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Jeffrey Gamby-Boulger makes his OOTB debut with a piece about Newcastle United, money, and its ill effects.
At the start of the 2015/16 season, the Premier League’s footballing landscape was a very different place. Leicester fans were content with the prediction of a steady mid-table finish, built on the momentum of last season’s miraculous escape from relegation under Nigel Pearson.
Manchester United had invested heavily in their squad as Van Gaal looked to build on their fresh 4th place finish and a return to the Champion’s League, while Newcastle United attempted to desperately right the wrongs of another turgid season by spending a cool £50 million of their own to ensure a more comfortable campaign this time round.
And with the new TV rights deal set to increase this summer to an eye-watering £5.136 billion, the promises of unprecedented wealth unsurprisingly ignited another spending spree in England. Clubs once deemed mediocre to the most capricious talents suddenly hold the financial clout to attract the kind of quality that used to be reserved for the now defunct ‘top four’ monopoly.
Stoke City signed Xherdan Shaqiri, once of Bayern Munich, as well as highly sought after Belgium midfielder Giannelli Imbula to add to the likes of former Barcelona forward Bojan Krkić. Swansea City signed Marseille’s coveted forward André Ayew as well as Jefferson Montero.
West Ham prised Dmitri Payet away, Manchester City plucked Kevin De Bruyne from Germany, and Newcastle United, now condemned to life in the Championship next season, were able to use the Premier League’s financial pull to lure PSV’s former captain Georginio Wijnaldum to English shores.
Even Aston Villa, mercifully relegated after years of financial and sporting mismanagement, suddenly found themselves willing to spend big in the hope of recuperating their expenditure next season. It was a strategy employed by many, with clubs chancing their arm in the hope of preserving their league status long enough to take their place on the latest gravy train.
Operating within a strict transfer strategy that proved ultimately flawed, Villa spent £52 million on new talent before the season’s opener, offset by the departures of talisman Christian Benteke and club captain Fabian Delph. Newcastle, operating within a similar means, spent a further £29 million in January on top of their summer spending as they attempted unsuccessfully to stave of relegation.
And while Manchester City still eventually emerged with the greatest net spend, rather unsurprisingly, what was surprising was that it was the two other big spenders that eventually succumbed to relegation. So what does this tell us?
Are clubs simply suffering from an ultra-competitive landscape, driven more ferociously than ever before in light of the ever increasing financial rewards? Or was this season simply a one-off, with the Euros in sight and Leicester achieving a miracle never to be repeated?
To answer this, one must delve slightly deeper than just glancing at cold hard statistics. City might have spent the most, which surprises no-one, but what does serve as a surprise is how badly they actually struggled in the league.
Performing in fits and starts, threatening to recapture the dominance of their previous recent success, they never truly clicked domestically this season, although it must be said they have set their standards very high.
Instead, they scraped into the top four, but had neighbours United won the games they needed to instead of suffering their own campaign of disappointment, then there was a very real chance that the blue half of Manchester would have been welcoming Pep Guardiola into the Europa League next season.
Combine that with Newcastle and Villa both suffering the humiliation of relegation, regardless of such significant outlays, it begins to paint a very different picture of the Premier League with three clubs spending such extravagant amounts, yet equally struggling to meet their individual targets.
To further scrutinise the pitfalls of these two great clubs, one need only acknowledge Leicester’s unbelievable title triumph. Achieved on a shoestring budget and headlined by a triumvirate of Jamie Vardy, Riyad Mahrez and N’Golo Kanté, the trio cost less than Newcastle paid for Jonjo Shelvey in January combined.
To put it into context, recent leaked documents reveal City paid a staggering £42 million for Eliaquim Mangala, making him the most expensive defender in Premier League history, and an equally handsome £32 million on Nicolás Otamendi. Mangala has never looked the sum of his parts and Otamendi has only looked good in spells. Neither have come close to justifying their price tag. Leicester’s title winning team meanwhile was marshalled by Wes Morgan, a statesman of the Football League.
