LONDON • Rafael Benitez is close to finalising a deal with Newcastle United to remain in charge of the newly-relegated club next season, after owner Mike Ashley agreed to his manifesto for change.
Although confirmation could come by the end of the week, the Spaniard's decision not to exercise the break clause in his three-year contract at St James' Park is still vulnerable to 11th-hour hijacking by another club, even if that seems increasingly unlikely.
Despite failing to keep Newcastle out of the Championship, Benitez has made an impressive impact since succeeding Steve McClaren in March, with the Magpies unbeaten in their last six matches.
He had originally been set on departing if Premier League status was lost, but has increasingly warmed to the challenge on Tyneside.
The Spaniard was said to be "very pleased" after an unexpected, two-hour talk with Ashley on Sunday evening.
Serenaded throughout his team's 5-1 home weekend win over Tottenham, Benitez then continued what were said to be "positive and productive" negotiations on Monday with Lee Charnley, Newcastle's managing director, with the conversation progressing as far as identifying possible summer transfer targets.
It appears that Ashley has offered the 56-year-old full power to rip up his old, failed, Newcastle blueprint and not only granted Benitez autonomy over assorted club spheres, most notably recruitment, but also accepted his desire to rebuild the squad ahead of the Championship campaign.
The owner's rare appearance at St James' Park on Sunday facilitated the pair's first meeting, with the sports retailer having been anxious to meet the Spaniard earlier last week.
Instead, Benitez postponed talks until this week and Ashley, clearly anxious to accelerate the deal, pre-empted matters by turning up at the Spurs match on an evident charm offensive.
The former Liverpool and Real Madrid manager - who returned to Merseyside to talk things over with his wife and daughters on Monday - will want written guarantees of Ashley's promises before formally accepting Newcastle's proposals but there is an increasing confidence on both sides that an agreement can be reached.
The club's budget for next season will depend partially on the sale of players, but Newcastle are self-sufficient and profitable.
"At the moment I can't say anything because we are still talking, but the idea is that the majority of the players would stay," Benitez had said.
The prospect of him committing to the club would be greeted with relish by fans and players alike.
"It would be massive for Newcastle to keep Rafa as manager," Andros Townsend, the England winger, said.
"He is one of the best managers in the world. If we can keep a manager of that calibre and keep doing the right things, we will build.
"We will not cut corners and we'll build for the future and come straight back in the Premier League, and not just in the top flight, but up there challenging because that is what the manager wants to do.
"For me as a 24-year-old to be able to work with one of the best coaches in the world, who has coached the best wingers, is fantastic... You have seen my performances improve since he came in."
THE GUARDIAN, THE TIMES, LONDON