Newcastle United’s calm before the storm

AFTER AROUND a dozen games of the 2021-22 season, Newcastle were being written off as relegation certainties. In their first 11 fixtures, they drew five and lost six. They were scrambling around at the bottom of the Premier League, the fans hated the club’s owner and they were urging on the controversial sale to a group of investors led by the Saudi Arabian sovereign wealth fund.

It was widely believed Newcastle, while a big club in the eyes of their fans and many others, had fallen too far behind the competition. The Geordies get tired of hearing about their lack of success and the fact their glory days are now a very deep sepia, and they’ve had plenty of false dawns since 1969 when they last won silverware.

Their 2020-21 finances revealed their total turnover was £ 140 million, a fraction of the Premier’s top clubs and 8% down on the 2019-20 season. Newcastle under owner Mike Ashley were run prudently and invariably made a profit – over the past 10 years, only four clubs (Tottenham, Manchester United, Liverpool and Burnley) have made a higher consolidated profit than Newcastle’s £ 48 million.

Despite this achievement, a lack of continued investment and, it would seem, a big shortage of ambition, created a stagnant club with disillusioned supporters.

Inevitably, Newcastle are being linked with dozens of players as the 2022 season ends.

In 2020-21, Newcastle made a loss for the second consecutive season, although their pre-tax deficit of £ 13.6 million was modest compared to some of their Premier bedfellows. For a club that can pull in crowds of 50,000-plus, Newcastle’s income is definitely on the side of underachievement and is only a quarter of Manchester City’s and less than half of Tottenham Hotspur’s £ 360 million. The potential is very significant, but will surely require a complete overhaul of the club’s commercial strategy as  the new era gathers momentum.

Newcastle’s commercial revenues fell by 29% in 2020-21 to £ 21 million, underlining one of the key areas where the club is punching well below its weight. Matchday income was almost wiped out, but broadcasting rose by 12% to £ 119 million. When Ashley took over the club, their income was among the top half dozen in the league, but since then they are well below halfway. Clearly Newcastle’s decline has been on and off the pitch.

Newcastle’s wage bill for the season was £ 106.8 million, representing 76% of income. The ratio actually fell in 2020-21, but two seasons ago, it was 55%, despite a rise of only £ 10 million in actual wages. In that time, the club’s turnover has gone from £ 176 million to £ 140 million. Covid-19 has cost the club some £ 40 million, a figure that is actually less damaging than some Premier clubs, notably Everton, who believe the pandemic has had a negative effect of some £ 170 million.

The club shaved £ 25 million off operating expenses, which limited the overall loss for the season, but was also helped by taking advantage of the UK government’s furlough scheme during the pandemic. Ashley used the programme in both covid-affected seasons. However, when the new owners took over, they were shocked at the low level of wages among non-playing staff, and have since raised salaries.

Since buying the club, the new owners have pumped in £ 167.9 million and Mike Ashley has been paid back his £ 107 million loan to Newcastle United. As at the end of 2020-21, their net debt was £ 94.5 million, which was £ 50 million higher than 2019-20.

The January 2022 transfer window saw the club spend heavily to avoid relegation. In November 2021, Steve Bruce was sacked and Eddie Howe installed as manager. The January transfer window saw the club spend heavily to avoid relegation with short-to-medium term signings such as Chris Wood (Burnley £ 25 million), Kieran Trippier (Atlético Madrid £ 12 million), Dan Burn (Brighton £ 13 million) and Bruno Guimarães (Lyon £ 33 million). Howe’s record was enough to keep Newcastle in the Premier, 13 wins and five draws from 27 games taking them to 11th place.

There is expectation the club will spend big in the summer of 2022, although they will have to be wary of Financial Fair Play issues. Inevitably, they are being linked with dozens of players, including the sought-after 22 year-old Uruguayan Darwin Núñez of Benfica and Lyon’s Brazilian striker Lucas Paquetá.

In theory, Newcastle United became the richest club in the world after being bought by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, so some fans will expect an instant transformation. At the same time, the debate about human rights and the regime in Saudi Arabia will refuse to go away, so they will have to endure ongoing criticism and plenty of questioning.

The owners have a target of title contention within five years, a sensible aspiration because the football world has changed since Chelsea and Manchester City were bought by Roman Abramovich and Abu Dhabi respectively. It is that much harder to play “fantasy football” and sign everything that moves in today’s environment. Nevertheless, that won’t stop St. James’ Park being the centre of attention in the summer of 2022.

Football Media Watch: The Covid call-offs, desire or necessity?

WHEN Arsenal asked to have their big north London derby against Tottenham called off, people were scratching their heads and questioning why it was so late in the day. After all, they only had one (later two) Covid-infected players but apparently were going to be without 19 members of their first team squad. Admittedly, they have other players lost to the Africa Cup of Nations, but in theory, shouldn’t they have been able to play the game? They have a big squad, all the Premier clubs appear to have sizeable squads, so where’s the problem?

Even right down to non-league level, a manager wants to play his strongest team, so if a convenient postponement can help out when the squad is weakened or lacking some key players, then so be it. We’ve all seen surprising cancellations that turned out to be very helpful for coaches who might be in charge of a struggling team needing a break.

