Newcastle United will find putting right the mistakes of the summer far harder than if they had just done things properly the first time, writes Stuart Rayner
MIKE Ashley has made a lot of money by cutting a few corners. Walk into any branch of Sports Direct and you will see an emphasis on keeping prices down, rather than worrying about presentation.
It has served Newcastle United’s owner well, as his bank balance will testify.
But football defies business sense, and Newcastle United regularly defy logic.
August’s cost-cutting has backfired on the Magpies, and if they try to rectify it in January – as surely they must – they will find it more expensive and difficult.
We should not say Ashley was unwilling to put his hand in his pocket over the summer.
He was apparently prepared to sign Matthieu Debuchy, Douglas, Luuk de Jong and Andy Carroll. Just not at the price their clubs were asking. Nor should we criticise a football club for failing to pay what it considers to be over the odds for players. Many is the club that has followed that road to ruin.
But it is safe to say, as so many predicted at the time, it has not worked.
Newcastle got lucky last season. That is not to denigrate a wonderful achievement by Alan Pardew and his players. Football boasts an awful lot of lucky winners.
But they got to an astonishing fifth in the table, and the Europa League, on the back of good fortune with injuries. As a renowned gambler, Ashley ought to have known to quit while he was ahead.
Instead he chanced his arm that his luck would hold in the face of the much heftier schedule Europe provided, and rather than strengthening his squad, actually weakened it.
Ajax’s Vurnon Anita was the only senior player recruited. Filling the gaps left by Peter Løvenkrands, Leon Best, Alan Smith and Danny Guthrie – none of them world-beaters, all useful squad players – was left to inexperienced players. The names could be debated, but more bodies were needed.
Pardew dutifully put a positive spin on it, professing faith in his youngsters and painting it as their chance to shine.
But with the haggling ahead of another transfer window due to start with his paymasters, and results taking a turn for the worse, his lack of resources has become a regular theme. Addressing it in January will be a lot harder than if the job had been done properly before the season started. It is not simply the old mantra that signing players in mid-season is that much more difficult, and less satisfactory. Halfway through a campaign, clubs are far less willing to part with players worth having, knowing their opportunity to replace them is that much smaller. Prices are therefore inflated.
The desperate will pay, as anyone who remembers the January 2010 transfer window of Carroll and Fernando Torres knows. But Ashley seldom panics in the market.
More significantly, Newcastle have become a far less attractive proposition to the calibre of players they should be looking to. Generally there are three types on the market at any one time: the desperate, the greedy and the discerning.
The first category just need regular football, and are finding it hard to get it. In an era of belt-tightening, they are becoming more widespread. By definition, they are seldom players who can lift a club of Newcastle’s standing to a higher plane.
If they are to be avoided, the greedy certainly are. Some players will go anywhere for a few quid, but they are best left to the likes of Anzhi Makhachkala and Al-Ain. If you have never heard of them there is a reason why, but it did not put off the likes of Samuel Eto’o and Asamoah Gyan. Newcastle has had more than its fair share of mercenaries happy to accept a fat pay cheque, but reluctant to break sweat to earn it.
Most of the genuinely top players are rolling in cash and keen for more, but not so keen they will commit career suicide in Dagestan or Dubai. The creme de la creme can be choosy and still walk away with the GDP of a small African country. They want it all – the money and the opportunity to play for the top prizes.
For players like Debuchy, Newcastle were an extremely attractive option six months ago. Now the appeal has faded.
The Magpies could offer European football and the sense of a club going places. Now all they can serve up is a short-term fix of Europa League football.
By the time the transfer window opens, the draw for the knockout stages of the Europa League will have been made. Not just for the last 32, but the last 16.
It will therefore be that much easier for the discerning footballer to assess how long Newcastle might be in the competition, and their chances of winning it. Already they are down the list of favourites.
Unless they can lift the tarnished trophy, they will not be back in Europe next season. That, for many elite players, is a basic requirement.
A golden opportunity to progress was missed in the summer. It is by no means irretrievable, but in failing to invest, the club’s owners have made the prospects an awful lot tougher.