This is where it all starts for Newcastle United. Sunday’s clash against Tottenham Hotspur at St James’ Park is the day when the fight to avoid relegation from the Premier League really begins.
Forget, for a moment, all of the hype and speculation about transfer spending and the game’s biggest stars now being attracted to the club following their recent takeover as they attempt to take the same shortcut to success as Chelsea, Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain. The truth right now is that Newcastle are one of the weakest teams in the Premier League and the January transfer window may yet bring as many problems as solutions.
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The past 10 days have brought a whirlwind of excitement and anticipation among Newcastle supporters following the completion of a £305 million takeover which now sees 80% of the club owned by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund whose chair is Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The Premier League has been given “legally binding assurances” that the Saudi state will not control affairs at Newcastle, but one thing is now certain at St James’: the days of austerity and stagnation under previous owner Mike Ashley are now over, with the new regime promising big investment on and off the pitch and declaring ambitions of bringing silverware and Champions League football back to one of England’s best-supported teams. But the return of Premier League action this weekend should bring a cold dose of reality to all connected with Newcastle, including their new owners.
Newcastle go into Sunday’s game against Spurs still waiting for their first win of the season in any competition, having already been knocked out of the Carabao Cup at the first hurdle by Burnley. Steve Bruce’s team — though it appears a matter of time before Bruce is relieved of his duties as manager by the new regime — sit 19th out of 20 clubs in the Premier League table, having collected three points from a possible 21 so far (via three draws). They have managed just eight goals in seven games and conceded 16, with forwards Callum Wilson and Allan Saint-Maximin leading the scoring charts with two goals apiece.
So in short, Newcastle are where they deserve to be. Their squad is desperately lacking in quality, with only Saint-Maximin likely to come even close to being good enough to attract the attention of a Champions League club. The opening of the winter transfer window on Jan. 1 can’t come quickly enough for Newcastle, but before then, they have a run of 13 league games which sees them face Spurs, Chelsea, Arsenal, Leicester City, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Everton. On the basis of that run of fixtures, Newcastle are likely to still be in relegation trouble by the time January arrives and that will only make it more difficult to attract the players required to keep them in the division.
Premier League transfer rules relating profitability and sustainability, a complex formula which attempts to prevent clubs from spending excessively beyond what they earn from traditional revenue streams, ensure that Newcastle will be unable to launch an unfettered spending spree in January without risk of sanction down the line.
Chelsea and City, following the respective takeovers by Roman Abramovich in 2003 and Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan five years later, hugely ramped up their spending in the early days under new ownership. Both spent in excess of £250m on new players in the first two years and success followed quickly. Chelsea were already a Champions League team when Abramovich arrived and City were an established mid-table Premier League club when Sheikh Mansour took over, so attracting players was easy for those clubs at a time when financial regulations were not in place to limit transfer outlay.
Newcastle have the dual problem of being restricted by spending limits at the same time as having to add to a squad in relegation trouble, so it will be much more difficult to follow the same path as Chelsea and City. When they get to January, Newcastle will quickly discover that players already well-paid elsewhere will not want to risk a relegation battle with a team that will take perhaps three to four transfer windows to become competitive. A move to Newcastle in January may bring the promise of regular football and a big pay rise, but there will be no Champions League football on the horizon until August 2023 at the earliest, and that is an extremely optimistic scenario, so the top players will opt to sit and wait until Newcastle becomes a team capable of attracting them to St James’ Park.
If Newcastle employ the best scouts and advisors, they will realise that January will be about signing a certain type of player; those with experience, quality and the hunger to help turn the situation around. But they will also encounter agents and clubs who want to offload players who will put financial motivation ahead of playing ambition and end up with those they can’t rely on to deliver when it really matters.
After signing Robinho for a British-record £32.5m from Real Madrid on the day of their takeover on Sept. 1, 2008, City’s new Abu Dhabi owners made more pragmatic moves in their first winter window in January 2009, spending £49m on players including Craig Bellamy, Wayne Bridge, Shay Given and Nigel de Jong. They were signings designed to take City to the next level — sensible and smart acquisitions which made the team better.
That is what Newcastle must do in January. Forget the headline-grabbing pursuits of Erling Haaland or Kylian Mbappe — come back in three years, perhaps — and focus on players who will make them better and save them from relegation.
It may not be a glamorous blueprint for a club with ambitious new owners, but if they get it wrong in January, Newcastle could be the richest club in the Championship this time next year.