Manchester United poach Dan Ashworth to teach Newcastle a harsh reality

Even for those who speak in public rarely and choose their words carefully, there is the danger that some statements scarcely stand the test of time. “I’m excited to start work immediately and look forward to being part of a team that is helping the club to grow and achieve long-term success,” said Dan Ashworth in June 2022.

That was when he was unveiled as Newcastle’s new sporting director. Now on a second spell of gardening leave in two years, Ashworth is unable to start work at Manchester United immediately: his current and future employers will have to negotiate how long he spends in limbo, with the new regime at Old Trafford willing to wait a year and hints from Tyneside that Ashworth could be sidelined until 2026. One United may ask for £20m in compensation to make him available straight away, another is unwilling to pay £10m. There was a time when a transfer between the two clubs involved the shock sale of Andy Cole, not the expensive pursuit of a director of football. The speed added to the surprise of Cole’s move. The Ashworth deal could be more drawn out.

Dan Ashworth is leaving Newcastle to join Manchester United (PA)
Dan Ashworth is leaving Newcastle to join Manchester United (PA)

But if Ashworth was supposed to supply stability at St James’ Park, he has proved a short-term figure; now wanted to oversee long-term success at Old Trafford instead. There may be an irony that, as Newcastle have accepted the world’s richest club need to sell to give then more leeway within Profitability and Sustainability Rules to spend, the first lucrative departure could actually be the man hired to oversee their recruitment strategy.

Beyond that, though, there is a sense of the game’s pecking order actually remaining intact, one that can feel unexpected in the context of Newcastle’s 2021 takeover by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund. The hunters have become the hunted, the club with bottomless wealth – albeit unable to utilise much of it within the parameters of Financial Fair Play – raided themselves.

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Reasons can be offered for Ashworth’s willingness to move – enjoying less power at St James’ Park than he might elsewhere, the reality his family home is far nearer Manchester than Tyneside, a long-standing relationship with Dave Brailsford – but this could be seen as the revenge of the established order.

It might have been expected that Newcastle would be plucking pivotal figures from Manchester United by now, not vice versa. A reflection of a fallen giant’s residual pulling power may also illustrate the renewed ambition at Old Trafford with Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s arrival, and if both sets of owners could underline how the super-rich football clubs can now form off-shoots of the oil, gas and wider energy industry, there is an obvious contrast between the local boy and lifelong fan made good and the involvement of a state thousands of miles away.

It can illustrate the impact of the belated introduction of regulation to football’s wild west: Newcastle are constrained in what they can spend. It marks a difference from the past, from when the sudden emergence of a moneyed challenger, be it Chelsea or Manchester City, meant United were in their sights; and that, in turn, was because United were a superior side then.

But the nouveaux riches have tended to come for United. Two decades ago, a host of Sir Alex Ferguson’s transfer targets ended up at Stamford Bridge. A few years later, Manchester City erected their famous billboards proclaiming “Welcome to Manchester” to Carlos Tevez, the forward pilfered from under United’s noses. Samir Nasri, too, was on United’s radar and ended up at City.

The famous billboard when Carlos Tevez joined Manchester City (Getty Images)
The famous billboard when Carlos Tevez joined Manchester City (Getty Images)

Now times have changed. Indeed, Newcastle’s recruitment has tended to be admired – at least until the various difficulties experienced by Sandro Tonali, Lewis Hall and Harvey Barnes mean their summer 2023 window currently ranks as a failure – because they avoided the pitfalls the other United tumbled into.

They rarely shopped in the same markets but Newcastle – in some cases before Ashworth’s arrival – often found young players on an upward trajectory and, in cases such as Alexander Isak, Anthony Gordon and Bruno Guimaraes, generated value by improving players. When they signed older players, they did not do so at Casemiro-sized fees. They have not had their version of Antony.

Over the past five windows, each has spent around £400m; there is no doubt Newcastle have bought better. And if Ashworth’s role is not limited to transfers, if United are looking to bring in others to assist him – Southampton’s director of football Jason Wilcox is of interest – there may be the sense that they are looking to copy Newcastle, a club seven points below them in the table, albeit one who have won their last three meetings. Certainly, if Ashworth starts soon, United could benefit from knowledge of Newcastle’s plans, perhaps target their targets.

Even before Ashworth goes, the sense he was gettable has shown this season has provided Newcastle with an unwanted reality check. Some at St James’ Park would argue they never needed one, realising last season amounted to overachievement and that they had qualified for the Champions League sooner than they had felt was feasible.

But Newcastle’s wealth has not insulated them from approaches. Bayern Munich targeted Kieran Trippier in January; there are questions if Guimaraes will go in the summer. The first through the exit, however, may be the man who, under other circumstances, would have been charged with finding a replacement for Guimaraes.

And Ashworth would add another layer of complexity to a relationship between two clubs who competed for the title in the 1990s. The silverware invariably went to Old Trafford, but the Newcastle fans have spent the best part of three decades chorusing “Shearer turned you down”. Alan Shearer preferred his native Tyneside but when Dan Ashworth materialises in Manchester, some may see it as United putting Newcastle’s ambitious upstarts in their place.