Two more players in and Newcastle United are hopeful of a third addition before Monday. Mark Douglas reports on a surprisingly upbeat transfer window for the Championship leaders.
IT would be over-stepping the mark to suggest Newcastle United’s flurry of signings has rehabilitated the Mike Ashley regime but the club’s January business represents comfortably the best transfer window of his controversial stewardship.
Yesterday’s loan captures of Fitz Hall and Patrick van Aanholt were low-key but news of a £2million bid for the brilliant Victor Moses – on the back of a substantial outlay for Wayne Routledge and Mike Williamson – has generated enthusiasm among a support used to crushing disappointment at this time of year.
Talk of a thaw in the icy relations between supporters and the owner is premature. A recent of survey of more than 5,000 supporters carried out by the growing Newcastle United Supporters Trust found 96% unhappy with his leadership and a similar number doubting the ‘five-year plan’ that Derek Llambias talked of last year. There is clearly still a mountain of work to be done to win over supporters who have watched with horror at the string of calamitous decisions that landed United in the Championship in the first place. Some will never be placated, believing his regime to be forever tarnished by the shoddy handling of a proud club and two of its iconic sons, Alan Shearer and Kevin Keegan.
They have a point. It does not pour whitewash on the substantial mistakes he has made but Ashley and the steady Chris Hughton deserve a dash of credit for the way they have manoeuvred during a notoriously treacherous month.
There is always a worry under the unpredictable owner that he may be preparing the way for something unpalatable – like flogging one of the players who have mounted a spirited campaign to return United to the Premier League. But Hughton strenuously reaffirmed there would be no surprise January sales yesterday to cover the disparity between Championship income and United’s huge wage bill.
It has been a long time coming but if nothing else it illustrates that complacency is off the agenda in the boardroom. Hughton desperately needed reinforcements and this time – unlike 12 months ago when they failed to re-stock sufficiently for the relegation battle ahead – he has been granted the funds to do it in good time.
There is evidence, too, that some mistakes have been heeded – particularly the practice of paying way over the odds to reinforce.
There was wailing and gnashing of teeth over the loss of Jermaine Beckford but United stuck to their valuation of a player who, at the relatively mature age of 26, has never scored a goal above League One level. Hughton could have turned to Marlon Harewood as a replacement and while the striker probably would have weighed in with a few goals in the run-in, the manager’s hesitancy illustrated that he was far from sold on the veteran forward.
That is because he had astutely concluded that United require an injection of pace. It has not harmed them unduly this season but the team does not possess the threat of a West Brom or a Nottingham Forest, able to break with speed and punish ponderous opponents. Looking at the explosive Moses or the rapid James Vaughan is proof that Hughton is not resting on his laurels.
If United did manage to prise Moses from Palace – and keep him out of the grasp of Premier League sides and the two teams jostling for position alongside them at the top of the Championship it would be a statement of intent.
There are justifiable concerns that United’s signings are all from the Championship rather than the division they hope to be playing in next season but Hughton defends the policy of bolstering the squad with hardened second tier know-how. “Our efforts to sign Moses at centre forward and Wayne Routledge and the rest of our transfer policy is a combination of buying for now and for the future,” he said.
“We know the most important thing is about this season and what we need this season to maintain where we are and of course to get promotion. But there has also been an eye on the future. I think whenever a situation comes up with any individual players, you have to make a judgement. We had the possibility of bringing Wayne Routledge in and it was deemed by us all to be a good decision for the future as well as it is for now.
“These are players of a good age, a group of players we can also look to the future.”
It is still a long way back for Ashley, and concerns remain about the unorthodox way he operates.
Is there a long term plan in place in case United get back to the top flight? And have the club’s power brokers heeded the need for “root and branch reform” that Shearer talked of in the wake of relegation? Will he look to sell again if promotion is assured?
But Hughton appears to have developed a decent working relationship with the owner and the fact that he is actively searching for a new chief scout illustrates the laying of some foundations at St James’ Park.
If optimism is guarded on the terraces, it has been renewed in the dressing room by the calibre of the reinforcements signed. Jonás Gutiérrez, one of the key men in the club’s ascent of the Championship, has welcomed the additions.
“We have eight games in the next four weeks and it is vital we strengthen the squad,” he said. “We have brought in four players this week and that is good news for all of us. We have been lucky to avoid injuries for most of the season but in the last couple of weeks it seems like every game there is another player who has a new problem.
“The players talk about being back in the Premier League. We know there is along way to go this season but we do speak about promotion.”