Mark Ooi has a look at the chain of events that have led to the fall of Newcastle United in the last decade.
Editor’s Note: This piece was written before the start of the transfer window and was pushed back due to our coverage of the Euros
When referee Anthony Taylor blew the final whistle at St James’ Park on 15 May 2016, it marked the end of Newcastle United’s stay in the Premier League. The result, however, was a 5-1 thrashing of title challengers Tottenham Hotspur. Amidst the gloom of relegation in the current reality was the optimism of a brighter future under Rafael Benítez. Relegation has been a long time coming for Newcastle, after years of mismanagement. One by one, the dominoes had fallen.
Earlier this season, I wrote a piece on Steve McClaren’s appointment at the club and mentioned how the new signings – Georginio Wijnaldum, Aleksandar Mitrović and Chancel Mbemba et al – and a change in the club’s operating structure signalled a turn for the better. In the opening handful of matches, such as the opening weekend stalemate with Southampton, the team looked more cohesive as a unit than they had for years. Some signings have worked out, some have flopped; on the whole, Newcastle United are still a mess. To get to the start of the malaise on Tyneside, we would need to turn the clock back to a decade ago.
Michael Owen’s club record £17m move from Real Madrid to Tyneside in 2005 and the move’s subsequent failure – it must be noted that injuries proved to be a primary obstacle – have proved to be something of a symbol in the timeline of Newcastle United. Big money signings were the norm under the stewardship of Freddy Shepherd, with the club being run without great financial prudence. That spending structure did bring some glorious moments to Newcastle and the Geordie faithful, for example the Champions League draw against FC Barcelona or the Faustino Asprilla goalscoring doubles in Europe. However, it had also accumulated debt at the club’s expense. Upon purchasing full control of the club in 2007, news soon emerged that Mike Ashley would have to fork out £111m to cover the club’s debts – a full £40m more than the previously assumed £71m of debt. Currently, the interest-free debt to Mike Ashley stands at £129m. It would be difficult to see anyone buying the club from Ashley. The price would be £129m plus Ashley’s demanded fee(which would be at least how much he spent to buy the club – £135m).
Many curious appointments have been made throughout Ashley’s tenure, from Dennis Wise and Joe Kinnear to John Carver. Wise’s appointment proved to undermine then-manager Kevin Keegan’s authority, with incidents like signing players as favours to agents or making signings based off YouTube videos (see González, Ignacio María). Keegan’s eventual departure marked the start of a storm, which concluded with a lawsuit between Keegan and Mike Ashley/Newcastle United. Keegan sued the club for constructive dismissal and was awarded £2m in a tribunal verdict. The arbitration panel concluded that the shifting of control over transfer policy from Keegan to Dennis Wise construed constructive dismissal. Unfortunately, the Keegan lawsuit stands as just one of many negative episodes on Tyneside. Alan Pardew’s time as Newcastle boss, where he gained the worst ever Tyne-Wear derby record, contained many false dawns. The first half of the season would go well, before a complete collapse in the second. It was groundhog day over and over and over again.
Throughout Mike Ashley’s time as owner of Newcastle United, the club has been chronically mismanaged in all aspects outside of the commercial side of things. Ashley has time and again placed financial interests – of both the club and his own wallet – above the sporting aspect. Players have been bought with half an eye on eventually selling them, key players sold from against the wishes of the manager – “head coach”, as preferred by the Ashley regime – and new signings being made by the chief scout going above and beyond the manager. Yes, other than the behemoth clubs like Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Barcelona, all other clubs are selling clubs. That said, using the persuasive tactic of selling Newcastle United as a stepping stone to potential new signings starts things off on the wrong foot. Players join the club without a complete commitment to the cause.
Rather than giving their all and perhaps a big move would naturally materialise after good performances, new signings arrive on Tyneside with one eye on a departure. That is absolutely the wrong mentality to build a squad. It is of little wonder that the players have been frequently accused by the fans, not without reason, of lacking the fight and hunger to give their all for the club to help push Newcastle to greater things than mid-table mediocrity or relegation battles. Before I go on, the myth of Newcastle fans being a deluded bunch must be dispelled. At the end of the day, what the Toon Army want has been seen on a banner some fans famously unfurled – “we don’t demand a team that wins, we demand a club that tries”.
In football matters, Newcastle United have been woefully mismanaged, from the shaping of the squad in the transfer market to the lack of ambition to do anything other than tread water in the vast ocean that is the Premier League. Under Graham Carr’s stewardship in the market, the club have signed more duds than successes. The fans have seen too many Yoan Gouffrans and Gabriel Obertans but not enough Chancel Mbembas and Andros Townsends. The policy of the club – to focus on foreign markets as well as not sign players over the age of 26 for resale value reasons – has culminated in a squad that possesses a few bright lights but largely lacking in character, leadership and balance. Moussa Sissoko is a great symbol for the club’s current state – he is able to stroll past multiple opponents on his day, but such days have been few and far between. The decision-making apparatus being in the hands of non-football people has handicapped Newcastle.
After years of poor coaches and managers, since the departure of Chris Hughton, Rafael Benítez brought some hope and life back into the club and the fans. In the ten games under his watch, the team was organised and motivated. Most importantly, the Geordie faithful started to believe again. The fans started to believe that something good could be just around the corner. Sadly, Benítez was appointed too late in the season to save the club from the drop.
Each year, before the new season, the common phrases are used by those in charge – “we want to succeed”, “we are aiming to finish in the top 8” – but it would not be amiss to suspect Mike Ashley would gladly accept a guaranteed finish of 17th every year. There has been a woeful lack of ambition on Tyneside. Clubs like Southampton have sped past Newcastle with great organisation on and off the pitch as well as intelligent forward-thinking.
Mike Ashley set Newcastle United down the path to a second relegation in less than a decade when he failed to build upon a strong 5th-placed finish in 2011/12. The club signed only Vurnon Anita, ahead of a season with Europa League commitments. Sir Alex Ferguson generally made changes, in playing personnel or coaching staff, when his Manchester United team was doing well and winning titles. This was to sustain the intra-squad competition for places, prevent complacency and sustain the collective hunger for success. Mike Ashley has done the opposite. There has been minimal spending each season, save for a desperate splurge in the French market in January 2013 which helped stave off relegation. A damning indictment of the lack of proper planning and intelligent decision-making at Newcastle would be the spending of approximately £30m on one position – right wing – in the team. Those millions were wasted on the likes of Florian Thauvin and Rémy Cabella before the last of it was spent successfully on Andros Townsend. Those millions were wasted when they could have and should have been put to better use in improving a faltering and porous defence.
Newcastle spent £80m in 2015/16? Yes, but that was never going to be enough. Keep in mind that this expenditure is from a point of deficit, after year upon year of insufficient investment. Newcastle United have become a club with heart – the fans, not the players – but no brain. Sadly, heart is not enough to survive in the Premier League, let alone thrive; particularly when said passion does not come from those on the pitch. Though the players have to shoulder responsibility for the decline of Newcastle United, the buck stops with those in power, most prominently – Mike Ashley, Lee Charnley and Graham Carr. Newcastle United have become a brain dead football club.
Newcastle United currently feature in the top 20 of Deloitte’s Football Money League but make no mistake – this is a club in decline. Going on the current trajectory, Newcastle will end up joining the likes of Leeds United as long-term players in the Championship. That said, Rafael Benítez is staying, could real change finally be on the horizon or is it a case of yet another false dawn?
Written by Mark Ooi
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