Although they’re back in the league where they’ve spent sixteen of the past seventeen seasons this year will be, in a way, a new experience for Newcastle fans. It’ll be the first time – at least in the Premier League era when money has polarised everything – that they’ve been there not as one of the traditional buying clubs who could be expected to go out and waste a few million here and there if they felt they needed to, but as one of the thrift and make-do clubs. A free transfer here, a loan signing there, the odd lower league player of promise – it’s going to be interesting to see how they adapt to it.
Not that there aren’t still some big money signings and big wage earners still in the squad. Indeed, those who pay no attention to football below the top league might be surprised at just how much of the squad that was relegated two seasons back is still around – Newcastle’s much-maligned owner Mike Ashley subsidising the club to the tune of around half a million a week last season in order to fund the wage bill.
But if that had led some to hope that he might also be willing to provide some funds for a transfer kitty in the Premier League then there was a disappointment on the way. No sooner were Newcastle over their title celebration hangovers in May when Ashley announced that there would be, to all intents and purposes, no money available for new players over the summer. This didn’t go down well in some quarters, but no football fans have any right to expect or demand that owners sink their own money into the club so they’ll just have to get used to the idea.
More commonly, the argument was dressed up not as a demand on the part of the fans but as something sensible or pragmatic on Ashley’s part – the reasoning goes that it’s financial sense for him to invest, say, twenty million in the team if it keeps them up and thus makes a bigger difference to the club’s finances in the longer term. Superficially, it’s a tempting line of thought but it’s not one that stands up to much scrutiny. It would most obviously be fallacious if every club adopted the same reasoning (indeed, to some extent that may already be exactly what’s happening). But even if Newcastle were the only ones prepared to take that gamble there are no assurances it will work. Of course Ashley would spend the money (assuming he has it) if the equation were as simple as £20 million = survival, £0 = relegation, but on the one hand there are a few clubs now who have survived in the Premier League without large scale initial outlays; and on the other hand Ashley already knows – to his own not inconsiderable cost – that throwing money at a club guarantees nothing.
Furthermore, as he is also painfully aware, it’s not so much the transfer fees that cause the problem. If he’s to tempt a couple of big name players they need big contracts to make it worth their while. And if it doesn’t come off you find yourself where they were a year ago – it wasn’t just that they had too many big earners in the squad, even selling them off would have required paying out millions in loyalty bonuses and, like Leeds before them, they may well have had to pay the balance of their wages for the rest of their contracts to compensate for the less lucrative deals available elsewhere. Ultimately that’s why Ashley had to keep subsidising the club last year, they were losing money either way and the only alternative was to let them go to the wall. The Premier League have now increased the parachute payments, but even these wouldn’t have covered the hole in their finances last year and clearly, Ashley isn’t going to let himself get into the same position again. Those calling for him to splash out and take the gamble are, presumably, doing so on the understanding that he would bear the costs of it personally – for a second time – should it fail. There’s no reason why he should, and evidently he’s not going to.
But the unfortunate corollary of making the club better prepared for a possible relegation is that this in itself makes relegation more likely. Money might not guarantee success but it would be daft to deny that it can help – other things being equal, Newcastle’s chances of survival this season are of course lower without it. So where does that leave those chances? I’d say borderline. Firstly, and for all that I’ve just said above, it depends how literal the “no money” statement proves to be. Hughton suggested at the weekend that he expects there to be one or two bargains available nearer the transfer deadline as the top clubs let go of players who aren’t going to make their twenty five man squads. And there have been some low-budget signings already – James Perch from Nottingham Forest, who is versatile but will probably play at right-back; Sol Campbell, about whom you need me to tell you nothing; and another free transfer in Dan Gosling, who is not expected to return from injury before January.
Perhaps most intriguingly, they’ve just agreed a season long loan deal with Marseille for French international winger Hatem Ben Arfa. Every source is currently repeating the mantra that he has a problem with his discipline – which probably has some truth to it, but it’s a cheap and easy thing to repeat once it’s been said once. If he does turn out to be a show pony then he’s unlikely to be the player to dig them out of a relegation battle, so Newcastle fans will have to hope that Hughton can get the best out of him. Looking at his record so far gives cause for hope on this count – several of the players perceived as big money flops a year ago did indeed roll their sleeves up and perform well in the Championship.
So all is not lost. There are enough good players in defence and midfield – there were once good reasons why Newcastle paid the money they did for the likes of Kevin Nolan, Alan Smith, Fabricio Collocini, Jose Enrique, even Joey Barton and Jonas Gutierrez. It’s up front they might need to strengthen – Andy Carroll may yet blossom into a Premier League striker, but it’s harder to believe in Peter Lovenkrands and Shola Ameobi at this stage of their careers, while younger player like Leon Best and Nile Ranger still have everything to prove.
It’s touch and go, then, in what I expect to be a very tight lower half of the league, but my best guess is they’ll just about be alright.