Mike Ashley has promised to take his Newcastle squad on holiday if they avoid relegation and has told them he will NOT be selling the club this season and that he is determined to keep manager Rafa Benitez.
Sportsmail can exclusively reveal what the owner said to the team during Wednesday night’s clear-the-air dinner in Northumberland, after which he appeared to make a V-sign gesture to protesting supporters.
Ashley refutes the suggestion he swore at fans after spending three hours inside Rialto’s restaurant attempting to mend relations with Benitez and his players.
And we understand that included the promise of an end-of-season holiday if they can recover from a seven-match winless start which leaves them in the drop zone. Ashley intervened after witnessing Saturday’s 2-0 home defeat by Leicester and sent a message to the dressing-room saying that he would be taking them out for dinner on Wednesday night.
And it was there that Ashley told Benitez and stars including captain Jamaal Lascelles, Matt Ritchie and Jonjo Shelvey that they should not be distracted by talk of the club being sold this season. He claimed that no party has ever come close to meeting his valuation and that some had tried to steal the club at a knockdown price.
We understand he admitted to them that he has made mistakes but now plans to take a more hands-on approach and will be present at matches and training sessions in the coming months. Ashley, who was meeting Benitez face-to-face for only the fourth time in two-and-a-half years, also insisted to the players that the Spaniard was going nowhere and he needed him as manager for the team to be successful on the pitch.
To that end, he said that plans were being made for January – and this is what would have been of interest to Benitez.
He was furious after a stand-off over his contract situation in the summer saw Ashley refuse to release significant transfer funds, as the club returned a £21million profit, leaving them short in key areas.
Benitez will only stay on as boss – his deal expires in June – if Ashley backs him with cash in the New Year and agrees to improvements at the training ground and an overhaul of the academy.
And that is what supporters care about, keeping a manager the club is lucky to have in the first place.
Benitez was all smiles as he arrived for the pizza and pasta summit and he was seated next to Ashley and managing director Lee Charnley for what sources say was a healthy exchange.
But Ashley’s apparent indiscretion afterwards sullied what should have been an otherwise productive night and it will only intensify the feeling of fans to get him out of their club.