Sir Alex Ferguson has a lot to answer for. Two of the greatest managerial fallacies trotted out by British pundits and managers cite Ferguson as their main basis. Granted, Ferguson has employed most of these pundits or managers at some stage or other, so we shouldn’t be too surprised. The first and most laughable fallacy is that you need to give managers time in the job, and as evidence they point to his tricky first season or so at Manchester United and the cup run that saved him. The absence of logic is staggering. As if all managers, given sufficient time would go on to win a stack of trophies. And also, he did win a trophy. Which bought him time. Imagine that. Winning a trophy would not buy you time at Newcastle. It would get you a statue built.
The second part of what we can call the Ferguson Delusion, is that the ‘continental’ structure – with Director of Football, Head Coach and Head of Recruitment – will not work in the Premier League. There is apparently something so special about English football clubs that they can only be run by all-powerful individuals responsible for every aspect of management. Part of this comes from the myth around Ferguson. Although he had more control than most, the truth of it is that he delegated very well and where he didn’t have control, he was very good at getting what he wanted. In business, a division of managerial responsibilities is seen as the norm. In fact in the Premier League, if you ignore the media and look at how clubs are actually run, you’ll find that this so-called continental model is already in place at most clubs. Even Mourinho at Chelsea is not all-powerful, but relationships are good and he’s happy with what he’s given, so you don’t spot the cracks.
Of course there have been plenty of examples of where this structure hasn’t worked, and to be fair a lot of them have been at Newcastle. But these were mostly down to appalling decisions. Bringing in the odious Dennis Wise over the head of the old school Keegan, and then handing recruitment over to the Chelsea chancer Tony Jimenez. Then appointing Joe Kinnear over the head of Pardew to teach him a lesson. In fact, employing Kinnear in any capacity is dooming any system to failure. The management model that is now being made clear in the club’s pursuit of a new Head Coach is fine. The head coach runs the team, Graham Carr finds the players, Lee Charnley does the business and Mike Ashley has the final say.
So why didn’t this work with Pardew? Partly because of Ashley’s capriciousness and tendency to do daft things. And partly because Pardew got too big for his boots and started to want more power than had been promised him when Ashley plucked him from obscurity. The ingratitude must have annoyed and Ashley must have felt like that guy from the Human League – “You were working in a waitress in a cocktail bar when I met you…” We’ll see how Pardew gets on at Palace now he has complete control (a chance to reference a Clash song there, but I’d already gone for the Human League – very poor). But bear in mind that one of his first signings at Palace was Shola, so we shouldn’t look on with too much regret.
So the management structure we’ve chosen can work. What about the business model? Buying young players to sell on at a profit? We have become a selling club. Cue resigned shake of the head from the old pros in the media. Yes, a selling club. Just like current La Liga winners and Champion’s League finalists Atletico Madrid. With plans in place, good networking, judicious use of the loan system ,and crucially a top draw coach – the model can work. Look at Southampton too, who lost the guts of their side in the summer and are riding high this year, giving us a spanking in the process. I don’t buy that top players won’t come to a selling club. Of course they will. All players dream of the really big move, and Newcastle can be seen as a stepping stone. We shouldn’t then be too upset when the likes of Cabaye and Sissoko try to engineer such a big onward move, as that’s how they were sold the club in the first place.
So we’ve got a good management structure in place, and a financial structure that keeps us in profit and could take us all the way to the Champion’s League. Sorted. Well no, the bad news is that the way Newcastle is run won’t, and probably can’t work. And this is because the plans are not pursued with honesty or ambition. Honesty is key. The parsimonious approach which has led to decent profits tells only half the story. Not all of the money generated by the club goes to the club. There is the money from merchandising, which goes straight to Sports Direct and then the millions of pounds worth of free advertising around the ground. This is supposedly unsold space, but it seems to cover most of the ground and you don’t hear about other Premier League unable to sell advertising space in their stadia. Again, to the best of my knowledge, not a penny goes to the club. Just imagine how much better we could build the team if it did.
And most of all, and this is what crushes the spirit, the model as operated by Newcastle United is completely devoid of ambition. If we were buying low, selling high, then buying again at a slightly higher level, then we would be getting better year on. But we don’t. Every season is Groundhog Season. We could also bring in the odd older professional or a high level loanee to help the young players along, but the club see no value in this. And when the club says value, you know they are only talking financially. It must be remembered that the club’s stated ‘ambition’ is to finish top ten. But that’s it. The unstated ambition is that we finish no higher than 8th. This is for the same reason that the cups are not a priority, to avoid the expense of the bigger squad needed for a subsequent European campaign.
Our players are commodities. Ashley buys cheap, adds value and sells on at a profit. Top ten finishes and no cup wins allow us to sustain this at low cost. That is a successful business model, but it won’t build a team, let alone a football club. So instead of building and progressing we simply drift. Not doing too badly, and occasionally able to sit back and enjoy the view, but we’re not going anywhere. This is enough for Ashley, as we are now a reliable revenue stream to Sports Direct, but it will never be enough for us. In many ways, this could be the perfect season in Ashley’s eys. Safe by January, out of the cups, comfortable finish between 8th and 12th, next big sale (Sissoko) lined up, and a great big profit on the way because of transfers and the increased TV money. But will he use this opportunity to take us to the next level? No chance. We will buy in the summer, but this is just buying in stock for the 2016 sales and we watch the whole depressing cycle go round again.