Posted tagged ‘Newcastle United’

Things turning out right

April 24, 2017

The past 24 hours or so have brought me two pieces of good news. For an unreconstructed old liberal like me, the prospect of Emmanuel Macron making it to the presidency of France via the run-off elections in two weeks is hugely heartening, provided he manages to defeat Marine Le Pen convincingly. The main jarring note in all this was sounded by defeated left wing candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who appears to believe that Macron and Le Pen are equally unacceptable; thereby confirming my wariness of what the media describe as the ‘hard left’ in European countries (including the UK).

And secondly, Newcastle United FC, by beating Preston North End today, have qualified for promotion back to the English Premier League.

Not everything at the moment is bad news. Though there is still a lot of it.

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That Newcastle show, off the rails [football/soccer alert]

March 7, 2016

Every so often this blog leaves the higher education world behind and engages with that crazy crazy world of Newcastle United FC. Being a Newcastle supporter can be incredibly exciting at times, but more often than not seems just an exercise in needless masochism.

It is not that Newcastle lose games – all clubs and teams do. It is not that there can be longer periods during which things just don’t go right; that’s what makes being a football supporter such fun. Rather, it is because those who take decisions in the club seem to be so determinedly inconsistent, irrational, amateurish, unintelligent. They buy and sell players at the wrong time, they appoint managers and ‘head coaches’ who seem to have no claim to the role apart from an established recent record of failure, they ban communications with the media to ensure all news coverage is bad, they maintain management structures no one understands and no one can operate effectively. And then they seem totally surprised that none of this works perfectly. And because it hasn’t worked this time and last time and the time before that, they try it again just in case it’s going to work now.

So what have we got? An expensive team that should produce results but whose members stroll aimlessly around the pitch during matches. A ‘head coach’ who seems not to have any sense of strategy or tactics and who comments after the game as if he were just a disappointed supporter, not the leader. An owner of very questionable business practices who seems to measure success for a football club with quite different metrics from the rest of us.

What needs to be done? Well, whether he is a nice man or not, the club needs to part company with Steve McClaren. It is abundantly clear that he cannot do the job. It needs to appoint in his place someone whose availability is not occasioned by a string of recent failures in other places. It needs to develop and keep to a clear strategy of battling and (when possible) winning on the field, not on the financial spreadsheets. It needs ambition,  swashbuckling determination, a sense of adventure.

But beyond Newcastle, club football needs to return to being just that. Much of the fun went out of the sport when it became a money game measured by the depths of the owners’ pockets (and strategic common sense). I’m normally all for free enterprise, but actually not in this setting. Football should be a game played for and on behalf of the supporters, not the oligarchs now dominating it. Clubs should be owned by those supporters. It is time to re-socialise football.

Own goals

August 20, 2013

Long suffering readers of this blog know that every so often you get a post on Newcastle United FC. It’s one of those days.

If you have absolutely no interest in football (soccer), just bear with me anyway while I explain where I am coming from. In English premiership football, there are two or three clubs almost everyone in the world has heard of: Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal – and now maybe Manchester City. Manchester United has been an iconic outfit for some time, for reasons unrelated to this post. The others have become prominent as rich owners privatised the operations and injected truckloads of cash into them, allowing the clubs to buy up players. World class footballers are now one of the most keenly traded commodities in international markets.

While there is plenty of evidence that this kind of cash does not buy instant success, it does get you quite a bit of the way. To cover the distance, you buy a famous brand of manager, say, a José Mourinho.

Last night we were able to watch this kind of corporate operation shred another club with less access to cash. Manchester City, now rolling in money provided by its rich owner, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan of Abu Dhabi, demolished Newcastle United on the pitch in their first game of the season.

Newcastle is also privately owned. And Mike Ashley may be a billionaire, but not one in the same league as the Sheikh, and indeed he doesn’t like spending money unnecessarily. Newcastle has a tendency to be a soap opera that likes to toy with farce, and between this and the more modest cash outlay it’s not really an even contest. Nor can it be. The really really rich billionaires buy the top five or six spots in the league, and the others, no matter how brilliant some of their players or managers, scrap around for the other places.

Football is a community exercise. Anyone visiting Newcastle on a match day can immediately see the impact of the game and of the fortunes of the club on the mood and morale of the city. Largely driven by the revenues offered by television deals, football has become not a sport but a trade. And while I generally think that trading is good, sport is not an area where I would take that view. I really have no idea how this could be achieved, but it is time to re-socialise football, and bid a polite farewell to its current rich owners.

PS. Of course it is possible that this post is based entirely on frustration at last night’s result. So what?

Fantasy football

March 26, 2012

Every so often readers of this blog have to put up with posts about Newcastle United FC. More often than not these have been tales of woe, with accounts of mismanagement and uncertainty of direction, skulduggery and delusion. Not today. Against all the odds, for the past year Newcastle’s owner has served up a banquet for the fans in the form of extraordinarily skilful management (in the form of the unexpectedly brilliant Alan Pardew) and sheer genius in sourcing new players. The result: the club sits at number 6 in the Premier League, equal on points with Chelsea, but after spending only a fraction of the money that has sustained (or not sustained) the latter. And they are just five points below out-of-form Tottenham Hotspurs, with eight games to go.

If Newcastle can win enough of these games to get above Chelsea and overtake Spurs, then it’s the Champions League. Oh well, you can dream.

In this blog I have been very critical of owner Mike Ashley in the past, and would still maintain that he needs to become better (or even just very slightly good) at communicating with fans. But it may well be that, contrary to what I had thought, his recipe for running a premiership club is right after all. Less of the silly spending, more strategy and tactics. And to be honest, it’s a more interesting approach.

