LONDON • Newcastle United are preparing to open talks with Rafael Benitez about a new contract, in the hope of improving the manager's relationship with owner Mike Ashley.
The Spaniard's contract expires at the end of next season, but after a good start under Benitez on Newcastle's return to the Premier League this season, the English football club are planning to initiate negotiations over a longer-term deal.
Benitez's response will be governed by what he hears from Ashley regarding his vision for the club during the negotiations, after what proved a difficult summer transfer window, in which the manager was frustrated by a lack of signings and the collapse of several proposed deals.
The 57-year-old even considered resigning at various points during the close season because of a lack of backing in the transfer market, although a decent start to the campaign - in which Newcastle have taken nine points from their first six matches - has eased tensions.
Ashley has also made several overtures to Benitez in the past few weeks and is believed to have invited him to dinner, which is seen as a precursor to contract talks.
The Sports Direct owner's right-hand man, Justin Barnes, met Benitez before Newcastle's Premier League victory over Stoke City 10 days ago and is understood to have passed on Ashley's best wishes. Barnes, a lawyer at Sports Direct, has become increasingly influential at St James' Park of late, but is not a club employee.
Benitez's contract contains a £5.5 million (S$10 million) release clause, which is likely to prove a central part of the discussions.
The former Liverpool and Real Madrid manager has attracted strong interest from West Ham United after their poor start to the season under Slaven Bilic, and he would not want to price himself out of a future move by signing a long-term contract with a high exit clause.
Newcastle's desire to tie down Benitez is partly due to Ashley's attempts to sell the club, with The Times reporting last weekend that he has lowered his asking price to £380 million, as the manager is viewed as one of their biggest assets.
THE TIMES, LONDON