It’s 2nd October 2021. Newcastle United have just lost again in miserable fashion, this time away to Wolves. Newcastle have lost four and drawn three of their opening seven league games. The away support at Molineux is jaded, tired, fed up and unusually flat. They can’t even muster the energy to be angry. They have seen this performance before. This is not a club that will ever amount to anything. The best the supporters can wish for is to keep ‘ticking along’ as the manager famously said. The club is unrecognisable in many ways from the club that supporters fell in love with. There is no hope.
Almost four months later and the natives are getting restless again, albeit in very different circumstances. This time it’s because they feel the new owners, who are backed with almost indescribable wealth, have so far failed to adequately strengthen the squad in the January transfer window. With five days remaining to secure reinforcements, the only arrivals have been Kieran Tripper and Chris Wood. There is widespread consensus within the fanbase and the club that better players are needed throughout the team. The need for fresh faces and more quality is exacerbated by the perilous league position, which a vital win over Leeds United only marginally improved. There is an almighty dogfight going on at the bottom of the Premier League and Newcastle are slap bang in the middle of it.
Newcastle started the transfer window with an objective of signing at least five new first team players, almost half a new XI, but those tasked with putting this recruitment plan into action have found it very difficult going. Amanda Staveley, Merhdad Ghodoussi and Jamie Reuben are not experienced in the business of football transfers, but they are all vastly successful business people and negotiators in their various fields. Whether their expertise is transferable for the current purposes is open to debate.
There is no question in anybody’s mind that this process would have been a far different prospect if Newcastle had experienced football operators in key positions, whether this be in the form of a Director of Football, Chief Executive, Sporting Director or whatever other titles they want to bestow on the high-powered people who will shape the future of Newcastle United. In an ideal world, these positions would have been filled before the appointment of a first team manager, but that simply wasn’t a luxury the new owners were afforded. If they are taking their time to determine a long-term executive structure for the club and to ensure they get the right people into these key positions instead of panicking due to the short-term situation, then this is a sensible approach, even if it makes doing business in January that bit more difficult.
The January transfer window is notoriously difficult any year. There are a multitude of reasons why clubs might not want to lose players midway through the season. Numerous managers, including Sir Alex Ferguson, are on the record stating just how hard it is to conduct transfers in January. There are many parties involved in transfers (clubs, managers, players, agents) all with different agendas, competing pressures and varying reasons for making decisions. Then there is the media, the ‘ITK’s and the 24 hour news cycle consuming modern day football, which makes the facts and truth of each situation unclear. Real life does not reflect FIFA or Football Manager. Sometimes it doesn’t matter how much money you have, the stars still need to align to make transfers happen, and the simple fact that January falls mid-season makes it that bit harder to get every party on the same page.
As well as potentially being hampered by a lack of specific expertise in the boardroom, Newcastle United have additional challenges this window, which are all conspiring to make it harder than it usually would be to recruit players:
- They are in the bad league position and are threatened by relegation, which is likely to make players think twice before committing long term.
- Every club and agent around the world knows that Newcastle are backed by Saudi Arabian cash and are desperate for players. This means that clubs see the potential for extra money and agents see the potential for a bigger pay day.
- The rest of the Premier League clubs have been vocal in their opposition to the takeover (indeed they have been actively taking steps re: sponsorship to try and influence the amount of money Newcastle can access), and are not in the mood for dealing with Newcastle. Manchester United’s apparent ludicrous demands to allow Newcastle to borrow Jesse Lingard for five months is evidence of that.
Newcastle appear to have accepted that business will not be able to be conducted with fellow Premier League clubs, other than when there is a release clause as in the case of Chris Wood, hence most of their reported targets are playing for European clubs. The attitude of their Premier League rivals is completely out of Newcastle’s control, and the noise surrounding the other clubs’ reactions to the takeover and their naked attempts at self-preservation are likely to rumble on for some time yet.
Newcastle’s win at Elland Road was essential for the 3 points, but also because it shows prospective signings that relegation is not a foregone conclusion, and that there is something at St James’ Park worth joining and becoming part of. The win over Leeds simply has to be the start of a good run or Newcastle will be relegated.
In terms of transfers, two players that Newcastle have been heavily linked with are Sven Botman of Lille and Diego Carlos of Sevilla. These two defenders have clearly been identified by the club as top targets for the centre-back position and are obvious upgrades on the current players in that position. Bids in excess of 30m have gone in for and been rejected for both. It is widely reported that the clubs in question set an asking price and then have shifted the goalposts. This is a frustration that was always likely to eventuate given Newcastle’s new found resources, but just because they have the money and are desperate for quality additions doesn’t mean they should allow themselves to be taken advantage of. This could set a dangerous precedent for future transfer business where clubs know that Newcastle are a soft touch and will cave eventually. Fans are frustrated that these two seemingly doomed deals in particular have dragged on for 1-2 weeks, but when Newcastle were apparently getting encouragement from the clubs and the players and had targeted these players as priorities, it is obvious to see why they maintained their interest and felt they could pull the transfers off. Newcastle can’t control the actions or response time of selling clubs.
What Newcastle can do in these situations is walk away and look elsewhere, but they have to be careful here that they don’t get panicked into buying other players just because they may be more attainable. There is no point in signing players for the sake of it if they don’t represent genuine upgrades to the first team, even if it might temporarily sate the appetite of a fanbase desperate for new faces.
The shortcomings of the previous owner (and the sorry state he left much of the club in) should not and does not give the new regime a free pass. Expectations are understandably different now and the new regime must back up positive rhetoric with action while fans try to adjust to this new, ambitious Newcastle United. The new owners will not get everything right and it will take time for them to begin to realise their vision, but this is a long-term project which ultimately will not be defined by one transfer window beset by difficulties beyond their immediate control. They are here to stay, albeit Staveley has already admitted that, if the job she does isn’t up to scratch, her ‘management contract’ for the club will be handed to someone else by the Saudis. Failure to sign at least a centre back and midfielder of sufficient quality to improve the team will reflect badly on those who have been tasked with the job of delivering this month, although the consequences of the failure won’t be known until the end of the season.
The owners are learning difficult lessons but, regardless of what happens in the next five days, they deserve patience, understanding and support. There was a famous banner that Newcastle fans displayed at a match at Leicester in 2015 which read; ‘we don’t demand a team that wins, we demand a club that tries’. The team that took to the pitch at Molineux back in October 2021 did not win and did not represent a club that tried. Whether they are successful or not in this particular window, the new ownership is trying very hard. Trying hard should be the bare minimum for anybody running or employed by the club, but it is a good place to start. Everything else will follow in good time.