Unai Emery is close to returning to the Premier League as Newcastle’s new manager after the club’s Saudi Arabian-led owners identified the Villarreal coach as their preferred choice to succeed Steve Bruce.
Although negotiations concerning Emery’s proposed salary are ongoing, there is cautious optimism at St James’ Park that the former Sevilla, Arsenal and Paris Saint-Germain coach will be in place for the trip to Brighton on Saturday.
Emery, who turns 50 on Wednesday, is due to take charge of Villlarreal at home against Young Boys in the Champions League on Tuesday night. With Newcastle happy to pay his employers about £6m in compensation, he and his advisers have been talking to Amanda Staveley and her fellow directors via Zoom since the weekend.
Staveley, who runs the club on a day-to-day basis, interviewed a number of candidates but, along with her Saudi overlords and fellow director Jamie Reuben, has been left most impressed by Emery and his track record.
Should he sign, his arrival on an anticipated three-year contract with a salary in the region of the £7m a year he commanded at Arsenal will be regarded as a coup for Staveley.
The Spaniard not only lifted the Europa League with Villarreal last season after beating Manchester United on penalties in the final but won the competition three years in a row with Sevilla from 2014 to 2016.
He subsequently won the French league with PSG before struggling as Arsène Wenger’s successor during a short spell at Arsenal when the team finished fifth in the Premier League and lost the Europa League final against Chelsea in 2019.
At Newcastle, the man who led a Villarreal side, now sitting a modest 13th in La Liga, to their first major trophy would face a very different challenge. Newcastle are still to win a match and sit 19th after 10 Premier League games.
Following Villarreal’s 2-0 win against Young Boys, Emery said: “The only thing that is true is that I have been told of their [Newcastle’s] interest and I pretty much don’t have more news than that. There is no offer, which in any case would have to come via the club. So there’s no more beyond that [which would make] me say I’m going.” He added: “I do not open or close the door. I am waiting and I would talk to Fernando [Roig, the Villarreal president] and the club, for whom I have respect. My dedication is where I am.”
When asked on Tuesday about a Newcastle approach for Emery, Roig said: “I have absolutely no idea. What I do know is that he has a contract with us and contracts are there to be fulfilled. I expect Unai’s professionalism and I have no doubt about that.”
Roig, pressed on his calm response, said: “The important thing is that fans can’t be bought. They don’t go to Newcastle or Man United. Loads and loads of players and coaches have been and gone … you’re always prepared for what might come. We fans are always here. What matters is that the feeling for Villarreal remains.”
With another 10 league fixtures due before the January transfer window Bruce’s successor faces a tricky, fairly high-risk challenge. Should the Emery deal founder, the indications are the club would turn to Eddie Howe after the former Bournemouth manager impressed in interviews.
Although the Saudis have plenty of money to spend – including scope to invest almost £200m on players in January – the short-term priority is to avoid relegation. After the 3-0 home defeat by Chelsea last Saturday the Newcastle caretaker Graeme Jones, who is set to remain on the staff, conceded the team were in a relegation fight.
Emery will appreciate that joining Newcastle will involve not only turning his back on European football but working with a limited squad alarmingly over-reliant on Callum Wilson and Allan Saint-Maximin for goals and inspiration.
It is the sort of role as capable of breaking a manager’s reputation as making it but Emery, seemingly still stung by his sacking from Arsenal in November 2019, is said to believe he has unfinished business in England’s top tier. He will, though, be keen to know the identity of the director of football Staveley is also seeking and plans for building the training ground that is urgently required.
Newcastle’s owners must trust that Emery’s profile and contacts will help them recruit the type of player capable of leading the team out of the bottom half of the table and, eventually, towards brighter European horizons.