Newcastle lose sporting director to Manchester United

Sport

This wasn’t in the script. When Newcastle United were taken over by a Saudi Arabian-backed consortium in October 2021, there was a sense that a dynasty could be in the offing. Depending on your definition, the new era signalled either the awakening or creation on a footballing powerhouse.

The consortium now in charge of the club are the richest in the world. The Public Investment Fund holds 80%, with the other 20% shared between the Reuben family and Amanda Staveley. Having seen ‘new money’ help both Chelsea and Manchester City to almost immediate success, there was hope and expectation that the same could happen at St James’ Park.

But there have been roadblocks, with financial restrictions, in part as a response to what happened with the other clubs. Although Newcastle’s smart moves have seen them make progress regardless, they’ve had their route to the top slowed down somewhat. They still think they’ll get there, but it might take longer. And yet, they are already attracting some of the world’s best players, such as Bruno Guimaraes and Alexander Isak, and qualified for the Champions League last season.

This week, there was a stark reminder that they are still on that journey, though. As the team builds, grows and improves, they’ll accrue interest in their key players and staff members. You might expect an offer for Bruno or Isak, but the first big loss has actually been Dan Ashworth, the sporting director. He is currently on gardening leave, after asking to join Manchester United following an official approach from Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s new look football operation at Old Trafford.

Newcastle didn’t expect to lose Ashworth so soon after he joined in similar circumstances from Brighton. After a long and meticulous process, the Magpies ownership settled on Ashworth as the man they wanted to become the face of the club. Now Manchester United are doing the same. Is it justified? Ashworth has a reputation as one of the sharpest footballing minds around, but he will go to Old Trafford eventually with a point to prove.

His best work remains what he did working with the FA as Technical Director. It was he who devised the ‘England DNA’ plan that included the construction of their base at St George’s Park and is bearing fruit now with Gareth Southgate’s side among the favourites for Euro 2024 this summer.

There are a number of reasons why Ashworth would be an ideal candidate for a new look Manchester United, for whom competence is a real buzzword, even outside of his existing relationship with Sir Dave Brailsford, Ratcliffe’s right-hand man. But like at Brighton, there is a sense of unfinished business at Newcastle for Ashworth, who himself said it takes years to feel the benefits of the job he does.

Newcastle’s women’s team is thriving like never before, and young players are being scouted to strengthen both the academy and first team. These are evidence that Ashworth has begun to sow seeds, but his impact at the club will be forever difficult to quantify because he is leaving too soon.

Manchester United are a bigger club, the prospect of setting them on the right track may be too hard to turn down. But Ashworth has had some frustrations at Newcastle, namely how he had to wait for approval from Riyadh, where all decisions are effectively taken, and he wasn’t in Eddie Howe’s ‘inner circle’, which extends to his coaching staff. There may be a few changes to the role before it is advertised again.

Howe has said he may have some input into who the next person is, and that may not be the worst idea. Manager and directors need to be on the same page.

“I don’t think I’ll be involved in the decision-making process, but I think we will have discussions on the role and how I see that,” he said before Saturday’s trip to Arsenal. “Hopefully, at the end, we come to the right solution for the club, because hopefully the next person will be at the club for many years and will be able to take the club in the direction everyone wants it to.”

Losing Ashworth to a club Newcastle strive to rival for years is a blow, but it is hardly the end of the line. The fact they are looking to move on so quickly shows the strength of the project on Tyneside.

Author: Mark Hayes