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Newcastle risking future with miserly transfer policy (swiped from behind The Times' paywall)

A snippet of a conversation from the start of the season with a man who has been firmly entrenched at St James’ Park for more years than he would care to admit and whose senses are attuned to approaching turbulence. “You know what this club’s like. You’ve seen the summer we’ve had. Lose a game and we’re under pressure. Lose the next and it’s backs to the wall. Lose a third and it’s a full-blown crisis. This is Newcastle.”
Alan Pardew was not happy. He was not incandescent, but he was not happy. The summer transfer window had just closed and his firm belief was that Newcastle United’s first-team squad had not been strengthened sufficiently, particularly in attack, that forward propulsion had been placed in jeopardy and that the club was storing up trouble. There might be a reckoning.
Clarification: numbers one and two were in reference to last season, not this, which just goes to show how football can change, how momentum – for good or ill – can influence a club’s fortunes. Let us transport ourselves back to August 2011; Kevin Nolan had left, Jose Enrique and Joey Barton would do so, legal letters about the use of Twitter were sent to players, who were still in dispute with Newcastle over bonus payments.
With his resources looking light, Pardew was asked in a press conference whether this was the old, drama-addled Newcastle reaffirming itself and while he answered in the negative, it felt like yet another precipice was being approached. Then the football started. And a decent draw with Arsenal was followed by a 1-0 victory at Sunderland and suddenly Pardew, to use Kevin Keegan’s parlance, was riding the black and white tiger.
A slight interlude. For a little while on Saturday, I frothed with rage. Brighton and Hove Albion! Again! Twice in two years, Newcastle have gone out of the FA Cup to the npower Championship team and the year before they lost to Stevenage and while these things can happen, to me – and this may be a personal thing, I accept – it feels like a betrayal of history, never mind those supporters who traveled to the south coat
I’m 42. I was born in 1970, which was only 15 years after Newcastle won their last FA Cup final and the exploits of Jackie Milburn, Bobby Mitchell and Bob Stokoe were part of the heritage I grew up with. I’m too young to remember Sunderland lifting it in 1973, managed by the very same Stokoe, but the same applies; at the start of each season the FA Cup was as much as a priority as the league.
That concept is gone now, I realise, but I hate that slow death. I know that staying in the Barclays Premier League has, with the money it entails, with the media-driven bombast which accompanies it, taken overarching importance for clubs (and some fans). And I come from the North East, so I have absolutely no expectation of trophies, but I do expect teams to give it a bloody good go. Newcastle’s performance was unworthy. Grrr.
There is a difference between Newcastle’s transfer policy and the implementation of that policy. Buying young, ambitious players for a decent price on manageable wages and with a likely sell-on value represents good sense, particularly at a club which has a lamentable record of paying too much for vanity signings at the expense of genuine team-building and with Financial Fair Play coming to the fore.
If Mike Ashley, the owner, is reluctant to spend/waste any more of his personal fortune bankrolling Newcastle, then there is little alternative, in any case; the club must become self-sufficient. Under the influence of Graham Carr, bargains have been unearthed in the likes of Yohan Cabaye, Cheik Tiote and Hatem Ben Arfa, while Mathieu Debuchy, last week’s £5.5m arrival from Lille, is a quality right back.
The system is fine and Carr’s reputation is merited, but Newcastle are hugely reluctant to compromise in a business where compromise is rife. They have their structure, they have their policy and they stick to it. Having targeted Debuchy, Douglas, the Twente centre-half, and strikers including Luuk de Jong and Andy Carroll, they either walked away from complex deals or were outbid by other clubs.
Five months after refusing to pay £7m for Debuchy, they have got him for less, but at what cost to results? The lack of cover in defence has been critical. Newcastle argue that Debuchy (he is 27), just as with Papiss Cisse’s fee and age 12 months earlier, represent flexibility in their policy, but not much. After all, with the £35m they originally received from Liverpool for Carroll, they benefited from the biggest compromise ever.
And is there now a glass ceiling at St James’? The uncertainty caused by the £7.5m release clause in Demba Ba’s contract is now over, thankfully, but another element to Newcastle’s policy is their stance on salary. Again, this is sensible. But there may come a time when Ben Arfa, Cabaye and others will wish to have their deals renegotiated. What happens then? Can Newcastle grow with their players?
Roll the dice. Ashley and Derek Llambias, his managing director (and former casino man, which is not a coincidence) are inveterate gamblers. The decision to sell Carroll with no replacement was a risk, as was sacking Chris Hughton, selling Nolan and the others – putting Newcastle’s team spirit in jeopardy – but, at least until recently, they could argue that all of them were successful. Now, though? It is funny how time alters perspectives.
The dice were tossed again in the summer, but their luck ran out. The previous year, Pardew expressed concern when Ba was the only addition to his strikeforce, but Ba scored plenty, there were few medical problems and, the following January, Cisse arrived when Newcastle were in a position of strength. The goals flowed immediately, even as they dried up from Ba (who was stationed on the wing).
This time, Newcastle’s squad has been left exposed and it makes their planning look suicidal, particularly with the extra complication of the Europe to consider. There has been a general dip in form which has come in tandem with more matches, less confidence, the feeling that other teams have worked them out, injuries have derailed them and the young players that Pardew wanted to emerge have not done so, albeit in difficult circumstances.
The Europa League came a year too soon. This is easy to say, but it is a widely-held belief within the club’s hierarchy, some of whom were not overjoyed when Pardew’s players finished fifth last season. Fourth could have meant the riches of the Champions League (although it didn’t, thanks to Chelsea), and sixth would have meant progress without the added burden of a tournament which brings games but little financial reward.
The vision of Llambias and Ashley, somewhere down the line, is that when Newcastle need new players, if they get hit by injury or suspension, they do not reach first for the company credit card but scan the reserve and development squads for replacements. It is why attainting the top grading for their Academy is viewed as so important and why they continue to pay for young players who promptly sink into the structure.
It is what Llambias and Carr were doing in Paris last weekend; not just seeking a ready-made replacement for Ba and, possibly, another defender, but tying up deals for more youngsters. They will tell you that this is not cheap and although the record is mixed on this front – players like Mehdi Abeid have not kicked on as they were expected to – investment now is intended to save money later.
The first-team is what people care most about, of course, and these are precarious moments. The eight-year contract which Pardew signed earlier this season has allowed him to work without the usual backdrop of chatter and gossip which has afflicted his predecessors – usually due to the itchy trigger-fingers of those above them – but that positivity and opportunity has to be translated into points.
Sussed out by opponents, hampered by selection issues and fleeting time on the training pitch, Newcastle’s fluency has deserted them, morphing into a lumpen, uneasy style. With the get-out of Ba’s goals gone, that must change, while the manager needs to use his authority to win an argument or two about the depth of his squad because, even when everyone is fit, there is a lack of competition.
Newcastle is a very different club to the one which was relegated in 2009. They are slimmed down and, in relative terms, financially secure. The dressing-room is solid. The way they do business can be meticulous and single-minded – see the way they rode roughshod over popular feeling with naming rights and Wonga’s sponsorship – yet they believe that everything is done in the cause of self-sufficiency.
Meticulous dice-throwers, jaw-dropping decisions but a stringent, transfer policy; it is the contradiction at the heart of the modern Newcastle. The one area where they have shown a reluctance to gamble is over that old, footballing cliché, where you speculate to accumulate. They should not be risking the club’s future by paying over the odds, yet by paying under them they have done precisely that.
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