Looking through the list of the record transfer fees paid by next season’s Premier League clubs, it isn’t hard to spot the glaring anomaly. Seventeen of the 20 have broken their record since the beginning of 2016, while two of the remaining three (Arsenal and Chelsea) spent more than £40m on a player in 2013 and 2011 respectively. Newcastle United’s record transfer is the £16.8m paid to Real Madrid in August 2005 for Michael Owen.
When Owen signed for Newcastle, Bolton had just finished sixth in the Premier League, Portsmouth and Charlton had finished 11th and 16th respectively and Sven-Goran Eriksson was England manager. Owen’s fee was £12.3m below the British transfer record; it is now £72.5m below. Football in 2005 feels like a generation ago, not least in the normalisation of astonishing transfer fees.
That is not to say that spending is everything, but it has become a very normal element of club life. To avoid paying over £17m for a player between 2005 and 2017 while simultaneously having intentions of flourishing in the Premier League, a club must have something special up their sleeves.
For seven years, Newcastle’s ‘something’ was Graham Carr, the chief scout and transfer guru credited with the club’s fifth-place finish in 2011/12 after a period of successful recruitment based on his advice. Hatem Ben Arfa, Yohan Cabaye, Papiss Cissé, Loic Remy and Cheick Tioté were just five players who flourished at St James’ Park having been identified by Carr. A support that never quite took Alan Pardew to heart were only too happy to share the love with ‘the father of…’.
When Carr was good he was very, very good. £11m profit on Georginio Wijnaldum, £15m on Cabaye, £27.5m on Moussa Sissoko and £6.5m on Mathieu Debuchy. Buying low and selling high; this is the blueprint for those clubs below the Premier League’s financial elite. For a while, Newcastle got it right.
That Carr was shuffled out of a side door at St James’ this week, therefore, is evidence of a relationship going sour and a reputation systematically tarnished. Sylvain Marveaux, Gabriel Obertan, Romain Amalfitano, Luuk de Jong, Siem de Jong, Remy Cabella, Emmanuel Riviere, Matz Sels, Facundo Ferreyra, Henri Saivet, Seydou Doumbia, Massadio Haidara and Olivier Kemen illustrate Carr’s scattergun tendency when scouting in France and beyond.
Carr’s hit rate until the arrival of Rafael Benitez – when his responsibility was diluted – has dropped alarmingly. His last two years in the role became a forlorn chase to recreate that glorious 2010-12 spell. Newcastle slumped, weighed down by a glut of under-performing fringe players with little re-sale value (at least they got silly money for Sissoko).
For all Carr’s successes, his greatest triumph was in persuading Mike Ashley that his was the best route to success on a budget. Those last four words became Ashley’s mantra, as Newcastle’s owner demanded more and more for his buck. Between 2011 and 2015, Newcastle spent approximately £88m on 28 new players and sold 13 first-team players for fees totalling £64m. The net spend covered only two-thirds of Andy Carroll’s transfer fee from the previous summer. As the revolving door kept turning, so too did Newcastle’s status as a club built on transience, where players stopped by rather than played for the pride of the shirt. And this is a place – and club – where emotional attachment is cherished.
Carr’s departure from Newcastle signals the end of an era. Or, more specifically, the start of a new one. Rafael Benitez is the seventh permanent Newcastle manager under Ashley’s reign, but the one who holds the most sway and power. Steve McClaren, John Carver, Joe Kinnear and Kevin Keegan (at the time) needed Newcastle more than Newcastle needed them. With Benitez, the opposite is true.
Reports in February suggested that Benitez was considering walking away from the club over the lack of ambition demonstrated by Ashley, and those reports have been aired again this week. The departure of Carr is a commitment to the manager having total control over transfers, but missing out on Harry Maguire, Tammy Abraham and Tom Cairney is not a promising start. Newcastle, an enthusiastic bedfellow of crisis, are walking that tightrope again.
Finding value in this summer transfer window is more difficult than ever before. Newcastle refused to stretch to the £17m Hull City received from Leicester for Maguire, while a £20m bid for Cairney was rejected by Fulham, and Abraham has chosen Swansea. This is the age where only silly money exists, where transfer fees can and often should be followed by an exclamation mark.
Ashley can hardly be castigated for refusing to pay inflated prices, but he now faces the same difficult choice as several other clubs: Pay the silly fees or stumble through the summer. Watch what happens to asking prices when selling clubs know you desperately need additions and exactly how many millions in broadcasting revenues you are about to receive and Lord make you truly grateful, Amen.
For all the positives of winning the Championship title last season, Newcastle’s is a squad light on successful Premier League experience. Isaac Hayden, Dwight Gayle and Ciaran Clark were three of the best performers from last season. One was sold by Arsenal having failed to come close to the first team, another was sold by Crystal Palace after failing to make the grade and the other suffered a shambolic relegation with Aston Villa. Ayoze Perez, Christian Atsu and Matt Ritchie may well impress back in the Premier League, but judge every promoted club by their bench: Are Grant Hanley, Mohamed Diame and Daryl Murphy really the back-up options of a team with realistic hopes of consolidation?
By rights, Newcastle United should be the feel good Premier League club of the summer, having finally enjoyed some time in the sun after years of persistent rainfall. As per the Financial Times, Brand Finance reported a 92% increase in its brand value in the previous year, while Forbes make Newcastle the 20th most valuable club in Europe. Deloitte placed Newcastle 21st in Europe according to their revenue, calculated for the season in which they were relegated to the Championship. The potential is as vast as it apparent.
With their most popular manager since Bobby Robson in place, Newcastle and Ashley have been given a second shot at redemption having capitulated following their promotion in 2010. Even for an owner who has long courted animosity from supporters, wasting this chance would be Ashley’s greatest crime. Pre-season training starts next Monday; right now, there will be nobody who needs to be shown around.