With TV effectively running the game in so many ways, postponements are generally not as commonplace as they used to be, but covid has given football the chance to call a game off if the virus has hit the squad hard. At the time, some sceptics did caution that this was open to abuse and while nobody really wants to say it for fear of having questions interpreted as heartless, cynical probing, increasingly, there is concern some clubs may be trying to “game the system”.

Pundits Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher have both suggested postponements should not be taking place in the age of big clubs with expensive 30-40 man squads. Neville, always willing to stick his head above the parapet, said on Sky: “What started out as postponements due to a pandemic has now become about clubs not having their best team [available]”.

The timing of Arsenal’s request was unfortunate – they had just had a player suspended after a red card in midweek (Xhaka) and had let two players go out on loan. Similarly, when Liverpool asked for their Carabao Cup semi with Arsenal to be rescheduled, they later revealed their covid testing had produced “a lot of false positives”. It doesn’t take much for football to come up with conspiracy theories or for fans of opposing clubs to quickly assume some skulduggery has taken place. 

The Athletic reported that there is a lack of transparency and consistency and suggested there has been an abuse of the rules. A case of clubs desiring a postponement rather than needing it. “The bottom line, according to one medic, is that no games should be called off given the size of the team squads and availability of back-up players from the youth ranks.”

Carragher said on Sky that “no other league in Europe is doing this” and believes there is no doubt teams are taking advantage of the situation. Interestingly, when the FA said clubs should play FA Cup games if they have 13 fit players, there was not a single postponement. This not only implies clubs are comfortable playing weakened sides and confirms what we already knew, the competition is a much lower priority among the elite.

Back to that London derby and Tottenham were clearly unhappy about the cancellation. The Guardian reported this comment from the club: “The original intention of the guidance was to deal with player availability directly affected by Covid cases, resulting in depleted squads that when taken together with injuries, would result in the club being unable to field a team. We do not believe it was the intent to deal with player availability unrelated to covid. We may now be seeing the unintended consequences of this rule. It is important to have clarity and consistency on the application of the rule. Yet again fans have seen their plans disrupted at unacceptably short notice.”

Sources: The Times, Sky, Guardian, The Athletic, iNews, BBC.

Football and the pandemic: Back in the grounds, maybe – but for how long?

IT still feels like something of a novelty at the moment, but the 2021-22 season has been quite enjoyable so far. It has been great to be back inside stadiums and experiencing a proper matchday atmosphere. But there is something of a darkening cloud on the horizon as we move out of autumn – government suits are on TV talking of a coming crisis concerning infection rates, deaths and precautionary measures. It’s time to rinse out those face masks and exercise some caution.

Covid-19 aside, we have been reminded that the football crowd has never been the land of milk and honey. The recent scenes in Budapest and Wembley were a throwback to the days when going to the match was laden with hurdles around personal safety. Despite the gesturing, PR campaigns and signalling, football remains a heady mix of tribal bonhomie, good-natured jousting, bad behaviour, foul language and, unfortunately, racism and bigotry.

Of course, we should not forget the Euro 2020 final, when we witnessed atrocious antics from fans making central London a playground for the drunk and disorderly. We should not pretend football life before covid-19 was perfect, but games were generally well policed, stewarded and administered. Britain made enormous progress in the late 1990s and into the 2000s around staging football and trouble was at a relatively low level. This environment dovetailed with the gentrification of the game, which certainly took a step backwards at Wembley in July 2021. It would be a great shame if all the good work of the past starts to unravel.

In decades gone by, following any outbreak of football hooliganism, there was invariably an overreaction, largely prompted by strong-arm shows of strength. This has changed significantly and the Police, among others, have far greater ability to know exactly what is going on before, during and after a game. At Wembley, the trouble should have been foreseen; you only had to look on the internet to see what was developing. Hopefully, this was an isolated event, although the fighting at the England versus Hungary game hints at a rising trend of disorder.

The pandemic has changed many things in our everyday lives and we are far from out of the woods. For all the rainbow drawings, clapping and good work done by volunteers, there are folk who seem to have adopted a “survival of the fittest” approach when it comes to food and fuel shortages. There’s also blatant disregard for precautionary measures among some groups, hence facemasks are almost totally absent from crowds and public gatherings and joyous celebrations are ignoring the concept of keeping safe. When it comes to the crunch, people will crawl over each other to gain an advantage… or some unleaded petrol!

Football stadiums are certainly more comfortable than they were in the past, but do we now have some psychological discomfort about being in a 30,000 crowd even though the chances of infection are lowered by being in the open air? Some of the animal spirits of the football crowd may need to be tempered as we move forward – cold weather is approaching and infection rates are rising once more. Britain will not easily deal with yet another lockdown, economically, mentally or physically.

If the pandemic recovery receives a major setback and is derailed, the government could be forced to take drastic steps once more. If that happens, football may find itself reduced to behind-closed-doors games again. The financial impact of this will be catastrophic for professional and semi-professional football in Britain, especially below the very top level. And this time, it may push some clubs over the edge.

Perhaps football should become more proactive in a bid to demonstrate it can act to head crisis off at the pass. Maybe insist on facemasks in some areas, reduce capacities to allow more breathing space and also more stringently control entrances and exits at grounds. If recent news is leading us towards a lockdown or lockdown-lite, football can play its part to ensure it keeps running. Instead of waiting for the government to shut it down, come up with an alternative that allows clubs to keep running, albeit at a reduced rate. Otherwise, it could be back to square one.