JANUARY 31 is a date forever etched in Alan Pardew’s memory.
It is the day that Andy Carroll was smuggled out of the North East in Mike Ashley’s helicopter and Pardew, who had delivered constant assurances about the striker, was forced to front up to disgruntled Newcastle supporters.
One of his hardest days, Pardew subsequently said – and he made another crack about it yesterday.
That Carroll business means that Newcastle fans will always fear the January transfer window but is it obscuring the bigger picture – namely that United have actually got pretty darned good at manoeuvring during this month.
Think about it for a minute. While the Carroll switch prompted raw emotion across Tyneside, it proved spectacularly successful business for the club – who proved they knew the value they were getting by accepting Liverpool’s eye-watering £35m offer.
Last year the signing of Papiss Cissé paved the way for a spring assault on the Champions League places and this month, United secured the signing of five internationals for just shy of £20m.
Perhaps it is the case that Newcastle’s transfer team operate best in the slightly more urgent environment of the January window than they do in the summer, when selling clubs have the luxury of time to smoke out interest in their players. It helps that Newcastle’s extensive contacts in their target markets of France, Belgium and Holland are consistently coming through for them. Agent trouble might have torpedoed the Loïc Rémy deal, but they have a couple of fixers across the Channel who are worth their weight in gold – and they were well primed to move in January.
Combine that with a policy of aggressively targeting players coming to the end of their contracts and it is clear that January is a fertile market for Newcastle.
In years to come, United will point to the Moussa Sissoko deal as proof that their extensive work in France has been worth it. By the start of January they were among eight clubs watching Toulouse’s game against Saint-Étienne, and when Sissoko delivered a man-of-the-match performance his representatives were approached by all eight.
By then it was a done deal, though. United had sewn him up and all that background work – the wining and dining process that began three years ago – gave them a massive head-start.
Newcastle needed it, for their effectiveness in January is not yet matched by their summer work. Left short of numbers and quality, United found themselves fighting a relegation battle and Mike Ashley’s largesse was sorely required. It should see them right. Given the frenetic business being done around the country, the North East was something of an oasis of calm yesterday.
Both Premier League clubs had fixed up the majority of their signings long before the final hours of the transfer window and that represents a ringing endorsement of their recruitment methods.
Last-minute deals might fill space in the Sky Sports News schedule but they have a habit of backfiring on buying clubs. Think Carroll and Fernando Torres but also cast your mind back to Shefki Kuqi, Wayne Bridge, Sotirios Kyrgiakos and Stephen Ireland.
All of these players were picked up in the final hours of the transfer window (or later, in the case of free agent Kuqi) to provide support for the squad simply because they were available. Their subsequent departures went unlamented.
So while it is pleasing to report that none of the region’s marquee names were smuggled out of the North East during the month, it is equally encouraging to see sound and extensive planning underpinning the transfer strategies of both clubs.
These days targets are well-researched and there is a purpose behind every single recruit. Newcastle and Sunderland recruit players to take the team forward, rather than names to sell shirts.
On Wearside, it makes a refreshing change from the days when Steve Bruce presided over an ever-changing cast of players. He was fond of ‘spinning plates’ in the transfer market and his mobile phone was red-hot during a month spent making constant inquiries to rival bosses.
The logic that underpinned that approach was that the window was fluid and that a player out of Sunderland’s reach on January 1 might suddenly become available 29 days later. Sometimes it worked but it was chaotic and unsettling for some of the squad.
By the end of his reign it grew wearisome for Ellis Short, too, who comes from a industry where accountability is king. He has enjoyed working with Martin O’Neill, who presents ambitious targets to him but is consistent about the positions that need strengthening.
It is why late talk of a move for Junior Hoilett – whose agent was putting him in to every Premier League club – was never going to materialise. Sunderland liked him in the summer but O’Neill was not going to sanction an expensive late move for a player the club doesn’t really need.
Instead he has utilised contacts in France and Africa to source Alfred N’Diaye (pictured left) and Kader Mangane – while returning to a market he knows well to secure the signature of Danny Graham. All three add something that Sunderland did not have on January 1, and their recruitment seems to make sense. N’Diaye is young, raw and full of promise – and early observations on the Sunderland training ground have been promising.
Mangane needs to build up his fitness but he also adds physical presence to a defence that has sometimes proved error-prone. A loan deal gives Sunderland an easy opt-out in the summer.
As for Graham, it is by far the most intriguing deal of all. The feelings of a minority of supporters who jeered his introduction on Tuesday have been effectively dismissed by O’Neill. It remains to be seen whether the manager will be similarly bold in his formations from here on in. Stephen Fletcher is known to favour playing as a pair up front, and in Graham he could have the perfect foil.
The Gateshead-born striker certainly hasn’t come to warm the bench, which opens the possibility of a more offensive Black Cats strategy from here on in. Given the way things have unfolded at times this season, that makes sense – as did most of the month’s business.