IN the end, it all comes down to the question of direction. Are Newcastle United simply happy to tread water in the Premier League, to bob along in the top flight and stay out of the relegation zone? Or is the five-year plan to “challenge for everything” that Derek Llambias spoke of in 2009 still on track?
The inability to secure a striker of international pedigree to fill the sizeable void left by Andy Carroll – assuming Demba Ba was not earmarked for that role – has led to many questioning whether United are now married to the idea of mediocrity.
The stated aim, behind the scenes and by Alan Pardew in public, is to break into the top ten this season. But every club that waltzed into the top half last year had a couple of strikers capable of notching double figures – something that is arguably lacking in Newcastle’s current squad.
The number nine remains void too, having supposedly been offered to Kevin Gameiro and Mevlüt Erdinç as an enticement to bring them to St James’ Park – moves that were scuppered by negotiating tactics that mothballed both moves.
So what is in it for Mike Ashley to own a football club that has little prospect of pushing for major honours or European qualification in the near future? Can it really be much fun to have to batten down the hatches with such frequency – and where has the football fan in the Hertfordshire millionaire disappeared to?
All questions that will go unanswered because the owner will not give interviews, something that shows absolutely no sign of changing despite the fresh wave of disappointment prompted by the failure to land another striker this summer.
Senior boardroom sources in contact with The Journal talked of a “structure” that United did not want to deviate from, and scoffed at the idea that Queen’s Park Rangers would sign players like Shaun Wright-Phillips in the dog days of their career on long, expensive contracts.
The club’s top power brokers continue to have faith in a philosophy that lends heavily on youth, keeps costs trimmed to the minimum and sees them roll back from any deals that they don’t believe represent value for money.
So, while there was a budget there for the striker, the club hierarchy argue that there would have been no sense in splashing the £10million set aside for eventual Fulham signing Bryan Ruiz on Modibo Maïga, a player they didn’t believe was worth that sort of cash.
Those same figures are prepared to take the flak because they are married to the idea that three or four years down the line Newcastle will be stronger for it, with the era of responsibility being ushered in by Uefa’s financial fair play rules meaning the largesse of a Liverpool or Manchester City would be pointless. Laudable enough, but if all supporters can see is good, established players being peddled while the club haggle over a million here or a million there, they will naturally question it.
And when the club will not communicate that openly they are fighting a tough battle to convince anyone that it is not just a way to run the club on the cheap, keeping their heads above water and the club out of the Championship for as long as they can. The story of the striker hunt during the summer transfer window has been one of fraught negotiations and promises that were ultimately not kept.
The club banked £35million for Andy Carroll and, while they point out that has been reinvested, many fans are pointing to their Wearside neighbours and wondering why they can make a late bid for Nicklas Bendtner while Newcastle can’t.
The answer lies in Newcastle’s definition of value for money. In the boardroom they like nothing more than signing a player who appreciates significantly in terms of price as soon as he walks through the dressing room door.
Hence why Yohan Cabaye – a steal at £4million – is such a shining example of the success of Newcastle’s approach. United could demand double that if he maintains his steep Premier League progress and the same is true of Cheick Tioté.
By contrast the sell-on value of a Wes Brown or a John O’Shea is virtually zero given their age and the length of contract that Sunderland have handed to them. But their experience and proven quality enhances the Black Cats’ chances of reaching the same top ten and beyond destination that United aspire to.
In 2009, Llambias gave an exclusive and wide-ranging interview to the local media in which he talked of a “five-year plan”.
The idea was that the rebuilding process would be a gradual one but that the club would be in a position to challenge for every trophy under the sun by 2014.
It was a statement made after Manchester City’s Abu Dhabi takeover but during the recession which saw the retail sector tumble, and before the likes of Liverpool and Stoke began to speculate to accumulate.
United are considering whether to issue a fresh bulletin to point out their aims and objectives and to highlight the progress made by the club over the last 18 months but, for many, it will be too little, too late. Trust has run out and supporters who deserve better cry out for communication from the very top.
It is a depressing scenario. But worst of all, few fans expected it to be different as dawn broke on September 1.