Before a ball is kicked, here is a key Premier League date to mark on your diary next season: December 12.
It looks nondescript: a festive Friday half-way through next year’s top flight campaign. Nothing will have been settled and Christmas, as we found out at St James’ Park and the Stadium of Light last season, can lead us to jump to false conclusions. But all of the key power brokers in the Premier League will be awaiting it with anticipation.
December 12 is the midwinter point of the season when the top flight authorities expect to announce which clubs have breached their own version of Financial Fair Play. With points deductions and massive fines in the offing for transgressors, it could be a defining moment in the history of the league.
It is also the most relevant answer to the oft-repeated question that reverberates around Tyneside: why won’t someone spot the latent potential of Newcastle United and buy out Mike Ashley?
A question that has been on the lips of United fans since Ashley’s reign first ran into turbulence in 2008, is currently being voiced in England’s second city, where Randy Lerner has heeded calls from Aston Villa supporters and placed the club on the market.
The weariness was etched all over Lerner’s statement confirming the sale. “The last several seasons have been week-in, week-out battles,” he said. Those are sentiments that many in the North East, bruised and battered by a season that has curdled into discontent, would surely recognise.
And the interest in events in Birmingham should not end there for Newcastle supporters, for this is the first major club to go on the market (officially at least) in the era of Financial Fair Play. With so little incentive for a big backer to come in, it will be intriguing to see what kind of interest Lerner gets in Villa.
It is six years now since Ashley first put Newcastle on the market and in hindsight, that might have been the last time for a decade or so when a rich benefactor with eyes on creating a Manchester City-style project might have seen the potential of the Magpies.
Back then, a tycoon with an unlimited budget could have supplied a transfer warchest of hundreds of millions, if he was so minded, in a push for the top four without any threat of sanctions from the authorities.
Sound deluded? It shouldn’t because that is exactly what Lerner did, supplying Villa’s then-boss Martin O’Neill with the funds to launch a £200million assault on the top four. They came up just shy, Lerner’s largesse was dwarfed by new riches at Manchester City, and Villa’s dream turned into a grinding reality. If he has his way, it will end this summer.
But why would anyone try to do it when FFP makes it so difficult to quickly catch up? From this year, clubs will only be allowed to post losses of £15million over three seasons – or face a points deduction. A generous owner can combat that in the short-term by turning his own investment into equity but from 2016, even that won’t be a defence – the ceiling for losses will be £105million over three seasons. That is why United are justifiably proud of turning around their financial situation. Their accounts mean that December 12 will pass without incident for them, and they will be free to compete in Europe – if they so wish.
But it is also why Ashley does not anticipate any interest in Newcastle United this or in future summers.
Even if there are prospective owners out there, the new regulations are a fly in the ointment when it comes to selling clubs of substance.
Former Aston Villa boss Graham Taylor was on Tyneside last week at a Nike-sponsored sportsman’s lunch, and knows all about the potential of a sleeping giant. His take is that in the boardrooms of Premier League clubs outside the top four, they are fully aware that the regulations make a difference. “Financial Fair Play does change the landscape, there is no doubt,” he said.
“Supporters have to understand you can no longer do what Randy did when he first arrived at Villa and invest such huge sums in the team.
“We now have a limit as to how much these people can put a club into debt without incurring serious sanctions.
“When you start to take on some of these owners in a financial sense, it doesn’t necessarily mean you are going to win. It’s going to be very difficult to catch up.”
It is this sort of logic that has informed some of Ashley’s decisions in the last few months. It is also why the club continue to insist they are building for a long-term, sustainable future rather than aping Lerner and looking for any kind of public escape route.
That does not mean things are not happening in the background. The Journal understands that someone with knowledge of Newcastle United and Premier League affairs claimed on Monday, in a rather off-hand sort of way, that the club is up for sale.
This might sound like a front-page splash given the interest that buzzes around Newcastle on a daily basis, but it comes with a caveat: the same character reckons the club are one of between “10 or 12” Premier League sides in a virtually identical position.
They are all up for sale in that the owners are quite prepared to part with the club if the asking price is met, but they are continuing to operate as if that eventuality might never come. There is none of the fuss or urgency that came out of Villa Park yesterday, but they could all be prised quite easily from the grasp of their current custodians by someone with a big bank balance and a burning desire to lay their hands on a Premier League club.
Ashley does not appear to be encouraging interest in Newcastle, but pressure is starting to be applied. Anecdotal evidence – always difficult to pin down until the numbers become readily available via the club’s official accounts – suggests that many have refused to renew their season tickets after the campaign that just played out.
More intriguing will be the effect that the poor season and negative publicity might have had on corporate sales, so often a driver of commercial revenue. Given that Ashley has shown an interest in the corporate market in the past, he may need to act to correct this. Early indications are that all boxes have been sold, which would be a surprising show of faith.
Similarly, United’s attempt at staging a major concert in the summer – Kings of Leon are coming to St James’ Park – will be intriguing. Money made from this can be poured into the club as additional commercial revenue, which will be critical under FFP rules.
In the meantime, we should observe events in Birmingham with interest piqued. If Villa limp on into next season with Lerner still at the helm, it will confirm that the landscape has changed – and that Ashley’s Magpie marriage of convenience might drag on.