What the Toon need to do with their newfound wealth…
Well, Newcastle are rich now.
As you likely have seen, it was the news story that dominated the headlines recently, the much-discussed and controversial takeover of Newcastle United was revived and finalized, making the English northeastern giants the richest club in world football and ending the tenure of former despised owner and noted crooked businessman Mike Ashley. New club chairman Yasir Al-Rumayyan and director Amanda Staveley, who took over the club with the significant financial backing of Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, were unveiled to rapturous applause in front of a sold-out St. James’ Park this past weekend before Newcastle’s 3-2 defeat to Tottenham. Scenes that felt surreal to many people for many reasons played out in front of us, signaling that we have entered into a new era for not just English football, but modern football in general.
Now, there have been quite a few opinions shared about this, both positive and negative. I do think most of the criticism of this is genuine and deserved. I think very serious practical and moral questions need to be asked to the Premier League and the British government in regards to this Saudi-backed takeover. The poster on the side of a truck parked outside of St. James’ Park on Sunday memorializing Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist for the Washington Post who was brutally murdered by order of the Saudi government in 2018, acts as a harrowing reminder of what kind of entity has been welcomed open-armed into the Premier League.
But whatever can be said about this takeover, whether you are for it or against it (spoiler alert: I am very, very against it), it has happened. There is no going back from here. I am here to at least take part in the very interesting conversation about what happens next. Where do Newcastle go from here? What do they need to do in the short, medium, and long term in order to get to the heights and achieve the lofty goals that Staveley has laid out for this Newcastle project? Do I have any idea what they are going to do? No, but I have a few ideas of what they should do. I will even put it in a nice list for you, Newcastle. Like a grocery list, but for running a football club.
1. Hire a Sporting Director/Director of Football
This is the most important thing on this list. This should happen first. If these conversations are not already happening behind the scenes at Newcastle, they need to start happening very soon.
The idea of utilizing a Director of Football is not quite as fashionable in England as it is on the continent, but the success stories both in England and in Europe shows the capability that a strong DoF can offer when it comes to the more extended planning and vision formulation of a club. The successes that have followed Liverpool’s Michael Edwards, Leicester’s Jon Rudkin, Brighton’s Dan Ashworth, and (most centrally to this sort of conversation) Manchester City’s Txiki Begiristain shows the kind of effect that having a strong football director and strong organization behind the scenes can have on the on-pitch product, sporting infrastructure, and long-term aspirations of the team.
The more preferred method of sport organization in England tends to give most of the sporting power to the manager, and while that is a perfectly fine way to run a club, I do not think it is an effective method to carry out a long term project especially in the current climate of football where you no longer get managers staying at the same club for a significant amount of time. It is all well and good to give the sporting control of the club to Sir Alex Ferguson, but Ferguson stayed at Man United for nearly 30 years. Same logic behind Arsène Wenger and Arsenal. All well and good giving him the power, but he was there for over two decades. Managers do not hang around for that long anymore, even successful ones. For reasons I will explain later, it is very possible that the first managerial hire of the Saudi era is not at the club for that long, so giving the power wholly to the manager will lead to several seeming “restart” moments whenever you change manager. Managers also tend to think very short term, wanting to win immediately to protect their job rather than build a team for a few years down the line, and Staveley’s ambitions clearly are closer to the latter.
City are the perfect example of this. They were obviously successful at the beginning of the Emirati era, winning a league title and FA Cup prior to Txiki Begiristain’s arrival in October 2012, but they clearly were not what they are now. Begiristain was the one who built the foundations of this almost-all-conquering City team, moving on many of the older players from the 2012 title team and bringing in players who would become world-beaters, eventually paving the way for Pep Guardiola to take over. He was also central in the formation of the City Football Academy, elevating City’s youth development to the stratosphere and helping them bring through talents like Phil Foden and build a team that is currently dominating the PL2. Having this sort of leadership helped City become what they are despite their shifting of managers prior to Pep’s arrival, and it will keep them prominent when Pep inevitably leaves. This is what Newcastle need if they want real, long-lasting success and prominence.
Now might be a good time to start looking, because there are a few very good options on the market. Former Red Bull manager and sporting director Ralf Ragnick has been strongly linked to the Newcastle manager position, likely in a similar joint-manager/DoF role that he almost took with Milan a few years ago. Ragnick’s management is decent, but he is clearly a smart sporting director and did a very good job with Red Bull Salzburg and RB Leipzig. I imagine the prospect of life in chilly Newcastle-upon-Tyne is relatively appealing to Ragnick, as the current Lokomotiv Moscow sporting director is likely prepping for a long Russian winter at the moment. If they wanted someone more familiar with English football, Liverpool’s Michael Edwards is on an expiring contract, and it does not appear that the Englishman will continue in his role at Liverpool after the season. Liverpool’s transfer successes in recent years are obvious and need no lingering commentary, but their ability to bring in young talents like Curtis Jones and Trent Alexander-Arnold as well as move on young players not quite up to the mark for significant profit provided Liverpool with some quality young players and a consistent source of income to fund further investment into the team. Giving Edwards a blank check to build that same sort of footballing and scouting infrastructure at Newcastle could be a smart idea.
