The opening weeks of the summer transfer window have been bewilderingly event-filled for fans of Newcastle United. In contrast to the club’s modus operandi since time immemorial, they appear to be set on getting their business done early. Whether that means having a settled squad turn up on the first day of pre-season is anyone’s guess, late-window sales of course not being ruled out by an early start. It’s a welcome change though, too many times we’ve watched as United have dithered while time ticked by, ending in either securing nobody or panicking and paying over the odds for unsuitable recruits as other options evaporated.
The signings of Yohan Cabaye, Demba Ba and Sylvain Marveaux all look to be improvements to the squad, though there are injury doubts over two of the three. For a side finishing last season most in need of strengthening in midfield and up front, all provide new options where they are required. As ever though, simple pleasure at the club’s impressive capture of these players would not be possible without it also being soured for many by club captain Kevin Nolan leaving for West Ham and the seemingly impending departures of two more of last-season’s stand-out performers, Joey Barton and Jose Enrique.
The sale of Nolan and that possibly of Barton are both superficially explained by them wanting improvements to their contracts which the club was not prepared to give. Both Nolan and Barton are approaching 30 and seeking top contracts taking them way past that, by which time they will undoubtedly be in decline. Enrique appears to wish to leave to better himself. On that basis it makes a certain sense to sell and recoup some value rather than have them leave for nothing. In a footballing sense too, their departures wouldn’t be the disaster many paint the prospect to be, as although each had a fine season just gone, none of them are without weakness, or even irreplaceable. For all Nolan scored most of our goals last season, his presence would have been a major block on attempts to improve. His lack of mobility means good teams just pass it around us. Every single player needs to be able and willing to press the opposition all over the pitch for every minute of each game. Someone to replace him would need to get a fair portion of his goals and contribute more in terms of passing and mobility though, no mean feat. Barton has had one good season so far out of four since signing in 2007, injury and unavailability for selection being the major reasons for this. Is anyone convinced that he has left those days behind him? Finally Enrique, though one of our better players both in defence and attack, still makes catastrophic errors in dangerous areas and shows no sign of changing this. It would be surprising for this reason if he left for one of the top clubs to play at the very highest level. If someone else wishes to pay us a lot of money for him I’d be tempted to take it, especially if he wants to go.
Overcritical? Possibly. But these players are paid towards the top end of the wage scale for the Premier League and the club also need to get value for money. If they aren’t the very best we can get for the wages paid then that is another reason to allow them to leave. If they are overpaid then that leaves less money in the budget, whatever that budget may be, to get the best new recruits we can.
All this may merely be a convenient truth however. Mike Ashley strikes me as someone who would not appreciate a contingent of players presenting themselves to his Managing Director to criticise his decisions, as they did in December following Hughton’s sacking and Pardew’s appointment. He may feel the powerful ‘senior players’ bloc at the club needs breaking up. As well as the 3 transfers mentioned, there have also been rumours of Alan Smith leaving, this time unarguably the right thing to do when measuring his contribution to the team against his wages. But that would leave only Steve Harper of the original group, increasingly under pressure from younger men and his demotion from first choice surely something to happen in the short term, possibly next season. Though Ashley may not like it, the influence of these men contributed enormously to the spirit and resilience which was largely responsible for the club’s comfortable survival last term. The ideal scenario would be to allow them to leave gradually as they individually lose their importance to the side, enabling the spirit they engender in others to persist.
It’s easy to panic and get uptight about sales. Nolan’s sale covers the cost of all our new recruits so far. With the spectre of Andy Carroll’s departure and the unused funds hanging over us, suspicion of Ashley’s motives won’t go away. If the sale of our core of influential players is all about destroying the influence itself, then that cannot be good. However, if that’s not the case then it’s true that these players are overpaid for what they are and it makes sense to move them on if, and it’s a big if, they can be replaced with similar quality at a cheaper price. So long as Ashley’s cost-cutting is in the context of improving the team or replacing those leaving with similar quality, it’s not just acceptable to do so but a no-brainer.