After the unwanted drama of the previous two years, the supporters of Newcastle United could easily have been forgiven for wanting a season of peace and quiet last season and, to an extent, that is exactly what they received – a twelfth placed finish saw them safe and sound in the Premier League for most of the season, after all, troubling neither the top nor the bottom of the table unduly throughout the entire season. Yet, with this being Newcastle United, the season couldn’t pass without some degree of vituperation between the supporters and owner Mike Ashley and, as such, we were treated to the bizarre sacking of manager Chris Hughton at the start of December, which was quickly followed by an FA Cup Third Round elimination at the hands of Stevenage and the sale of arguably the club’s most valuable single saleable asset, striker Andy Carroll, to Liverpool for a scarcely credible £35m in January of this year, and neither have recent events done much to dispel the growing belief that last season’s relative serenity was the calm before another storm crashes into Newcastle United Football Club.
St James Park carries the air of being a powder keg, waiting to explode if things start going badly on the pitch again, and this mood, amongst other grievances – some long-standing, others very fresh indeed – arguably began to simmer again with Mike Ashley’s decision to replace Hughton with Alan Pardew last season, a decision which broke Rule One of the Football Club Owners’ Handbook – for a peaceful life, never replace a popular manager with one that won’t be as popular. Pardew remains on probation as far as the supporters of the club are concerned, and this summer’s quiet in the transfer market will have done nothing to allay concerns that, as long as Newcastle United are merely existing in the Premier League, Ashley may be happy enough until he finds a buyer for the club. The extent to which Newcastle United supporters, who have now gone forty-two years without a major trophy, will continue to tolerate this state of affairs, remains a matter for conjecture.
The club maintained its huge wage bill during its promotion season two years ago even though its turn-over had halved, so it is perhaps not surprising that the £35m that it received for Andy Carroll hasn’t been reinvested in the team. The good news for the club (and it is a pretty sorry reflection on the state of modern football club finances that this is good news of sorts) is that if a lot of money has been pumped into the club to keep it afloat in loans in recent years, then at least it has been put into the club in the form of interest-free loans by Ashley, which means that the club is at least not throwing money onto a bonfire, servicing a debt for money that it has already spent. This, combined with the large capacity of St James Park, should mean that the financial affairs of the club aren’t as catastrophic as some others, but most of the signs of late have indicated that Ashley’s love affair with the club is well and truly over and that the money poured in during his salad days may well now be reclaimed. This, of course, could well lead to further tensions between the board and the support in the future, if visible signs of investment in the team do not become apparent.
The two arrivals of the summer at the club so far, Demba Ba and Yohan Cabaye, seem solid enough, but they will hardly have set pulses on Tyneside racing just yet. Newcastle did at least manage to outbid Everton for the out of contract former West Ham United striker Ba, who was one of the few impressive faces in the dismal West Ham United team of the second half of last season after having signed for the club from the German club Hoffenheim during the January transfer window. Ba left Hoffenheim in January under a cloud after refusing to travel to Hoffenheim’s training camp on account of his desire to leave the club for West Ham but, just five months into his new contract, then left West Ham for Newcastle on account of a relegation release clause even though he was reportedly offered a substantial pay-rise by his club, none of which would seem to indicate a player that will stay at St James Park through thick and thin. Cabaye, meanwhile, has played a handful of games for France and managed almost two hundred games for Lille, but whether these are the calibre of players that can propel Newcastle up the Premier League table this season is, however, a matter for conjecture.
And then comes the small matter of Joey Barton. Barton has been something of a one-man wrecking ball on Twitter this summer, quickly accumulating over 150,000 followers with the sort of comments that always seemed likely to leave him in a problematic situation with those running the club. Few could have expected, however, that Barton would be merely released from his contract by the club two weeks before the start of the season. Regardless of the matter of his attitude and his previous shenanigans both on a.d off the field, Barton was a massively important player for the club last season on the pitch. Considering the sheer quality and bravado of Barton’s performances for them last season, his departure will leave a gaping hole at the centre of the team’s midfield. Newcastle supporters may also be asking the question of why, even though Barton had only a year left to run on his contract, the club has merely made a decision to release him when it doesn’t seem to be in a position to be able to spend much money on players itself, rather than attempting to sell him. The bargain of the Premier League summer, it seems, will be coming from Newcastle United.
He’s not the only one making his unhappiness clear. Full-back Jose Enrique has offered similar criticisms of Ashley et al whilst Kevin Nolan (who may not necessarily be as missed as Barton on account of the stark reminder of the utilitarian days of Sam Allardyce, but did at least contribute to the bite that was so important on guaranteeing the club’s safety from relegation last season) took a one division drop in order to be reunited with his former manager at West Ham United. Against this background, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the grumbling of the dressing room find a more audible echo on the terraces. The overt supporter protests of a couple of years ago – most visible upon the departure of Kevin Keegan at the start of the 2008/09 season – seem to have died away, but there is an ongoing sense that any remaining sense of detente in the air between Ashley and the fans would disintegrate if the team starts the new season poorly on the pitch. Ashley, it is generally understood, is still looking for a buyer for the club, but there no been no sign of a serious new bidder for some considerable time and, given the speed with which other Premier League names have been gobbled up by newcomers to the game, that no-one has been forthcoming may be indication of how unattractive Ashley’s asking price may be or have been.
This leaves us wondering what sort of season Newcastle United can expect this time around, and the signs are not encouraging. The club could be said, like others of the same stature such as Aston Villa and Everton, to be going through some sort of existential crisis at the moment, as the prospect of Champions League football recedes onto the horizon. Whilst the other two clubs have something about them which suggests that, no matter how brow-furrowing things might occasionally appear for them, they will muddle through. With Newcastle United, though, we can never be quite as sure of this. Neither the manager nor the owner have anything like the full support of those that click their way through the turnstiles every other week, and the club has lost the one player who, for all of his skittish tendencies, brought a little drive and panache to the middle third of the St James Park pitch. Newcastle United remain “too good to go down”, but the gap between them and those that aren’t may be narrowing at precisely the wrong time. It could be a long, cold winter upon Tyneside this year.
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