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To All the Targets I’ve Loved Before

As May becomes June, a reflection on Silly Seasons past

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Two of the many who have gotten away

May is almost over, which for football fans around the world signals a few key rites of spring – hand-wringing over Wenger’s future with Arsenal, speculation around which La Liga giant will be hit with a bold but ultimately meaningless transfer ban, praying that their club’s offseason plans include a stop in your corner of the world, and so on. For most, though, the most exciting part of the summer is the rampant speculation around transfer activity for your favorite club. I am, of course, talking about Silly Season, where every journalist with a FIFA Career Mode and access to publication will speculate wildly about which players will move and which clubs are buying based on less than solid sources, all while agents fan the flames to find the most money for themselves their clients, whether at current clubs or somewhere new.

Every fan for whom this isn’t their first rodeo, though, knows that a lion’s share of rumors will not pan out. In the last month, Coming Home Newcastle has reported on ten rumored soon-to-be Magpies and not reported on countless more, though there’s no doubt that at least 75% of these will not come to fruition. Most of these moves will come and go before the average fan is fully conscious of what is happening, but every so often, whether due to how close a deal seemed or how prolific the player would become, some rumors come about that eat away at a club and its supporters for years.

Newcastle United, of course, is not immune to this sort of despair. So, with apologies to Alexandre Lacazette (never realistic) and Zinedine Zidane (I was far too young to be impacted), below is a personal list of missed opportunities over the course of twenty years of fandom.

7 (tied). JAN VERTONGHEN AND TOBY ALDERWEIRELD

Tottenham Hotspur v Chelsea - Premier League Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

The first name on the list is actually two, as for me a good amount of the allure came from the names as a pair. In 2012, just as United was fighting its way to fifth place in the Premier league, it was reported that Newcastle was weighing up a double bid for Ajax center backs Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld. The move never appeared particularly likely, as that summer Tottenham would beat out Newcastle, Arsenal and Manchester City to sign Vertonghen, while Alderweireld would move to Atletico Madrid and Southampton before being reunited with his countryman at White Hart Lane in 2015.

Beyond the obvious talent – Vertonghen has since become arguably the Premier League’s best center back, while Alderweireld has been no slouch himself – I was particularly taken by the narrative the pair provided. The two players, two years apart, both came up through the Ajax youth system to become the anchors of the Dutch club’s back line, while also playing together at the international level. The prospect of having the two coming together to feature in Newcastle’s defense for the better part of a decade was too perfect to not fall in love with, and ultimately proved too good to be true.

5. JOEL MATIP

West Bromwich Albion v Liverpool - Premier League Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

For anyone who has ever played FIFA, there’s a certain joy to be had in finding and falling in love with a player you have never heard of before, spending too much of your Career Mode transfer budget to bring the player to your club. This joy is compounded when your favorite club makes a real-life bid for the same player, as though you were a telepathic scout of sorts with a direct connection with the front office.

That was me with Joel Matip, a center back plying his trade for Schalke when, in 2015, rumors began to swirl about Newcastle sizing up a £7 million bid. I had first discovered in FIFA 11, and was instantly taken by the tall, strong Cameroonian defender with the knock-kneed running style of a newborn foal. Newcastle missed the opportunity, as Liverpool would beat United to a signature.

4. PIERRE-EMERICK AUBAMEYANG

Bayern Muenchen v Borussia Dortmund - Bundesliga Photo by Alexander Scheuber/Getty Images Fuer MAN

In 2013, Newcastle United made an actual, totally real bid for Aubameyang, then 23, while he was with Saint-Étienne in Ligue 1. Not only was a bid launched, but they had matched the bid made by Borussia Dortmund and structured the finances in such a way that the French club would have preferred to send Aubameyang Tyneside. However, the Gabonese striker rejected the deal in favor of a move to Dortmund, where he would be Robert Lewandowski’s heir apparent at the top of Jurgen Klopp’s formation. Now, four years and 85 league goals later, Aubameyang is being linked with a move away from Dortmund for £60 million.

As for my personal investment, suffice it to say that I have listened to more Eurodance embedded within Aubameyang highlight videos than I have from every other source combined.

3. BASTIAN SCHWEINSTEIGER

I first fell in love with Schweinsteiger during the 2006 World Cup, where the then-21-year-old German displayed the combination of poise, passing, scoring, and a dope name required for any footballer to become a legend. However, none if this is why Newcastle’s failed 2008 bid for the player stung so deeply. What stung is that the failure was orchestrated in such a typically Newcastle United manner.

2014 MLS All-Star Game Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images

In 2008, Newcastle manager was reluctant to allow midfielder James Milner move to Aston Villa without a replacement already lined up. In the end, though, Keegan accepted a £12 million bid for Milner in part because the Newcastle board had assured him that they had already begun negotiating the purchase of Schweinsteiger from Bayern Munich; however, it was revealed to Keegan after letting Milner go that the offer for Schweinsteiger had topped out at £4.3 million, and that Bayern had immediately cancelled further negotiation as a result.

1 (tied). LUKA MODRIĆ AND DELE ALLI

With Modrić and Alli, we enter the territory where the loss felt in failing to acquire a given player is not in how close the signing was or in any subjective interest in a given player, but rather the sheer magnitude of talent missed out on in hindsight.

Real Madrid CF v Club Atletico de Madrid - UEFA Champions League Semi Final: First Leg Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images

In April 2008, a few months before the Schweinsteiger saga, Newcastle was on the cusp of bringing on Luka Modrić from Dinamo Zagreb for £12 million. Modrić, though still playing in his native Croatia, was far from an unknown player, also drawing serious interest from Barcelona; his international teammate Niko Kranjcar, though, had sold Modrić on a move to the Premier League. Modrić would move to the Premier League days later, though for a different club, as Tottenham Hotspur agreed to a six-year deal with the attacking midfielder.

Less than seven years later, in January 2015, Newcastle was once again days away from signing their attacking midfielder of the future, this time in the form of Dele Alli. The 18-year-old was available from MK Dons for the paltry fee of £4 million, and Newcastle had even gone so far as to prepare a press release for the transfer. Alas, a disagreement over wages led United to haggle with Alli’s agent long enough for Tottenham to swoop in and clinch the purchase.

Tottenham Hotspur v Manchester United - Premier League Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

The pain of these losses is great for two main reasons. First, and most obviously, is that the players at hand are unquestionably world-class players. Modrić has been the creative force behind Real Madrid’s current dynasty, while “most gifted English footballer of his generation” at times seems to me too small an honor for Alli, who turned 21 less than two months ago. In Modrić and Alli, at the risk of hyperbole, one can find both the present and the future of the playmaking number 10. Second, and more simply – it is just so damn joyful to watch Modrić and Alli ply their trade. The two would have undoubtedly made United a better club over the time that they would have spent in Newcastle, but even if they hadn’t, how much fun would it have been to watch Modrić, one of the most singular midfielders of the past decade, in black and white? Or Alli, whose abilities in finishing, completing through balls, and intercepting passes make it seem that he, more than most, was divinely engineered to roam the midfield?


You could be forgiven for assuming that this list would close with a warning that it be taken as a cautionary tale, that the advice being offered is to steel one’s heart against the disappointment that runs rampant through transfer season and its incessant speculation. I would, however, offer the opposite – allow yourself to be swept up in rumors, imagining how different players would fit into the current squad or alongside other rumored signees. Spend too much time watching highlight videos and digging into every player’s WhoScored history. Supporting a soccer team is, of course, a form of fandom, and as all fandom is ultimately about love, it is far better to love and lose a transfer target than to never love a transfer target at all. Welcome to Silly Season.