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Rafa's frustrations don't seem to have dampened morale; THE AGENDA: Newcastle have problems, but it does not feel like team spirit is one.

Byline: STUART RAYNER Football Writer stuart.rayner@reachplc.com

AT Newcastle United, particularly Mike Ashley's Newcastle United, the next crisis is rarely far from the surface.

When your support-base is so passionate and your team so important to its city, the highs and lows of life at St James' Park both tend to be magnified.

Right now the Magpies are not having a great transfer window. There is still time to turn it around, but there does not seem to be the will in the corridors of power.

Having finished in the top half of last season's Premier League, Newcastle ought to be looking at how to improve but appear to be trying to get away with as little as possible to not even necessarily not go backwards, but not drop down a level once more.

Aleksandar Mitrovic, Mikel Merino, Chancel Mbemba and Matz Sels have been sold for more than the outlay on Martin Dubravka, Fabian Schar, Ki Sung-yeung, loanee Kenedy and the impending Yoshinori Muto. Other departures are likely, with Isaac Hayden asking to move for family reasons and Dwight Gayle in limbo.

There is more money coming into Newcastle's coffers than just transfer receipts, with the broadcasters funding the world's most lucrative football league pouring amounts in which blow other leagues out of the water.

Manager Rafael Benitez feels his squad is four players light - a leftback, a central defender, a No 9 and a No 10. Yet at PS8m and PS10m respectively, long-term target Nicolas Tagliafico and short-term need Federico Fernandez look out of his price range. Any ideas of paying Leighton Baines' wages would therefore seem highly optimistic.

Benitez believes West Bromwich Albion's Salomon Rondon has the physicality and mobility to be the targetman he wants and PS16.5m is not a lot for a Premier League club to pay for a first-choice centre-forward, particularly when they have just fetched PS22m from Fulham for fourth choice (Mitrovic).

The men running the club that 22 years ago on Monday fought off Manchester United to buy Alan Shearer for a world record transfer fee are no longer giddy romantics but grim realists. It would be a surprise - though not a seismic shock - if the Rondon deal did not eventually go through, with Gayle moving in the opposite direction, but his release clause made it a simple deal which has been allowed to become a transfer window saga.

The Venezuelan is losing valuable pre-season fitness and getting-toknow-you time which could make it harder to hit the ground running, and with Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal awaiting in the first five games - their other opponents, newly-promoted Cardiff City will be no pushover in their first home game either - that would be pretty useful.

Benitez, the smart politician, is not hiding his frustration. Ashley is immune to politics and opinion polls unless they impact on his balance sheet.

When Benitez is frustrated, the fans are. There have been protests both outside Ashley's Sports Direct and online, chants from the stands and even a banner draped from Porto's 85m-high 172m-wide Dom Luis bridge which must have bemused a few locals. Ashley's stewardship has even been discussed in the House of Commons.

So far, so bad. There is, however, one important reason to be cheerful.

If the unhappiness circling the camp has infiltrated the players, it is not showing.

On Monday the travelling English media were invited to watch Newcastle train ahead of today's pre-season friendly in Braga. One never gets the complete picture from people who know they are being watched, but the players did not come across as feeling sorry for themselves.

Gayle was probably only outdone by Matt Ritchie in the chirpiness stakes. Rumours were flying about that Gayle had agreed personal terms to move to the Hawthorns.

The club dismissed them, but not as comprehensively as Gayle's actions, not tip-toeing around like a player who knew he was a mistimed tackle away from seeing a transfer go up in smoke, or sulking like someone pointedly unused from the bench during the prestige friendly at Porto less than 48 hours earlier.

When his team-mates failed to play the right pass there was anger, not apathy.

The whole session was fullblooded, with more than one juicy tackle, but no one seemed to take offence at a bit of rough and tumble.

Gayle's team-mates made light of his situation, one of them shouting "West Brom!" as he prepared to take a shot. It was not the only moment of humour.

As the whole Newcastle party snaked single file between the training pitches at Braga's impressive academy to begin work, one wag started playing the Benny Hill theme tune.

After the session there were interviews in the team hotel, but no one seemed particularly on edge at the elephant in the room. Jonjo Shelvey had brought up the fans' unhappiness in the Hull City mixed zone the previous week, using it as a rallying cry for unity.

Shortly before talk of a move to Huddersfield Town - since played down at both ends - emerged, Christian Atsu (inset left) had been laying into himself for inconsistent performances and "average" seasons, but while there was a determination to do better, it was not grim. He spoke of the "honour" of wearing the black-and-white stripes - "My friends always say to me, 'Wow, you are playing for Newcastle!'" Like just about everything else in football, team spirit matters most during the 90 minutes, and there have been good signs there too.

Draws with Hull and Porto have highlighted some of the shortcomings Benitez must address not just in the transfer market but also on the training pitches, but the fact Ayoze Perez scored an injury-time equaliser in East Yorkshire, and the way they dug in for a 0-0 at a febrile Estadio Do Dragao were good signs. Last season Newcastle squeezed close to the maximum out of what they had available, and there are signs they could do so again. The frustration is that Ashley will not give them a little more to work with.

There is more money coming into Newcastle's coffers than just transfer receipts

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Dwight Gayle's Newcastle team-mates made light of his expected move to West Brom in training (main picture and left), and team spirit remains high despite the club's ongoing transfer market woes
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Aug 1, 2018
Words:1055
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