Does Financial Fair Play mean Newcastle United have to settle for what they have?

By most measures, Newcastle United are about where they should be. Is that it then, asks Stuart Rayner

Newcastle United season ticket
Newcastle United season ticket

If Sunderland dared to dream last weekend, life as a Newcastle United supporter seems to be about knowing your place.

Every now and then noises come out of the club that they are striving to better themselves, but the over-riding feeling is the Magpies believe they are where they should be and that will do.

“If I don’t strive to improve on (fifth in the Premier League), what is the point?” manager Alan Pardew asked before last month’s predictable hammering at Stamford Bridge.

“Everyone at this club wants to finish as high up the Premier League table as they possibly can,” read a statement explaining the recent £9.9m post-tax profits.

However, actions speak louder than words.

Staring at the chance to push for Europe at the turn of the year, Newcastle blinked. Yohan Cabaye was sold – undersold some feel – and a squad in need of reinforcement gained only an on-loan striker lacking match practice. It appeared they were afraid to take the next step.

While the Magpies tread water, Mike Ashley continues to prosper.

In the result he was most interested in this week, MASH Holdings’ annual profits almost doubled.

MASH Holdings is United’s parent company, 100% owned by Ashley. Its profits jumped from £130.6m to £256.4m on the back of the success of its main brand Sports Direct, whose share price has gone up 75% in that time.

While clubs such as Manchester City are using their owner’s companies to progress, at Newcastle the reverse seems true. Sports Direct’s free advertising makes Newcastle look more like a marketing vehicle than a competitive sports team.

Not that Ashley could just throw money willy-nilly at his football team if he wanted to. That was the story of the first decade of the new Millennium. Uefa’s new crusade, Financial Fair Play, is meant to put a stop to the likes of Roman Abramovich and Sheikh Mansour flexing their financial muscle on the football field.

Whether it will or not is another matter, but if the rules Michel Platini and his team have created are adhered to, clubs will have to be run like businesses not playthings – at least if they ever want to play in European competition and, to a lesser extent, the Premier League.

So does Financial Fair Play (FFP) mean future league tables will just be ordered according to which teams have the most money?

While the Champions League clubs’ monopoly of the top end of the table will be well buttressed, research by behindthebalancesheet.com suggests there is cause for hope yet.

This week’s eye-watering figures from Queens Park Rangers reinforced the point. The West London club made a complete Rs of last season and could yet do the same again this.

The best statistic in the darkly comic financial figures from Loftus Road showed last season QPR, at £68m, had a higher wage bill than Borussia Dortmund’s. Dortmund reached the European Cup final, hammering Real Madrid on the way.

After spending £41.4m on transfer fees, QPR finished bottom of the Premier League.

Nine points off the Championship’s second promotion place, Harry Redknapp’s side are £177.1m in debt.

It is a warning to any club tempted to overstretch, a textbook example of what Platini and Uefa are out to stop. Ashley is too shrewd to ignore it as Tony Fernandes did.

Yet if the rich teams can fall from grace like that, someone will have to take their place.

The mishmash of lines in the website financialfairplay.co.uk’s wages-to-points table on the right illustrates how many clubs did not perform as their bank balance suggests they ought to last season.

The overall trend of the wage-to-points calculation is that the Premier League is more competitive than it ought to be, even if it is not as even as most neutrals would like.

The table on the left is from 2010-11 and gives a better indication of the bang teams got for their buck.

The further to the right of the line, the more a team under-performed in relation to its wage bill. No club is further left than Newcastle, who finished fifth that season.

According to financialfairplay.co.uk, eight-placed Newcastle are just short of where they should be.

It estimated the Magpies’ wage bill for this season at £68m (£61.7m in last month’s official figures), the seventh highest in the division.

The hand of FFP can be seen in how Newcastle spend their money.

Cash has been ploughed into the training ground – undersoil heating installed in 2011 and a total revamp is planned this summer – because such costs are exempt from FFP.

The fondness for long contracts helps massage the figures too. The cost of players is calculated per year of their contract, rather than the lump sum paid. Even though £28.7m was spent on players in the last financial year with £11.1m coming in, “amortisation” saw that figure presented as a £10.6m profit.

Even being the fourth most indebted club in last season’s Premier League (according to debt.co.uk/football/) is not a major problem.

Uefa are relaxed about debts, so long as they can be serviced. Newcastle’s is only to Ashley and interest-free with no payment timetable.

Uefa are investigating 76 of this season’s 237 Champions and Europa League participants for failing to comply with FFP but, apart from the absence of a general manager post-Joe Kinnear, it seems Newcastle are in good shape to play European football next season. The big question is, do they really want to?

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer