One year ago today, Newcastle completed the £12 million signing of Jonjo Shelvey. Before that, fans had become accustomed to seeing foreign imports brought through the doors of St James’ Park. The French market was one they were heavily involved in, as was the Belgian and Dutch markets.
The success of Yohan Cabaye and Hatem Ben Arfa (to a degree) was to the credit of Graham Carr. The notion of finding these “gems” was suddenly a mainstay of recruitment ideologies at Newcastle. Granted, it resulted in the likes of Moussa Sissoko and Georginio Wijnaldum being unearthed, who all at least had some success during their stays on Tyneside. From the outside looking in, it would seem a fool-proof strategy. Buying players below the age of 26, for relatively low fees and then selling them on at a profit down the road.
From the inside though, almost everybody (except those in power) knew it was a problem. Scouting trips to France had become an obsession, and not a healthy one. Since the signing of Cabaye, no fewer than 12 players from Ligue 1/Ligue 2 were signed. Some were successes, but a lot more were failures. Mathieu Debuchy was a good signing, but Romain Amalfitano was not. Moussa Sissoko was good (in parts), but Remy Cabella was not.
It was clear by the time the 2014/15 season rolled around that it was no longer working. The team was too young and too inexperienced in English football, and Alan Pardew did suffer from it. He left when the chance to manage his former club, Crystal Palace, presented itself and Newcastle were left with John Carver.
As up and down as Pardew’s tenure was, at the very least, you knew Newcastle would not be relegated. Under Carver, the shortcomings of recruitment were highlighted further. Davide Santon and Mapou Yanga-M’Biwa were bizarrely unloaded and Hatem Ben Arfa was forced out on Deadline Day. Fans wondered exactly where the goals would come from, and what would happen if Coloccini/Williamson were to be injured. The team did survive, just. Lessons had to be learned though.
Were they? Well, in a word, no. The Summer of McClaren was supposed to be one of promise, but it all fell flat. Wijnaldum was the first man through the door, which was a statement. He had pedigree, the reigning Dutch footballer of the Year. Two more from the Belgian league, Mitrovic and Mbemba, and the guaranteed signing from France; the infamous case of Florian Thauvin. After negotiating a deal with Marseille that had seen Cabella join the French club on loan, Thauvin arrived in the North East against his will. Five league and cup starts in six months, and he was already farmed back from where he came.
That January changed things. For the first time in six years, club officials seemed genuinely concerned that relegation awaited the Magpies. Only then did they sanction deals for two players who were Premier League ready. That is when Shelvey arrived, along with Andros Townsend. Two players Newcastle needed desperately, and to be fair, they made sure they got them. What they lacked mostly though, was a striker that would regularly hit the back of the net. Sunderland had one in Jermain Defoe, whilst Newcastle decided to loan Seydou Doumbia from Roma on Deadline Day. That tells you all you need to know. Relegation was all but confirmed that day. Again, lessons had to be learned.
Were they? Well this time the answer is not so simple. Rafa Benitez had come in for the final ten matches, but after relegation was expected to bid farewell to a club in total turmoil (again). To the shock of almost every football fan though, he stayed put. He knew they needed him and he simply could not leave the fans like that.
He knew what was needed. Firstly, anybody that did not want to be there were gone before the end of the Summer. As expected, Wijnaldum left, Janmaat followed and somehow, Moussa Sissoko got a £30 million move to Spurs.
As for those that come in, the likes of Grant Hanley, Daryl Murphy and Isaac Hayden arrived. Championship hardened players who knew exactly what to expect. Benitez also managed to convince Matt Ritchie, Mo Diame, DeAndre Yedlin, Ciaran Clark and Christian Atsu to drop down from the Premier League. There were still a couple of buys from overseas, with Matz Sels, Achraf Lazaar and Jesus Gamez jetting into Newcastle from Belgium, Italy and Spain respectively. The most important of all though, was the fact that a goalscorer was identified. Newcastle give Crystal Palace £10 million for Dwight Gayle, a man that had shown glimpses of talent, but never really figured in Pardew’s side. Dwight currently has 19 goals in 21 matches and needless to say, has been a real hit.
So, have the British/Irish buys proven that Newcastle should focus on them more heavily in future? Yes and No.
Ritchie, Gayle, Shelvey, Hayden, and Clark have been excellent. They are all hard workers and prepared to dig deep in games that in past seasons, would have been lost easily. They have all been mainstays on the XI, with the manager having a lot of trust in each of them.
Some others though, like Hanley and Murphy, have hardly featured. Whether they are deemed to be not good enough, or have been just unlucky due to the strength in depth that exists within the club, that remains to be seen. The way it seems to me is that they were bought for a sole purpose. To get the team out of this division and back into the Premier League. Not many supporters envision them playing any significant part in England’s top division, should Newcastle achieve their promotion goal.
Lazaar, Gamez and Sels have not really had a bright start to life on Tyneside, but that is no reason to stop bringing in foreign players completely. Lazaar has looked very promising in the games he has played in and Gamez has hardly featured at all through injury, so cannot really be judged. Matz Sels though, has looked totally uninspiring. So much so, that he lost his place after only ten games, to Karl Darlow. Part of me still thinks that Gamez can offer something during his stint on Tyneside, and Lazaar will prove to be an astute signing. I see no reason to cut off foreign imports totally.
It is all about balance. In seasons gone by, Newcastle have signed some good players that looked like bad players because of the situation they found themselves in. I stand by the fact that Florian Thauvin is a very good footballer, as is Remy Cabella. The issue was not totally to do with them. It was the fact that they were surrounded by players of the same ilk. They both needed figures in the dressing room to galvanise them. They were in a new country, a new environment and were expected to just click their fingers and produce magic. 80% of the time, this does not happen with foreign players. Newcastle have been completely devoid of leaders for too long and I do think that had a lot of responsibility for the shortcomings of a lot of players.
If this season has shown us anything, it is that the issue still remains. When the chips are down, Newcastle have not shown any reason for fans to believe they will turn it around. Everytime they have conceded first this season, the match has been lost. The only time they have comeback from any sort of deficit was against Norwich, which will go down as one of the most crazy nights St James’ Park has ever seen. Aside from that, the team appears to lack one or two players that will motivate others, with actions or words. They had those in abundance last time in the Championship, with Kevin Nolan, Andy Carroll, Joey Barton the main figureheads.
Buying from British clubs is always effective in that players have experience in the English game and know what it takes to succeed. Some however, are costing massive amounts of money, and the deals done are not always valuable in terms of efficiency. Just this morning, I have woken up to see Leicester demanding £12.5 million for Jeffrey Schlupp and Spurs hoping to get £8 million for Tom Carroll. Really?
The TV revenue that Premier League clubs are granted each season means that no club needs to sell, so prices are so inflated. It will only get worse, too. Newcastle will be no different next season if they do indeed go up, but Rafa Benitez knows his squad his not capable of anything other than a relegation fight in the Premier League. He needs to strengthen, big time. He cannot go spending £100 million on five British based players for sure, so the foreign market remains crucial in terms of recruitment.
This month, I think one or two quality foreign players should be brought in. The six months they have before the beginning of the season will allow them to settle in time for the (hopefully) big kick off in August. I just hope fans don’t get on their backs for not pulling up trees straight away, again.