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AS a sportswriter who covered Newcastle United throughout the Mike Ashley era, there is still something fairly novel about spending the January window writing about transfers that might happen rather than ones that definitely will not.
Under Ashley, the standing joke was that Newcastle were “closed for business” on deadline day before the Sky TV reporter had even arrived at the club’s training ground. ‘Helping out the manager’ meant not selling anyone before the window closed rather than actively looking to recruit.
So, in that context, the club’s somewhat chaotic business this month is to be applauded. Amanda Staveley and her fellow directors arrived at St James’ Park pledging to do all they could to help ensure Newcastle are not playing in the Championship next season, and with four days of the transfer window remaining, they have been as good as their word.
Around £37m has been spent on recruiting Kieran Trippier and Chris Wood, and a further £30m will be heading to Lyon if a deal for Bruno Guimaraes can be completed in the next few days. There is a bid of around £30m on the table at Sevilla for Diego Carlos, albeit with the centre-half’s current employers continuing to play hardball over a deal, and Newcastle are hoping to prise Mitchel Bakker from Bayer Leverkusen for an initial fee of around £12m. If things go to plan ahead of Monday night’s deadline, Staveley and her Saudi Arabian backers will end their first transfer window having invested more than £100m into the playing squad.
Given the need to make immediate improvements with Newcastle still stranded in the relegation zone despite last weekend’s much-needed victory at Leeds, and with clubs right across the world only-too-aware of the extent of the Magpies’ new-found wealth, this was always going to be a difficult month in which to do business.
A certain degree of mis-stepping was inevitable, with rival clubs ratcheting up their asking price as soon as Newcastle came calling – did Manchester United really think there was a realistic prospect of the Magpies stumping up a £10m loan fee just to have Jesse Lingard for 17 matches? – and details of deals leaking out left, right and centre as the new St James’ Park ownership group gets to grips with the intricacies of working within the footballing bubble.
The current owners of Chelsea and Manchester City did not get everything right as they set about transforming their clubs into superpowers, and they were starting from a position of reasonable strength rather than firefighting from the off at a club in grave danger of slipping out of the Premier League.
The ambition of Newcastle’s new owners is unquestionable, as is the positive nature of their intentions this month. Whatever happens between now and Monday night, anybody grading their work in the January window would have to give them a pass.
Yet as they continue along their ownership trajectory, and thoughts begin to turn to future transfer windows and the wider overhaul of the club, it is imperative that lessons are learned from the events of the last few weeks. Come the summer, when time will not be so pressing and a more proactive transfer approach can be adopted instead of the reactive policy that has had to be enacted this month, Newcastle have to be doing things differently.
If nothing else, Staveley and her fellow advisers must surely now accept the pressing need for the appointment of an experienced figure in a sporting director or director of football role. A previous column called for the recruitment of such a figure in the immediate aftermath of Ashley’s departure, but despite senior Newcastle personnel talking to a number of potential candidates, most notably Brighton technical director Dan Ashworth, there was no appointment ahead of this month’s window.
That has proved to be a mistake. Nick Hammond, formerly Celtic’s head of football operations, has been assisting Newcastle’s board in a consultancy role, but had an experienced sporting director been in place, perhaps the Magpies hierarchy would not have fallen into so many of the traps that have been laid for them this month. Sources involved in the world of transfer dealing suggest a lack of football nous within Newcastle’s senior negotiating team has hampered their attempts to pull off some of the deals they have been pursuing this month. Come the summer, there will be absolutely no excuse for that happening again.
It has been suggested in conversations that Ashworth could be willing to move to Tyneside at the end of the season, and that Staveley and her fellow directors are prepared to wait until the summer to get their preferred man. If that is the case, there is at least a method to a lack of activity that could otherwise be construed as madness. If not, it is imperative they go down an alternative route and appoint a senior figure as quickly as possible.
It is also essential that Newcastle’s owners address the way in which details of their activity have leaked out this month. As a journalist, the transparency of the current regime is infinitely preferable to the wall of silence Ashley built around himself, but there are times when conversations are better kept behind closed doors and Newcastle have suffered from so many of their pursuits being played out in public in the last few weeks.
They have also suffered because, when push comes to shove, selling clubs do not think they will have the resolve to say no. The next few days will be instructive on that score, but come the summer, they have to be prepared to walk away and avoid the kind of bartering that has come to characterise so much of their activity this month.
For now, it remains a case of ‘needs must’. Moving forward though, Newcastle cannot be a club that are ripe for being exploited by anyone with a high-player profile they are looking to sell.