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Newcastle United, Mike Ashley, and the Myth of the “Big Club”

Looking at the state of a club seemingly lacking direction

Sunderland v Newcastle United - Premier League Photo by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images

He’ll be like a new signing.

This is a joke among football fans, one that seems to resonate strongly with Newcastle supporters and flies over the heads of management as they continue to use it in earnest.

Newcastle management and supporters alike have used this phrase at the end of multiple transfer windows, management try and cover the lack of interest in growing the club and supporters as a way of sarcastically deriding ownership. We’ve heard this used to describe Siem de Jong, Shane Ferguson, Jonás Gutiérrez, Sylvain Marveaux and Emmanuel Rivière, among others, over the past half a decade, and I am now left spending most of my time thinking about Newcastle wondering who this year’s “like a new signing” will be hung on: could it be Rolando Aarons, newly fit and looking like he has John Wick levels of unfinished business to settle? Maybe we will see Aleksander Mitrović, still only 22, live up to his potential? Or maybe Siem de Jong will be a repeat winner, having failed to break his femur so far this preseason?

Preston North End v Newcastle United - Pre Season Friendly
Two potential “like a new signing” candidates
Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

I’m spending this time thinking about who United management will present to us as a new signing come the end of the transfer window a full month before the window closes because we are now a decade into Mike Ashley’s tenure as Newcastle United’s owner and because, as a result, I know better than to assume there will be a great uptick on activity in the month remaining. In the seven years since Newcastle’s last promotion to the Premier League, the club has done approximately two-thirds of its summer window business before July 31, with the significant majority of big money acquisitions coming in that time.

This week, multiple pieces of news relating to Newcastle’s transfer business have come out, and none of them have been particularly positive, top of that list being Arsenal’s valuation of Lucas Perez at £13.4 million and Newcastle’s refusal to meet that estimation. The merits of splashing cash on Perez have been expounded upon on this website, so I will not focus on this but rather on what it means to stay inactive. In this window, United has been outspent by West Bromwich Albion, West Ham and Leicester City; additionally, Bournemouth, Wolverhampton and Middlesbrough have all spent more on single players than Newcastle has on their top signing Jacob Murphy. Rafa claimed at the beginning of the window that he hoped to bring in 8-12 new signings; on August 1, only three senior players new to the club have been presented.

We have been told that the money simply isn’t there for transfers to take place, which doesn’t hold up to strict scrutiny: over the past three transfer windows (including the current one), Newcastle has made around £16 million more than it has spent. In a world without a salary cap where the only limits on club spending are Financial Fair Play and the club’s willingness to spend, it is increasingly clear that it is the later that is the limiting factor in Newcastle’s transfer activity and club investment. In 2015/16, the relegation season, Newcastle United had the ninth-highest revenue in the Premier League, yet sat 16th in wages.

There are certainly excuses for this, including Ashley’s retail business, Sports Direct, reporting a significant drop in earnings related to Brexit and the devaluation of the pound. This news could explain rumors of Ashley hearing bids for the club, including from Chinese investment groups. What this doesn’t explain, however, is the repeated pattern of overpromising and underdelivering by Newcastle ownership with regard to the club’s ambition in English football.

Bradford City v Newcastle United - Pre Season Friendly Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

When players do sign with Newcastle and the club does its official releases to the press, there are a number of things we as supporters can count on: we will see the new boy posing in the tunnel, holding up a scarf on the pitch at St. James’, and, while being interviewed by Newcastle staff, they will glow about the opportunity to play for such a “big” or “massive” club as Newcastle, an opportunity too important to pass on. This is said in every interview using almost the exact same phrasing, as though management, through the mouths of their new players, want to convince supporters that Newcastle is still a massive and relevant club in world soccer.

It isn’t, and that’s because Mike Ashley has decided that it isn’t.

“Big clubs” win. “Big clubs” get deals done. Chelsea’s negotiations with Real Madrid and Alvaro Morata were said to take around four hours to complete. “Big clubs” identify needs and pay market value to get gaps filled. Arsenal has only brought in one player, but it was a world class talent at a position of dire need. This has less to do with spending for spending’s sake and everything to do with being a club assured of its status and what is required to hold that status.

Over the past year and a half, there has been another reason that players have given when asked why they joined Newcastle United: that the opportunity to play for a manager like Rafa Benítez doesn’t come around too often, and is one that any player in the world should take when presented. The same can be said for Newcastle, as a manager of Rafa’s caliber offering his services to a club destined for relegation, then staying with the club when playing outside of the top flight, is simply unprecedented. Newcastle United and Mike Ashley have a decision to make: is the club, and all of its debts and assets, merely a piece of Ashley’s greater portfolio, meant to absorb the hits of his other failed ventures? Or is it an investment, with his role as owner including a duty as caretaker of the club’s legacy, ensuring that Newcastle remain a major club in world football? The answer is certain to determine the fates of both Benítez and Newcastle United, but refusing to answer, as has been the case thus far, is likely far more damaging.