Posted tagged ‘Premiership’

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.

The Newcastle story

August 25, 2010

OK, I haven’t written about Newcastle United FC for a while, and you won’t expect me to be completely silent on events… For those who don’t know what this is about, a little bit of background on the life and times of this football (soccer) club. Two years ago the sky fell on Newcastle, as the owner fell out with the much loved manager, Kevin Keegan. Keegan left, and a completely chaotic season followed, at the end of which the club was relegated from the Premier League to the (then) Coca Cola Championship. In the meantime the owner, Mike Ashley, was trying to offload the club but couldn’t find a buyer, the fans hated him, the biggest players left. Fatalistic fans were already talking about further relegation to League One.

And then it all changed. Newcastle’s players bonded in adversity with each other and with the caretaker manager, former Ireland international player Chris Hughton, a steely determination set in, and the club started winning games. Actually, winning them again and again. Until at the end of the season Newcastle easily came out on top of the Championship and were promoted back to the Premier League. Then, ten days ago or so, in the opening game of the new season, the club faltered against Manchester United at Trafford Park, and some were already predicting they would be relegated again. But just for now, no-one is saying that, because on Sunday last Newcastle annihilated Aston Villa, beating last season’s number 6 club by 6-0. Maybe things are looking brighter at last.

For me, the Newcastle story is a romantic one, of enthusiasm and determination in adversity, and the desire to do something and be something in and for a city that lives and breathes football. Of course there are still all the questions about where international soccer is going: the inflated salaries and transfer payments, the mountain-sized egos that the modern game has produced, the role of super-rich owners who don’t know how to respect the game, and so forth. But there is also the sheer excitement at seeing these dramatic struggles, and the joy of watching the game when it is at its best.

Go, Newcastle!

Triumph or disaster: the Newcastle rollercoaster

May 20, 2009

If you have any pity, then spare a thought for us poor fans of Newcastle United FC. This coming weekend marks the end of the season. But it wasn’t a season at all. It was a nightmare, a ritual humiliation masking as a competition, tragedy dressed as farce – you get the idea.

And now, whether the club survives in the Premier League depends on just one easy, impossible game. Aston Villa, who can gain nothing by winning this game and suffer nothing by losing it, pose this final challenge for Newcastle.

So why was this season so terrible? Because Newcastle has a rich owner who thought that having his way in imposing his own favourite management structure was more important than winning games. So he lost the club’s brilliant manager Kevin Keegan, and in the chaos that followed managed to have four managers in the one season. The only consolation is that he ended up with the only other plausible one, club hero Alan Shearer.

So if you care nothing about soccer, here’s your opportunity to poke one in the eye to all those interminably boring Manchester United fans and declare that, this weekend, you are supporting Newcastle. It’s the romantic thing to do!

The Newcastle drama

March 31, 2009

I suspect that not that many readers of this blog are very interested in Newcastle United FC, but then again I haven’t written about the club for a while. And today we have some fairly dramatic news. According to the BBC and Sky Sports, the club has appointed football legend and record Newcastle goal scorer  Alan Shearer to be the manager until the end of the season. I have to confess that at first I suspected this was an April Fool’s story, but I have now seen it confirmed in several different places, so I am coming to the conclusion that it’s true (but so far unconfirmed by the club’s website).

Why does this matter? Newcastle United, having parted company last autumn in very acrimonious circumstances with the legendary Kevin Keegan, went into free fall, and right  now is in the ‘relegation zone’ of the Premier League; in other words, unless fortunes change, the club will be out of the premiership in the next season. This has happened under two separate caretaker managers, ex-Wimbledon Joe Kinnear (who actually didn’t do too badly but then had heart surgery), and stand-in Chris Hughton (who seems out of his depth). Devoted, loyal and so often disappointed Newcastle fans have not been served well by the club’s current owner, who seemed intent on giving priority to his preferred management structure over actual success on the field.

Maybe it’s all too late, and maybe it’s just a fantasy anyway, but for most Newcastle fans the news of Shearer’s return will prompt a spark of optimism and belief. He was one of the club’s best players ever, and he is a local man. Whatever happens now, at least it will be interesting.

Football: an update

October 22, 2008

As readers of this blog will know, I support two teams in the English Premier League: Newcastle United FC, and Hull City FC. Well, I cannot remember a season that has been quite as exciting as this, so far. The Newcastle saga, with its cast of villains and personalities making cameo appearances, runs on, but now we have expletive-driven Joe Kinnear acting as interim manager – and actually, he appears to be stabilising the operation, and for the past two games the team have put in decent appearances. Mind you, the comment on the NUFC fan website, nufc.com, that the game against Manchester city could be described as ‘Crazy game, crazy goals, for Joe’s new Crazy Gang’ was more or less spot on.

But in the meantime, Hull City FC have been confounding all the pundits. Promoted via the play-offs to the Premiership, Hull were the subject of knowing comments from really everyone that they would be this year’s Derby County and would sink without a trace. And, after eight games, where are they? Number 3 in the table! Hard to believe, but true. Not only that, but by now most neutral commentators have really taken to this team and their manager, Phil Brown, and are willing them to win. The next big test for that will be the home game against Chelsea in two weeks. I am betting on Hull winning…