Raheem Sterling, one of England’s finest young talents, could end up costing £49 million but has never come close to justifying that this season, whereas PFA Player of the Year Riyad Mahrez cost £400,000. Jamie Vardy cost £1 million from Fleetwood Town. The gulf in financial muscle couldn’t be more evident.
Even Newcastle, once praised for their acumen in the French markets, spent £12 million each on Englishmen Jonjo Shelvey and Andros Townsend. While Townsend proved a worthy addition, making the provisional 26 man England squad for Euro 2016, Shelvey flopped after a bright start.
So what does this tell us? In an era where money is more available than ever, are these teams simply suffering from bad scouting? Mismanagement? Or Bad luck?
Sadly the problems run much deeper than that. When a team as financially restricted as Leicester achieve the impossible, and clubs operating in another stratosphere financially get it wrong so badly, it becomes increasingly clear that while the Premier League can offer incredible wealth, it is the teams with the greatest businessmen acumen that are thriving, not the teams with the largest financial outlay.
Clubs enjoying strong growth, emerging from the lower leagues such as Southampton, Swansea (despite a less successful season this time round), Leicester, and even West Ham are now the pedigree of the Premier League. Those who have had to regrow, regroup and re-plan their strategy in the depths of the financially barren lower leagues are now the clubs challenging for Europe and topping the league.
Instead, it is the clubs enchanted and fixated on the riches to be gleamed from the new TV rights deals that have suffered the most. Captivated by potential monetary gain, they are spending what they can, on who they can in the hope of returning their investments. It is a clear and consistent trend that shows no signs of abating.
All too often clubs are adopting a misplaced sense of altruism, using the clout of the Premier League to attract the best players money can buy. These players are bought with balance sheets and commercial opportunities in mind as much as clear footballing ability.
This season was a prime example. Sunderland competed in their annual battle against relegation, surviving by two points under the tutelage of Premier League stalwart Sam Allardyce. Aston Villa became the punch line to a bad joke under their failed and increasingly inept off-field management, while Newcastle, the league’s greatest enigma, also splashed the cash under Mike Ashley in the hope of desperately arresting their slide into the Championship.
But is it coincidence that Villa and Newcastle eventually took the drop and the team with the lowest outlay of the three survived? Or was it the business concluded off the field before the season even started that already set in motion the disappointment awaiting them on it?
The answer it seems, ironically, is that while the Premier League is set to become richer than ever before, it is business acumen that is prevailing, not transfer budgets. Certainly, it has become a case of who you buy, not how many you buy.
And the pitfalls for those who get it wrong are becoming as big as the potential rewards for those who get it right. It is a lesson that both Villa and Newcastle have learned the hard way.
One only has to look at Leicester’s incredible example this season to see that bizarrely, in an era where financial muscle is becoming the single most important facet of the game, the merits for team spirit, good tactics and sensible management off the field can still prove just as vital.
But why should this be the case?
Last summer Newcastle signed four first team players. Chancel Mbemba is a highly rated centre back from Anderlecht, and was joined in the North East by teammate Aleksandar Mitrović, another highly rated but combustible prospect. They also managed to tempt former PSV captain Georginio Wijnaldum to St James’ Park, while one time French prodigy Florian Thauvin was also acquired. In January Jonjo Shelvey and Andros Townsend also made the journey to Tyneside.
A case could be made to justify all these signings. On paper, they are all good players, but therein lies the problem. Games are not won on paper. Wijnaldum started impressively but was never able to recapture his form away from home. Shelvey disappointed, Mitrović was as prone to receiving bookings as he was scoring goals and Thauvin returned to France on loan at the first opportunity, a desperate failure.
It serves as a stark warning for clubs with one eye on the financial rewards of staying in the league, that they should not lose sight on the present. Without addressing the weaknesses of their squad, Newcastle fell into the trap of signing players available at the time, looking to the future without properly planning for the present.
