Posted tagged ‘Premier League’

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.

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.

Magpie restoration

April 7, 2010

All right-thinking people will be aware of the fact that Newcastle United FC are on their way back to the English Premier League. Only a year ago the sky seemed to have fallen on the club: owner Mike Ashley had fallen out with manager (and club hero) Kevin Keegan, and had been keeping everyone guessing with a will-he-won’t-he, on-again-off-again attempt to sell the club. In the ensuing chaos Newcastle were relegated from the premiership to the Coca-Cola Championship, where it then looked as if there could be a terminal meltdown when Ashley failed to get Alan Shearer for the job of manager and the team was beaten 6-0 by Leyton Orient, whom nobody had even heard of before.

But then, quietly, everything turned around. The players got their act together, caretaker manager (and ex-Ireland player) Chris Hughton managed to calm everything down, and the club started winning games. Lots of them, in fact, so that five games before the end of the season their promotion was confirmed.

Of course it can all go horribly wrong again, but just for now supporters are feeling that almost forgotten sensation, confidence and optimism.

But even if all goes well, the Newcastle experience over the past 12 months does suggest that some issues in English (and international) club football need to be addressed. Does it really make sense that the world’s largest clubs are ‘owned’ by rich businessmen? Indeed, does it make sense that these same businessmen often really own the clubs only with the help of impossibly large bank loans? Are footballers overpaid? Can the executive management teams of these clubs not understand that football managers need to be allowed to develop their tactics over a longer period, and that changing them every time a team has lost three consecutive games is simply insane? How should we evaluate the role and influence of television stations (in particular Sky TV) in soccer?

For Newcastle fans like me this is a great moment. But it is also a good moment to ask these larger questions, and it is perhaps a good time for serious reform.

Oh dear!!!

May 24, 2009

No doubt some readers of this blog will find it difficult to care much one way or another, but to my despair Newcastle United went down today – relegated from the Premier League, they’ll be playing in the Championship next season. What a tragedy this season has been – but I hope they’ll hang on to Alan Shearer anyway. Maybe life in the Championship will not be all bad for them, as they’ll be able to sort themselves out a little, which on the evidence of much of this season is badly needed.

And the lessons to be learnt? That rich owners coming in and thinking they know better how management should be structured is a disaster. I suspect that the whole framework governing football (soccer) needs to be reviewed. But while big money is still flowing into the game there may not be much urgency in all that.

There, I needed to get that off my chest. No more posts about Newcastle for a little while!