An unexpected Newcastle United FC story: a good one

October 25, 2011

From time to time, as readers of this blog know, I comment on the affairs of Newcastle United football club. Mostly these are comments of despair and disbelief, as the club has for years now had a habit of taking mad decisions, firing good managers and appointing not-so-obviously-good ones, selling players the club needs to prosper, and generally behaving in an insane way while the long suffering fans look on.

But what’s this? Newcastle United have been in the top 4 of the English Premier League for weeks. The club’s players are behaving in a disciplined manner. They are unbeaten so far this season, an achievement only one other club can claim, Manchester City. They are set to break even financially. Their game is (usually) attractive and entertaining. The manager, Alan Pardew, is showing real skill in dealing with both players and fans. People are daring to whisper about playing in Europe.

This isn’t the Newcastle United we know. But we could come to love it.

A famous victory (actually no, it’s just a draw)

February 6, 2011

Yesterday Newcastle United, tossed about on the waves of unpredictable actions by a mercurial owner, seemed to be facing almost total humiliation. It was a home game in front of over 51,000 die-hard Geordie supporters, and the visiting opponents were Premier League title chasing Arsenal. At half time Newcastle were 0-4 down, and disaster seemed certain. Then, somehow, they managed to score 4 goals of their own in the second half and got back on level terms. It is not really possible to do justice to the sheer drama of the game, which afterwards was immediately labelled by various sports commentators as the best Premier League game ever.

Maybe the loss of star striker Any Carroll to Liverpool is not so disastrous after all. But then again, when it’s Newcastle you never know what is going to happen next week.

The football trade

February 1, 2011

My apologies in advance to those whose eyes glaze over when I write about soccer. But if you bear with me here, I am actually looking at the business of football, rather than the game.

Nevertheless, first a bit about the game. Yesterday, as some readers may know, was the last day of the ‘transfer window’ (more correctly called the ‘registration period’). What this means is that for four weeks in January ending on the 31st (and later for 12 weeks in the summer) players can transfer between football clubs. But this isn’t about players making career moves at their own initiative; it is more about clubs buying and selling players as tradable assets. This is so because whenever a player who is under contract to his club transfers, the ‘buying’ club has to pay a fee to the ‘selling’ club representing the asset value of the player. So if this a player who is in good form and has time left on his contract, any club wanting to acquire him will need to pay a large fee. And I really do mean large. Yesterday Newcastle United FC (the club I support) sold its star player, Andy Carroll, for a reputed £35m to Liverpool.

If you’re still with me, let me briefly look at the football logic of this. I say briefly, because there isn’t any logic. Carroll has so far scored 11 goals this season, and he is one of the Premier League’s top scorers. Newcastle were promoted from the (lower) Championship last summer, and Carroll’s productivity has been important in keeping them up in the premiership. While most observers would consider Newcastle to be a fairly safe bet for staying up, it’s not yet in the bag, and anyone looking at the football prospects rationally would say that Carroll should have been a vital contributor to a successful outcome. Nor is the £35m income helping the club in any way, because it has come too late to spend it on a replacement player. Just to reinforce all this, Newcastle manager Alan Pardew said repeatedly that Carroll would not be ‘for sale’ in the transfer window. And yet, he was sold.

So if there is no football sense in what was done, what was the point of it? And here’s an intriguing thought. What if Newcastle United owner Mike Ashley isn’t dealing in football strategy at all, but instead is pursuing objectives relating to his club’s balance sheet? What, in fact, if he doesn’t actually have any football strategy – I mean at all? Here’s how it might look. Andy Carroll has come through the ranks at Newcastle, where he has been for his entire playing career to date. He came to prominence last year when Newcastle successfully returned to the Premier League from the Championship, aided significantly by his success as a striker. His run of good form has continued in the current season. So now he has become a valuable player. If your strategy as a club owner was to get the team into the top places in the premiership, you would hold on to him, regardless of what other clubs were offering. But what if you didn’t care about that, and if what you wanted was to make money by trading? Then of course you’d sell him, if you were offered that kind of money.

So Ashley’s business model for Newcastle may be that it will make money from developing and then selling top players. This strategy would work best if the club is not in the top premiership places. Why? Because to get there and stay there you have to invest big money and hold on to key players. For this strategy the club does need to be in the premiership, but a place somewhere in the middle of the rankings would be perfect. So you make good but not overwhelmingly excellent players the backbone of the club, and you put into such a group a small number of hugely promising players. You build them up until they have a real asset value. And then you sell them. The club keeps its place somewhere between 9 and 14 in the league; your outlay is manageable, and your sales make big money.

Can this strategy work? On paper, yes – but I suspect not in practice, thankfully. The reason why it will ultimately fail is because the overall mix of the business model must include fan loyalty: supporters buy tickets and products and provide morale boosts for the team. But the enthusiasm of the supporters depends heavily on what I might call ‘the dream’. This is the belief that, perhaps, this club will one day be right at the top. It keeps the wheels of the club’s business turning. If it became clear that the dream is just that and that the owner has no intention of pursuing ultimate glory, that would change all the atmospherics and, I suspect, the business would no longer work. So the strategy works only as long as no-one knows that it is the strategy.

Apart from anything else, what this tells me is that having rich businesspeople owning football clubs is not good for the game. Indeed, all this excessive money that has been fueling the game has distorted it. I hope that all come to see reason before football as a genuine sport dies, the victim of inappropriate business strategies.