I am going to take a whole few paragraphs to make the claim for the man who might be the best choice. Luis Campos is a name that might not ring a bell for English fans, but at this point, French fans know him all too well. Campos began his sporting director career with AS Monaco in 2013, where he helped bring the likes of James Rodríguez, Anthony Martial, and Geoffrey Kondogbia to the Principality early in his tenure before selling them for sizable profit. He would then lay the groundwork for Monaco’s title triumph in the 2016/17 season, being instrumental in the signings of Fabinho, Bernardo Silva, Tiémoué Bakayoko, and Thomas Lemar, along with veterans João Moutinho and Radamel Falcao. He was also critical in the Monegasque team’s acquisition of a teenage forward from Paris named Kylian Mbappé. He turned out pretty good, right?
Campos did not see the fruits of his labor in Monaco, as he left for Lille prior to their title triumph. At Lille, he helped revolutionize the team under Marcelo Bielsa, and then did so again when Bielsa failed and Christophe Galtier arrived. In that short amount of time, Campos helped bring in Nicolas Pépé, Thiago Mendes, Boubakary Soumaré, Rafael Leão, Jonathan Bamba, Zeki Çelik, Jonathan Ikoné, Victor Osimhen, Renato Sanches, Yusuf Yazici, and Sven Botman, among others, who were either sold for significantly more than they bought them for or played a central role in Lille winning the league last season.
The man not only dethroned PSG once, but he did so twice.
Campos, as was the case in Monaco, did not remain in Lille long enough to see the fruits of his labor, as he left Les Dogues and has remained without a job since December 2020. A man who is experienced in building a title-contending team through solid youth development and outside-the-box recruiting with minimal resources, Campos is a clear favorite in my eyes for a sporting role within this Newcastle project. And he is literally unemployed as we speak. This is free advice, Newcastle. I should charge you for this level of consultation, you all clearly are not cash-poor at the moment, but I won’t. Go hire that man.
I promise the rest of these points will not be as long winded.
2. Answer the managerial question, and answer it NOW
Let’s be honest, Steve Bruce is going to be sacked. The new owners gave him the courtesy of managing his 1000th game this past weekend, letting him have one last go for his boyhood club, but he is clearly on his way out. The fans made that very clear this past week, with chants of “we want Brucey out” and “sacked in the morning” coming from the Toon faithful during their loss to Spurs. By the time you read this, Bruce may already be out of the job. Who knows?
Ultimately, they need to make this decision as soon as possible. Given their relegation-fighting status, the answer may not be as simple as “chuck money at Antonio Conte since he will surely take the gig”. Top targets may be more wary of taking the job now given that they are walking into a relegation fight that there is no guarantee that they survive. They might have to go for a lesser target who is going to ensure they stay in the league and get their main guy in the summer, or even just go for someone from whoever is willing to take it now. It is still very possible that a bigger name manager, on the level of a Roberto Martínez or Steven Gerrard (or even Brendan Rodgers) would be willing to take this gig now, but it is also very possible that Staveley and co. are not able to get their ideal candidate. Whoever they choose, they need someone who is prepared to walk into a difficult situation, even if there is financial backing in January. We were reminded on Sunday that this Newcastle team is not good, and any serious January investment could just be an exercise in putting lipstick on a pig, so to speak. They need someone ready for the relegation fight. I do not think keeping Bruce is an option, as I have seen nothing to suggest that Bruce can keep them in the Premier League this season.
Who do I think they should get? Well, any of those three mentioned above would be decent options. Rodgers is obviously a longshot, but he is clearly someone who is dangerously ambitious and loves himself a little bit too much, so the possibility of managing the infinite-money Saudi Newcastle might be enough to pry him from Leicester, but it is not a guarantee. Former Roma and Shakhtar Donetsk manager Paulo Fonseca will be on the list. Ex-Dortmund manager Lucien Favre might be a good choice as well, but his rumored-poor relationship with Newcastle star forward Allan Saint-Maximin when both were at Nice might be a risk that makes it not worth pursuing, but who knows? There is no easy, clear-cut answer in the manager question like there is in the DoF question. Whoever it is, they need to get them in immediately.
(Update: Since writing this, Steve Bruce has left Newcastle by mutual consent. Sad, but inevitable.)