They saw the rewards waiting for them next season, and gambled on being able to sign players when they could to paper over the cracks until their accounts could be replenished.
Mbemba and Mitrović were signed for the future, whether that is for profit or performances. Ideally both, in the eyes of those in control of the balance sheet. Mitrović cost £12 million, a high price for a then 20 year old, but Newcastle would have been whetting their lips as his potential grows along with his resale value. The same can be said for Dutchman Wijnaldum, bought for £14 million. Even with the Magpies condemned to relegation, he remains a fine player on his day capable of returning his investment at the very least.
Townsend and Shelvey are England internationals and therefore carried a high premium, but had the club survived the drop, Newcastle would have covered their costs with their share of next season’s TV deal. Should they have failed, as it transpired, then they have two England internationals on their books available to move on to the highest bidder.
In business terms, the logic is sound and the risk was worth taking.
But it is these kind of cold hard calculations that perfectly sum up Newcastle’s greatest failing. By paying too much attention to the financial aspects of the game, concentrating on the profit to be had by trying to stay ahead of the curve, they failed to act decisively when it mattered and buy for the here and now.
The club lack a recognised and prolific goal scorer. Papiss Cissé, the former hallowed number nine on Tyneside, has never been able to recapture the form that lead to him scoring 13 goals in his first 14 appearances. At 31, he has proved lackadaisical and inconsistent.
Centre backs Fabricio Coloccini and Steven Taylor are past their prime, injury prone and needed replacing. Current left backs Massadio Haïdara and Welshman Paul Dummett are injury prone to the extreme, spending so much time on the side-lines combined that it was left to utility man Vurnon Anita to deputise for periods this season.
During Alan Pardew’s final season in charge, a goalkeeping crisis meant untested youngster Jak Alnwick had to take his place in the side for a baptism of fire. These were all problems that needed addressing, and with £80 million to spend, there were no excuses.
So with this in mind, Newcastle duly brought in two wingers, two midfielders and two stars for the future. It is this inability to consider the bigger picture and look at anything other than cold hard financial figures that condemned such a find old club to life in the second tier for a second time.
They had the money to spend, and with more astute decision making, they should have been nowhere near the relegation zone this season. Indeed, their target was top eight and silverware, a now laughable admission.
And these financial perils don’t just apply to playing staff, it also extends to mangers too.
Steve McClaren was appointed at the start of the season, but he has never truly shown a considerable amount of managerial pedigree, and in hindsight was a poor choice to knit together this expensively assembled new team, despite his prowess as a coach.
He was left too long in his position, in the hope that he could turn things around and get the best out of the players bought for him and without his say so; indeed only Shelvey and Townsend were pursued on his recommendations. To remove him would have been costly and an admission of failure.
However, when the time finally came for change, it was Rafa Benitez who surprisingly swept into Tyneside. One of the game’s greatest figures, he was able to prove in his short reign that Newcastle had potential to fulfil their targets. A six game unbeaten streak was unfortunately not enough to avoid the drop, but questions should have been asked why the Spaniard was not brought in earlier.
When a team becomes so dependent on a footballing infrastructure, and a scouting network dependent on buying players regardless of the needs of the manger or the team, it is always a risk no matter how good they are.
Stick rigidly to the system, and hope the man appointed can maximise the talent at his disposal, or if he can’t, as Newcastle and Aston Villa found to their peril, then all the money in the world will not make a difference. In this flawed system, if you don’t spend the Premier League riches wisely, it will become as much a hindrance as a help.
With so much money, comes so much potential, but trying to channel this into sensible footballing decisions is an increasingly difficult task.
Newcastle are one of England’s proudest and finest clubs, but along with Aston Villa they are living proof that the financial success of the English game is a poisoned chalice; get it right and you can experience wealth beyond imagination, but get it wrong and you will quickly learn that money isn’t everything.
Written by Jeffrey Gamby-Boulger.