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Living on the edge

After Monday night's 0-0 stalemate with Portsmouth, Newcastle United fans are coming to terms with the fact that relegation is now a distinct possibility.

But while dropping out of the Premier League after 15 years as a top flight club would be a devastating blow for legions of proud Toon supporters, the financial reality of relegation could quickly lead to disaster for the club.

After losing half his £1.4bn fortune over the last year, club owner and sportswear tycoon Mike Ashley is reportedly ready to sell the club at a loss, choosing to walk away rather than bankroll the club in the Championship.

According to the Sunday Times' recently published 2009 Rich List, Ashley still has £700m to his name and is the 60th richest man in the UK, but after seeing his fortune slashed serious questions are being asked about his commitment to the club he has already once tried to sell since taking over in 2007.

Last September, Ashley put Newcastle up for sale hoping to rake in £350m, which would have made him a tidy £100m profit on cost of buying the club a year previous; now fresh reports suggest that if the club is relegated he would be willing to cut his losses and accept a knockdown £120m.

However, given the severity of the global economic downturn - the main reason Ashley was unable to sell the club last autumn - it is doubtful that a buyer willing to spend £120m on a relegated Newcastle could be found; especially as Ashley would still expect any future owner to repay the £100m he loaned the club after shelving plans to sell last year - putting the final sum at over £200m.

Furthermore, besides an impressive stadium and an army of devoted fans, the club has little going for it apart from its Premier League status.

Without a meaningful trophy since 1955's hallowed FA Cup win, Newcastle do not boast a rich history of success, nor, as the league table proves, can they lay claim to a star-studded squad of genuine promise; in fact a new owner would regard the club's current squad as a liability rather than an asset, especially if they were relegated.

The current Newcastle wage bill is more than £60m and crucially there are no clauses in any player contract stipulating an automatic cut in wages in the event of relegation; whether through arrogance or naivety such an eventuality was never considered.

The cost of relegation from the Premier League is put at around £35m; while corporate hospitality, merchandising and gate receipts are included in that figure, £30m of it is taken up by television revenues. By comparison Championship clubs earn around £2.5m a year from pooled television rights sales.

Therefore even with the £11.5m parachute payment which is issued to all clubs relegated from the Premier League, Newcastle can expect a drop in income of more than 50%, making it impossible for the club to meet their current overheads without Ashley's assistance.

For Newcastle fans, relegation means that dreams of sporting success will become even more unlikely, but for Ashley it represents two equally unattractive options: sell and lose money or stay and spend money.

While Ashley's natural reflex might be to sell and get out quick, doing so will be much harder than he would wish. For any potential investor, Newcastle represents a considerable risk and one that even at a knockdown price will be unattractive to many, particularly in the current market when securing finance is all but impossible.

But having seen his own personal fortune cut by half over the last 12 months, the last thing Ashley will want to contemplate is personally financing a football club, something he has already learnt can quickly become a money pit.

For Newcastle fans whose patience has been tested time and again by owners who have failed to live up to their own hype, the risk is that in his haste to sell and with a dearth of options, Ashley will opt for an opportunistic buyer who does not have the club's long-term interests at heart.

There are reports that two consortiums are monitoring the situation, one of which is understood to feature former Newcastle chairman Freddy Shepherd, a controversial figure who banked £37m from selling his stake in the club to Ashley in 2007.

While Shepherd is unpopular amongst the vast majority of the St James's Park faithful for various faux pas which range from labelling the women of Newcastle as "dogs" to mocking fans for buying replica shirts - not to mention personally profiteering from share deals while the club was traded on the stock market - he could represent a relatively safe pair of hands, particularly in comparison to Ashley, whose tenure has been marked by various ill-considered decisions.

While the prospect of Shepherd's return is an understandably unpalatable for Newcastle fans at least under his stewardship the club reached the FA Cup final, challenged for the Premier League and qualified for the Champions League, under Ashley the club have veered from disaster to controversy and now teeter on the brink of a huge fall.

The ideal scenario for both the supporters and Ashley would be for the club to avoid relegation at the conclusion of the season, but with Newcastle three points adrift of safety, the squad desperately short on form and confidence and with just four games remaining, the future looks decidedly bleak.

With the sporting stakes so high for the club and its fans, and the financial stakes equally high for Ashley, the pressure is palpable.

When Ashley backtracked on his decision to sell the club last December, he claimed he was committed to the future of Newcastle. Most interpreted the decision as a Machiavellian move dressed up as a change of heart, believing that after failing to find a buyer Ashley decided the best way to recoup his money was to ride out the financial storm and try selling in a more buoyant market.

In the event of relegation the same would be true, and unsuccessful as Ashley's reign may have been, the club's best hope is that Ashley stays, funds a recovery and eventual promotion back to the Premier League before selling.

Not only would it be in the best interests of the club for an owner of his means to be its custodian outside the top flight but, if recouping his outlay is chief objective, it would be in Ashley's own best interests too.

While dipping into his own pocket might be anathema, doing so would protect the club and its fans, allowing him the chance to prove his commitment to the club and provide the best possible chance to get something approaching a return on his money. After all, selling at the bottom of the market is no way to make a profit.

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