THE irony is that Derek Llambias leaves Newcastle United at precisely the moment when he was needed the most.
As managing director of United, he has been a forceful presence these last four years. Unvarnished, spiteful and contradictory he might have been, but by the end there did seem to be a management philosophy in place that lent an air of security and consistency to the club.
That agents who once saw Newcastle as a potentially easy ride for a client past his sell-by date no longer bothered to call was an achievement. So too were the financials that he proudly proclaimed as “boring” back in March. Thanks in part to Mike Ashley’s interest-free loans, the balance sheet was starting to look very healthy indeed.
He is also the man whose brinkmanship with Liverpool banked Newcastle an incredible – and game changing – £35m fee for Andy Carroll.
United had a management structure where roles were clear and authority delineated. There might have been tension between Alan Pardew and Graham Carr over certain players but it felt safe: there was an element of permanence about it. He enthusiastically trumpeted the eight-year deals which were to give “stability” to the club – although that may have been responsible for his downfall, with Ashley locked into them but wanting change at the top.
The worry on Tyneside yesterday was that his resignation created chaos at the top – not necessarily that they had lost a universally popular man.
Detractors rightly point to the deals that got away on account of his inflexibility. Newcastle’s manager Pardew has always been close to Llambias but even he was heard to bemoan the MD’s desire to get the “perfect deal” when United desperately needed a new striker in the 2011/12 season. It wasn’t until January that they got a new number nine, when the club nipped back in to get Papiss Cisse from Freiburg.
The treatment of Chris Hughton wasn’t particularly smart either – along with the bizarre decisions taken in the season that ended with Newcastle’s calamitous relegation. That awful campaign, when United made incorrect call after incorrect call, was the nadir of his stewardship.
But Llambias deserves credit for the hard negotiations that helped United recruit a string of gems unearthed by Carr. Yohan Cabaye (or is it Kebab these days?) was spirited away from Lyon for a song and Hatem Ben Arfa was another steal. That was canny negotiating that was admired by other clubs. Most of the players signed on his watch have appreciated significantly in value.
It is true to say that supporters never warmed to him, even if by the end he was no longer a figure of such hostility. There were the secret tapes – illicitly recorded and then reported in the Sunday Mirror – where he criticised Alan Shearer and Kevin Keegan and said “You don’t know how nasty we can be”.
Llambias was a study in contradictions. He fell out with people easily – banning one reporter recently who had always been able to pick up the phone to him – and some grudges simply never evaporated. But he was also funny, generous and decent in every one of my dealings with him.
He was sympathetic to key staff, who were asked to work hard. One said he was “very well-liked” and inspired loyalty from his staff.
He was aggressive in his attitude to those, like the Journal and its sister ‘paper the Chronicle, who refused to call St James’ Park the Sports Direct Arena. When representations were made to senior executives at ncjMedia to start naming it that it was pointed out to him that a sign on front of the stadium said something else. The next morning, it was crowbarred away.
He said he wanted Newcastle to become a global brand but the companies brought in on his watch were Sports Direct and Wonga. While other clubs – Sunderland being one – tour Asia and America in a bid to further their profile, Newcastle are nowhere to be seen.
Yet he always insisted he was a football fan at heart, and he was genuine about cheap ticket prices and investigating standing sections at St James’ Park.
Despite claims to be a Newcastle fan for life, you couldn’t help but feel life under Llambias was far from black and white.
How will it work?
JOE Kinnear made many boasts in his now infamous Talksport interview on Monday, but even he drew back before suggesting he would be in charge of the financial side of the business.
Derek Lambayzee, he claimed, would be overseeing that. Now Llambias has stepped away from the madness unfolding at St James’ Park, there are real questions about who will take on this important part of club business.
Whatever Mike Ashley has seen in his meetings with Kinnear at the Orange Tree pub in Totteridge, it cannot have been a head for figures.
Mangling the size of the fees that he commanded for a number of Wimbledon players on Monday night seemed to confirm that he does not have an accountant’s eye for numbers.
Who, too, will be in charge of negotiations for players now that Llambias has gone? For all his foibles, the managing director was known by agents, chairman and rival clubs.
Just recently he had worked with Randy Lerner on a deal for Darren Bent that required absolute silence on the part of both clubs – prompting much frustration when news of the interest leaked last week.
Can Kinnear do that? Is he really up to scratch enough to start operating with MDs that belong to a different era from him?
The thought is a shuddering one. Surely Ashley must act now to bring in another man in the administration side of the business, or even promote or re-assign duties to someone else working at St James’ Park.
The way the structure works is now key to everything. Sources close to Alan Pardew said yesterday that he would wait to see what duties Kinnear tried to assume when pre-season starts. He did not like the sound of Kinnear travelling to every game.
Directors of football are nothing new in football. One Championship DOF told The Journal the structure at his club was simple: he was on tandem with the manager, but reported to the chief executive and the board, who reported to the owner.
Any complaints, problems or issues could be passed along that chain of command. The chief executive was responsible for contracts, although he negotiated, pressed the flesh and made the calls.
A similar structure would work at Newcastle, but – he reckoned – the key thing required for any DOF was the ability to maintain good relationships with everybody, from fans through to media. That is the challenge for Kinnear – and whoever comes in.