Friday, November 11, 2011

Newcastle United: to survive or thrive?

Newcastle United has turned from second-tier basket case to Premier League overachiever in the space of two years. It is no doubt thanks to owner Mike Ashley, managers past and present (Chris Hughton and Alan Pardew) and perhaps most encouragingly, the skills and snout of chief scout Graham Carr.

Carr, the father of comic Alan Carr, has scoured France and allowed the club to bring in excellent players at cost-effective prices. The two key names secured upon return to the Premier League were Cheick Tiote and Hatem Ben-Arfa; they have since been joined by Sylvan Marveaux of Rennes and, perhaps most beneficially, France International midfielder Yohan Cabaye, late of Lille.

While there are many Francophones now residing Tyneside, there's more than just that to the Newcastle French Connection. Newcastle's transfer dealings so imitated those of Ligue 1 club Lyon that Newcastle blogger Kris Heneage immortalized the link in this post two days ago. In it, he describes Lyon President Jean-Michel Aulas' planning behind a successful football club, business and pitch-wise.

The principles laid out are sound in theory, but would be difficult to implement in practice. But this isn't Ashley's - or Aulas' - problem, but that of their manager. The rules are business-smart and also give supporters consistency in expectation.  However, the points could doom a club into setting their own level, as if achievement is desirable, but merely a by-product.

Indeed, in many ways  - especially satisfying alleged "problem players" - Newcastle seem to have implemented these statutes more effectively than Olympique Lyonnais. The Toon Army sits in third place in the Premier League, but is still yet to play the Manchester twins, City and United, as well as Chelsea. It's probable that Tiote and Cabaye will have more illustrious suitors - Manchester United could maybe use them both - and the monies received for Andy Carroll make that deal look like a magnificent decision from the boardroom.

Does this platform work? As a league superpower - as Lyon are, but Newcastle aren't - unquestionably. It also helps if your city is a beautiful, luxuriant metropolis in the south of France. Can the same be said of the a chilly outpost in England's northeast?

It would stand to reason that every club obeys a subset of these rules. Every player, outside perhaps Lionel Messi, has his price. Cristiano Ronaldo's was 80 million pounds, Fernando Torres' about two-thirds of that. Sir Alex Ferguson could perhaps even get a bunch of rocks and $20 for Michael Carrick. Even when the money offered is silly; it would be idiotic to refuse it.

But basing a club's economy significantly on the sale of their best players - even when already possessing replacements - can make a club more fiscally secure in the short term, at least as long as the overall talent level is maintained.  Should the scouting fail or injuries hit - c.f. Wigan Athletic - the club could face an uphill battle to meet even modest expectation. From a mid-table side, the model also, however, fails to capture the imagination.  This inspiration is so important in sport, but now may become a thing of the past.  In many cases unbridled, fantastical hopes for one's team are now a thing for Football Manager games rather than reality.

Reducing a club's "achievement ceiling" means setting a level where they can expect to be consistent EPL performers barring unforeseen circumstances. This is what adept businesspeople do: control those circumstances under their control.  But if a club constantly loses their best talent, the best result they can expect is for a strong Cup run and top-ten finish.

Would supporters trade a good Cup run and, best-case, a Europa League campaign for the hopes that accompany retaining their best players?  Good question.  Certainly the pointy-heads in accounting would prefer this model; but fans' hopes are given an upper boundary - for better or worse.  Now re-born after a period in the Championship, NUFC supporters might be the best ones to answer this question: would they trade this new team of Cabaye, Marveaux, Tiote and Ben-Arfa for a golden age of Michael Owen, Mark Viduka and Alan Smith?  The full truth probably won't be evident until that time when (if?) these new Toon stars are enticed to pastures new.

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