If you look at what other clubs have done to be creative in this area, it opens up opportunities that NUFC need to capitalise on.  Sleeve Sponsorships, Training Kit Sponsors, Training Ground Sponsors are just a few.  Not to mention the S****s D****t hoardings that looking at the current Commercial figures can’t be bringing in what they could potentially from another Sponsor.  I’d even be open to £10m of Mike Ashley’s debt being written off for every year the Sponsorship is there for, because that makes us a more attractive club and puts us in that position of living within our means.  It feels like the Club doesn’t value the asset that it is, and compares itself to other clubs rather than looking at our unique selling points.

During the first 15 years of the Premier League Era, we’ve arguably created some of the biggest moments and drama.  Finishing 3rd in our first season in 1993-94, losing the title from 12 points clear in 1995-96, signing Alan Shearer for a World Record Fee in the summer of ’96, beating Barcelona at SJP in ’97, two FA Cup Finals at Wembley in consecutive years, qualifying from Group Stages in the Champions League after losing our first 3 games in 2001-02.  To add to all of that history, we’re based in my opinion in the best part of the country.  There is only one club in the region, and we’re next to the Coast, the town or the Countryside depending on where you live specifically.  And if you want that London feel, you’re only an hour flight or 3 hour train ride away.  One thing Benitez has done is ensure that players that come here want to be here.  We’re not a stepping stone and not pitched that way anymore to the likes of Sissoko and Cabaye.  When we’re playing well and getting good results there are very few clubs that can match the passion that our fanbase show.  There is such an opportunity here and that’s why it’s all so frustrating.

I’m also not convinced on the numbers.  There is a reason our accounts are released a year in arrears, it makes it harder to follow the money into the club and for us to track whether we’re spending our full potential or not.  There absolutely should’ve been more available for the Manager to spend in the last 12 months and there shouldn’t be any doubt in his mind that if this wasn’t spent that it’ll be available to him moving forwards.  Lack of transparency builds a feeling of a lack of trust, and I’m hoping the club are realising this and address the communication issues that have broken this trust over the last 11 years.

My message to the board is to be bold.  You can achieve this by ‘living within our means’ but we need to be selling the Club in the right way to our existing and new Sponsors.  There was an argument made in a Forum Meeting about St James’ not needing expansion.  The club need to look at themselves and ask why that is.  People won’t do all they can to retain their ticket for a club that aspires to survive and be ‘best of the rest’.  Rafa provides hope, give him what he wants by driving more revenue into the club and make this club the special thing it can be giving him the freedom to operate how he wants to.  If you do that, you’ll struggle to find a ground big enough to fulfil demand and hey presto – you’ve speculated to accumulate.  If not, I’m not sure what the future of the club will look like and how many fans will stick around to see what happens next.

Jon Lane

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