Mike Ashley has tried to motivate his millionaire Newcastle United stars by promising to take them on holiday if they beat the drop.
He also told them he will not be selling the club this season, during the pizza and pasta summit which ended with police being called and the owner later denying he had made a V-sign gesture at fans.
Welcome to the football club which, while drab and winless on the pitch, continues to be so entertainingly dysfunctional off it.
Sportsmail broke the story earlier this week of Ashley’s plan to build relations with Benitez and his players over an Italian meal.
Now we can reveal what the Newcastle owner told them during Wednesday’s clear-the-air dinner, after which he appeared to make a two-fingered gesture at protesting fans outside Rialto’s restaurant in Ponteland, Northumberland. Ashley strongly denies that allegation.
Earlier, he spoke to the players, either one-to-one or in small groups, rather than addressing the entire room. Sportsmail understands that Ashley promised an end-of-season holiday if the squad can recover from the nightmare start which has left Newcastle in the drop zone with two points from seven matches.
Ashley intervened after watching Saturday’s 2-0 home defeat by Leicester and sent a message to the dressing room saying that he would be taking them for dinner.
It was there that he 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, especially given the destabilising effect Amanda Staveley’s interest had during the last campaign.
He said no party has ever come close to meeting his valuation and that some had tried to steal the club at a knock-down price — no doubt referencing Staveley.
Ashley also admitted he has made mistakes but now plans to take a more hands-on approach and will be at matches and training sessions in the coming months.
The owner, who was meeting Benitez face-to-face for only the fourth time in two and a half years, also told the team the Spaniard was going nowhere and they needed him as manager if there was to be a turnaround in form.
To that end, he said that plans were being made for January — and it is this that would have been of interest to Benitez. The boss was furious after a stand-off over his contract in the summer saw Ashley refuse to provide significant transfer funds. He felt he was left short in key areas while the club returned a £21million profit. Benitez will stay on as boss — his deal expires in June — only if Ashley backs him with cash in the new year and agrees to improvements at the training ground and academy.
That is what concerns the fans — keeping a manager the club is lucky to have. Benitez was all smiles as he arrived with his staff at Rialto’s and he sat with Ashley and managing director Lee Charnley for what sources say was a healthy and fairly informal exchange.
We understand that Benitez dined on the £8.95 risotto marinara, while Ashley went for the £7.95 spaghetti bolognese and drank two pints of lager.
More than 20 of the 43-man group ordered fillet steak at £17.95. The bill totalled about £2,500 with Charnley settling the tab — along with generous tips for staff.
After the meal, Lascelles and Ritchie joined Ashley, Benitez and Charnley for a discussion about how best to improve matters on and off the pitch. Lascelles then stayed with the top brass after the other players left.
Ritchie later said the meeting had been ‘very good’ and Ashley was in high spirits until met by supporter protests and a police escort to his waiting people-carrier.
It was then that he was accused of his two-fingered gesture, which will only intensify the fans’ eagerness to see him leave the club.
In a statement on Thursday night, Ashley said: ‘I did not make a V-sign to anyone. To suggest otherwise is both inaccurate and irresponsible. The matter is in the hands of our legal team.
‘It is hugely disappointing, given the reason we set up the meeting, that certain elements of the media are trying to undermine the club by creating a story out of nothing.’
Supporters, meanwhile, will only believe talk of backing Benitez when they see it but, given that Ashley is terrified of a third relegation since taking over in 2007, it is almost certain he will act in January.
The sports retail businessman is a gambler but will not want to risk losing a seat at the lucrative Premier League table.
Instead, it will most likely be Las Vegas where he spins the wheel with his team if they stay up.