For a few peaceful months following their promotion back to the Premier League after a year in the Championship, Newcastle United were ticking over nicely without the disasters and comedic stories that have tended to be associated with them in recent times. No players fighting, no outlandish statements from the board and some good performances on the pitch. However, knowing Newcastle, this was only ever likely to be a brief lull, and true to form, within eight weeks United had sacked manager Chris Hughton, replaced him with Alan Pardew and then sold Andy Carroll to Liverpool for £35m on the last day of the transfer window.
Certain elements of the press feed off the chaos at St James Park, and in fairness, the club has given them plenty of material. Players fighting on the pitch, numerous expensive flops in the transfer market, signing players to please agents and a board that seems to have the communication skills of a communist dictatorship all contribute to the ongoing soap opera at Newcastle.
When owner Mike Ashley splashed £134m to buy the club from the Hall’s and Shepherd’s, the fans were ecstatic that a billionaire had come in and took the club out of the hands of unpopular Chairman Freddy Shepherd. Things started well, jettisoning Sam Allardyce and his brand of football and replacing him with fans favourite Kevin Keegan. However Keegan was soon undermined by the appointment of Dennis Wise as Director of Football, and the supposed dream return ended in the High Court.
Ashley never speaks directly to the press or fans, but the indirect information that has come from him via Chris Mort and Derek Llambias is that his plan for the club is to move away from the previous regimes big money big wage signings and use the model in place at Arsenal of signing and developing the best young players and selling those who don’t make the grade for a fee. On paper this seems an obvious way to run a club that is not competing at the highest level. Despite ever increasing television revenue, clubs that aren’t competing regularly in the Champions League or don’t have Sheikh Mansour’s billions simply can’t go and spend £20m plus on the players required to step up.
Newcastle developed a scouting network headed up by Graham Carr. As a result, the signings of Michael Owen and Albert Luque for a combined £25m are a thing of the past. Newcastle have picked up relatively unknown players such as Sebastian Bassong and Cheik Tiote for £1m and £3.5m respectively. Both were a success in their first seasons in Newcastle. A first sign of the Ashley model paying dividends was when Bassong was sold following relegation for £8m. For more information on the finances, check this piece on The Swiss Ramble where the figures are expertly dissected.
The investment in youth has been steady, with players from all over Europe pitching up at St James Park. Tamas Kadar was the first of this new generation, arriving from Zalaegerszegi TE in Hungary, despite the departure of Sam Allardyce who was the manager when Kadar was first identified as a potential signing. Fabio Zamblera and Wesley Ngo Baheng soon followed from Atalanta and Le Havre along with Ben Tozer from Swindon Town. The following seasons saw the likes of Haris Vuckic, Ole Soderberg, Joan Simun Edmundsson, Yven Moyo, Samuel Adjei, Patrick Nzuzi, Aaron Spear and Nile Ranger arrive at the club to bolster the home grown youth set up. However, of all of these players, only Kadar, Ranger and to a lesser extent Vuckic have featured in the first team. Whilst some of these players may yet make an impression at the club, some have shown little and already left the club. Vuckic is thought to be the jewel in the crown, and has been linked with Manchester United and AC Milan on the basis of his junior and reserve performances alone.
Vuckic may well have the chance to shine in his favoured position in the middle of the park or behind a striker now that Kevin Nolan has left the club and Joey Barton continues to have an uncertain future at Newcastle. The departure of Nolan has upset some fans, but not as universally as might have been expected. Ashley’s plan to practice financial prudence meant that offering a big money five year contract to a player days away from his 29th birthday was never an option. Whether or not Pardew was keen on keeping a key ally of the previous regime is open to question, but the decision not to offer the long contract is a financially sensible one. Nolan was a fantastic leader and no Newcastle fan will forget his hat-trick against Sunderland, but he more than any may have suffered a decline in mobility with the years advancing. In addition to this, his game seemed to drop a little following the departure of Andy Carroll, with Nolan only netting twice after Carroll left the club. Arsenal and Manchester United both operate a policy of rolling year contract extensions for players the wrong side of thirty, rather than committing to long term deals and Newcastle seem keen to follow this sensible policy to avoid having declining players taking big wages out of the club. On the other side of the coin, Newcastle do seem keen to sign up their young players on long and secure contacts, with the impressive Tiote joining Vuckic, Steven Taylor and Shane Ferguson in signing long term deals at the club. Whilst the departure of Carroll months after signing such a deal shows the real worth of the signatures, these longer term contracts will maximise any sale value should the player end up leaving the club.
One thing that has consistently alienated Newcastle fans is the club is often trying to do business at the back end of the transfer window, but this summer it appears Pardew, Ashley and Co are grabbing the bull by the horns and making moves early. At the time of writing Yohan Cabaye, Demba Ba and Sylvain Marveax have all penned deals at St James Park. Cabaye is a full French international fresh from winning the French Ligue 1 with Lille, and Ba showed in his short time at West Ham that he knows how to find the net in the Premier League. Newcastle are also keen to sign left back Neil Taylor from Swansea and are confident that the player will join having supposedly exercised a release clause in his contract. It is likely he is being pursued as a replacement for rather than an understudy of Jose Enrique who is making noises about leaving the club. One thing for certain is that Ashley would rather take a fee this summer than lose Enrique on a free in twelve months time.
Whilst Ashley remains unpopular with the fans from the treatment of Keegan and Hughton and the sale of Carroll, the regime he is encouraging at Newcastle has the potential to pay dividends, given time. However, there is always the nagging doubt that he could change his mind, sack a manager, sell a player or sell the club at any time, given the impulsiveness he has shown in the past. Despite what the national press tend to say on occasion, Newcastle fans do not have unrealistic expectations. They do have ambition, the same as every other set of football fans in the land, but apart from the idiots Sky Sports News pick up outside St James Park at 2pm on a Tuesday, no Newcastle fan will ever claim they are a ‘massive club with a right to be in the Champions League’. A change in communication from the club would be a good way to try and improve his stock with the fans. Whilst some will never warm to him, some want to believe.