3. Spend smart, but not a lot, in January to prep for the fight
The favored topic of discussion among fans when the takeover went through was how much would the new owners be willing to splurge in the January window. What fantastic star players would be donning the black and white kit before January 31st? Well, let’s hold our horses here. January is never really a market where smart deals are made. Most teams who are not in financial difficulty would be unwilling to sell top players in the middle of the season, and spending boatloads of money on players who are not worth it is not an effective long term strategy for building a successful side (*stares disappointingly at Everton*). Can Newcastle afford to spend a large chunk of money on, say, Anthony Martial or Philippe Coutinho in January and hope that they do not continue their poor form that they are currently suffering from? With reports from The Telegraph that Newcastle’s January budget will only be around £50 million (which is the right thing to do in my opinion), they need to spend smart.
What Newcastle should do is look for players on expiring contracts, especially in the Premier League, who might not agree to a new deal with their current club and pay a cut rate fee to sign them in January. I have seen a whole lot of people mention Burnely’s James Tarkowski and Man United’s Jesse Lingard as two ideal signings for Newcastle, and I completely agree with both. While the desire for “Premier League proven” players is wildly dumb most of the time, bringing in someone like Tarkowski or Lingard at least provides some experience in the dressing room and knowledge of the league and situation that they are in, while also providing two solid players who will immediately improve the team for probably very little cost. Wolves midfielder João Moutinho is also a viable option, though his age would be a concern.
They should look at the same parameters for teams on the continent as well. Torino striker Andrea Belotti, Porto midfielder Jesús Corona, Fiorentina striker Dušan Vlahović, Gladbach midfielder Denis Zakaria, and Sassuolo winger Jérémie Boga offer slightly less realistic but still possible transfer options, as all are on expiring contracts that, at least at time of writing, have not been extended. They, again, are less realistic than the above three, but they are options that Newcastle should pursue. This should not be outrageous spending, as they still need to stay up before going bonkers in the transfer window (which likely happens in the summer if they stay up), but there are still some possibilities.
4. Continue spending smart in the summer, but swing for the fences on one player (assuming they survive relegation)
Even with this massive bankroll, Newcastle might find it difficult to bring in the biggest names in the transfer market next summer without the ability to promise Champions League football. For example, I highly doubt Newcastle would be a more attractive option for Erling Håland than Manchester City. What they can offer, however, is a sizable amount of money paired with Premier League football, which can be attractive to many players who are not quite on the radar of the world’s elite clubs just yet. They need to look in leagues like the Eredivisie, Liga Portugal, Ligue 1, and the Bundesliga. These are leagues where you are able to find agreeable deals for very good players, especially as many of those clubs continue to suffer from the financial effects of the COVID Pandemic. Players like Renato Sanches, Houssem Aouar, or Amine Gouiri in Ligue 1 could be very smart acquisitions, as could players like Pedro Porro, Luis Díaz, or Pedro Gonçalves from Portugal. Looking for talents from South America, which Brighton have done successfully with Moises Caicedo and Alexis Mac Allister, is also a smart idea given how the United Kingdom’s work permit laws for foreign footballers has changed post-Brexit.
You can upgrade this team significantly with not much money if they spend responsibly, and this is why they need to get the sporting director hire right. If you have the right sporting director and right scouting infrastructure behind the scenes, you can do a whole lot with not a lot of money. Even with the ridiculous amount of money that Newcastle now have, they still need to approach this coming summer window with the mentality of getting the most for every Pound spent. Think of it as operating like Leicester but with more money to work with. They cannot afford to waste too much money, especially since they are starting with a very poor foundation to build on.
But it’s ok, Newcastle. I give you permission to go for one home run signing. Break the bank on one player: Harry Kane. It has become clear that Kane does not want to stay at Spurs, and even if his good performance against Newcastle might inspire some hope that he is back in form, I do still think he wants out. Unless he is willing to drop his “must stay in England” requirement, however, then the number of teams that he is able/willing to go to is very small. Last summer, it was a question of which out of Man United, Man City, and Chelsea would sign him, but Man United opted for Cristiano Ronaldo and Chelsea opted for Romelu Lukaku. City are theoretically still in the market and almost signed him last summer, but I imagine they will more aggressively push for Håland instead. It is very possible that Newcastle will be given a golden ticket opportunity to sign the modern rebirth of Alan Shearer. They have the money that Spurs will want for him, and if they have the right manager in charge and do everything else right, then convincing Kane to join Newcastle might be more realistic than many might think.
Kane’s signing would give the Newcastle project a significant amount of legitimacy from the get-go, a true superstar to completely build the team around and convince skeptics on the outside that you mean business. Kane is nearing the end of his prime, but given the absurd sums of money that Newcastle are working with, they should not have to worry too much about resell value or anything like that when it comes to this first big name signing. Just take the plunge, go for it, test Spurs’ and Kane’s resolve and see what happens. There is no reason not to. And imagine the scenes if he passes Alan Shearer’s Premier League goalscoring record while wearing a Newcastle shirt. That would be beyond surreal.
