Stuff that matters

Newcastle’s sporting director, Dan Ashworth, has said the club’s women’s team is a priority for its majority Saudi Arabian owners and everything possible will be done to ensure Becky Langley’s side reach the WSL by 2025.

Given that Newcastle women are in the fourth tier that means successive promotions must be achieved, but Ashworth is optimistic that a team that attracted more than 22,000 for a league game at St James’ Park last season can become the best-supported in England.

“Becky’s team is absolutely a priority for the owners,” said the 51-year-old former FA technical director who moved to Tyneside from a similar role with Brighton in June.

“Already, they’ve gone from a team where the players had to pay to play last year to being professionalised. We will do everything we can to give them the support to get to the WSL as quickly as possible.”

As welcome as that overdue attention is, there is a certain irony that women in Saudi Arabia itself are often severely restricted and remain deprived of certain rights and freedoms.

Ashworth, though, had no qualms about going to Newcastle. “I thoroughly enjoyed Brighton and wasn’t looking for a job,” he said. “But, sometimes, something comes along where you just go: ‘Wow.’ The potential at this club and in this city meant you just think: ‘Blimey, it’s too good to turn down.’ I want to be a sporting director competing in Europe, competing for trophies, competing at the top end of the Premier League.

“I put my faith in the fact Newcastle’s owners had passed the Premier League’s owners’ and directors’ test.”

Ashworth’s tasks include staving off interest in Bruno Guimarães from, among other clubs, Real Madrid. The Brazil midfielder, a £35m buy from Lyon last January, has switched the lights on at St James’ Park and Ashworth is adamant there are no plans to cash in to meet financial fair play restrictions.

“Sometimes you have to trade but I absolutely do not want to sell Bruno,” he said. “He’s a top player and a really important part of our journey. He’s part of the vision, part of connecting the city with the supporters.”

Ashworth was swift to pour scorn on suggestions, invariably made by those with little familiarity with the north-east, that leading footballers will be reluctant to relocate to Newcastle.

“I don’t think it’s a problem,” he said. “You can fly to London in 45 minutes from Newcastle airport, it’s seven miles from the city centre and if players have a long weekend they can fly pretty much anywhere from there.

“A lot of investment has been put into this city. You look at the Quayside, the shops and the restaurants; it’s a really cosmopolitan city. It’s a vibrant and attractive place and one of the unique things about us is our stadium is slap bang in the middle of the city, which connects us to everything.”

FFP means that, in Ashworth’s words, “we can’t just go out and buy anybody so we’ve got to be agile and creative” and “it is not sustainable” to invest the £210m Newcastle have spent on players during 2022 on an annual basis. Not that it represents a barrier to Saudi ambition. “I don’t think there’s a ceiling to what this club can achieve,” he said. “It’s a really difficult job to catch clubs like Manchester City, Arsenal and Chelsea but it’s possible.”

Ashworth, a Uefa pro licence holder and former coach proud of his ability to work in a tracksuit as well as a suit, praised the “empathy and emotional intelligence” of the manager, Eddie Howe. “Newcastle have been famous for an attacking brand of football,” he said. “Part of our remit is to try and develop that and get supporters inspired and excited.”