5. Invest in the infrastructure of the club
The one chunk of spending that does not directly go against Financial Fair Play that Newcastle need to plunge financial capital in to is the football infrastructure of the club. And I mean literally, the actual infrastructure. Yes, hiring the right people behind the scenes is important, but I mean the literal buildings.
St. James’ Park is quite the stadium, but it, like many stadiums in England, is starting to suffer from the effects of age and the elements. If you want to build a new stadium then go for it, but if not, at least do your best to renovate the current stadium as much as possible. Given its central location and importance within the community, there is quite a bit of spiritual capital that the new owners can build with the fans should they show the commitment to reinvigorate the current stadium, even if they choose to continue in a stadium that lacks many of the modern flashes and luxurious bonuses that newer stadiums have (and make a ton of money from). Investing in the stadium and surrounding area will not only give the new owners significant support from the community, but it will also show Newcastle as being a rising modern power worthy of being in consistent Champions League discussions.
The main thing, though, is to invest in the training and youth facilities. While they may not have the ability to create an “Etihad Campus”-style facility in Newcastle due to St. James’ Park being in a much more urban location than Man City’s Etihad Stadium, they need to put a significant amount of investment into youth development, training facilities, and academy facilities. City made this same significant investment into their youth and it allowed them to have the capability to bring through someone like Phil Foden and continue bringing through talent, with Cole Palmer, Liam Delap, and Roméo Lavia being among the next bright gems through that system. What if Newcastle had the infrastructure and scouting network needed to allow them to vacuum up every good footballer born in the north of England and even steal youth prospects from Rangers and Celtic in Scotland? There is not even much to compete with in the local area there, as Sunderland are…well…not doing fine right now and Middlesbrough are seemingly stuck in the Championship. Newcastle would obviously face some competition from bigger clubs further south, but it is not like they are in London or Manchester or Liverpool where they are competing with other prominent Premier League teams within close proximity. They could just decide that we are going to beat every other team in the country to the best footballers from the north of England, become the academy of the north. They obviously will lose out on some but could anyone truly stop them?
Before you scoff at how much talent they are truly working with, let us think through some names. In England’s 2020 Euros team, there were eight players born in what can technically be considered the “north” of England without being from Greater Manchester or Merseyside (Jordan Pickford, Jordan Henderson, Dean Henderson, Kyle Walker, Harry Maguire, Dominic Calvert-Lewin, John Stones, Sam Johnstone). If you consider the expanded England team that was whittled down by Gareth Southgate to the main Euros team, then also throw Ben Godfrey onto that list. You can add Scott McTominay to that list as well even though he represents Scotland. You can also throw in the likes of Harvey Barnes, Danny Rose, James Milner, Jamie Vardy, and the now retired but still very good Michael Carrick into that grouping. The north has done well historically as well, so throw in Alan Shearer, Paul Gascoigne, Peter Beardsley, and Chris Waddle. You get the point, right? There is a significant amount of talent in this region, and even if Newcastle cannot get everyone, the ability to generate the pulling power to even get some of them could be colossal. And that is before considering their potential ability to scoop up young players in Scotland, especially now that the “Billy Gilmour” door has been opened up. Obviously rich teams do not have to be as academy-dependent as poorer teams, and PSG have shown that the rich state-backed teams do not always care about their academy products no matter how good they are, but it at least has the potential to be something.
This is obviously the most long-term focused step on this list. This is going to take a while. City began construction of the Etihad Campus in 2012 and did not fully open the City Football Academy until 2014, and you can argue that they are only just now beginning to reap the rewards of this significant investment into youth development. But it is this investment that might be the most important, as it is the one that makes the success repeatable and longer lasting. It is this investment and vision that makes you think that the City project will not just instantly collapse when Pep leaves. Newcastle need to do the same if they want this Saudi-backed project to have any sort of serious longevity.
There you go, Newcastle. I have your five-year plan right here, all for free.
On a serious note, as much as I do object to this Saudi takeover and as much as I think this is an awful thing for the sport as a whole, I am still very interested to see how this goes. If Newcastle go through with a methodical plan like the one I have just talked about, then the sky is truly the limit for this team. “Champions of Europe Newcastle United” is a very real possibility. But having money does not guarantee success. Everton have spent more than most teams in the league since Farhad Moshiri purchased a controlling stake in the club in 2016 and are no closer to the Champions League than they were before he got there. Queens Park Rangers got relegated shortly after a huge financial takeover and lots of spent money on transfers, came back up, then immediately got relegated again and have not come back up since. The Kingdom of Bahrain purchased a stake in Paris FC a year ago and they have not gotten any closer to Ligue 1.
Money does not instantly lead to trophies, you have to be smart with it. That is the difference. Newcastle have basically won the lottery. Will they be smart with their newfound wealth? Only time will tell.
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