The myth that Newcastle United’s transfer market tastes are exclusively coloured in Tricolore was exploded in a lift in Milton Keynes this summer.
According to a story doing the rounds in Buckinghamshire, a Newcastle United representative was spotted at the smartly appointed Stadium:mk a few weeks ago and they knew immediately who the subject of his interest was: 17-year-old Dele Alli.
A cultured, ball-playing midfielder with talent beyond his tender years, his card has been marked by most of the Premier League heavyweights. But Newcastle, in the market for a long-term pretender to Yohan Cabaye’s throne, were starting to circle more furiously than the rest.
Alli is the real deal, according to those who have witnessed his imagination and speed of thought at close quarters. A few weeks ago in Wearside he was the best player on the pitch for the brief period that his MK Dons dominated Paolo Di Canio’s developing Sunderland. Of all the players the increasingly impressive Dons Academy has produced, he is by far and away the rough diamond they are keenest to polish up.
So Dons owner Pete Winkelman cut them off at the pass. Seeking out the Premier League talent-spotters who had congregated at the Dons on match day, he issued the friendliest of ‘hands off’ warnings with a sting in the tail: it will cost “millions and millions” to prise heavyweight contender Alli from them.
The Dons’ attitude would not have come as a surprise to Newcastle, who have experience of the fiercely protective Football League. Southampton’s Luke Shaw was a target long before he got his break on the South Coast but even before he made his Premier League debut his price was stretched into seven figures.
The relevance of these little tales from the frontline of Newcastle’s recruitment drive is that this weekend, for the first time, Alan Pardew fielded a first XI that was bereft of a single player born in England.
It was a little landmark that passed with the minimum of fuss. Newcastle supporters who have been imploring Pardew to recapture the spirit of attacking freedom that propelled them to the verge of a Champions League place in 2012 were more concerned about the manager’s reversion to 4-3-3, a happy experiment that reaped impressive rewards. Nonetheless, it was a moment in time for Pardew’s four-year reign.
It is a further blow – of sorts – to Roy Hodgson as he scours the Premier League for players qualified for England. The Football Association’s newly-installed chairman Greg Dyke went out of his way to single out Newcastle (along with North East neighbours Sunderland) in his state of the nation address last week, and no doubt he will view Pardew’s team selection as further proof of the dire state of play for the Three Lions manager.
The fact is, though, that England are largely irrelevant in this debate. Sure, Dyke and Hodgson might consider Newcastle something of a lost cause in their mission to realign the Premier League’s priorities closer to the national team, but there has been little love lost between the parties for as long as anyone can remember.
England’s managers are rarely seen in the North East these days and Dyke’s call for the supply line of talent to extend to this part of the world is a rather hollow one. A couple of weeks ago it emerged that the FA are planning talks with Liverpool’s new signing Tiago Ilori in an attempt to persuade him to pledge his allegiance to the country of his birth.
But Ilori, who has played for Portugal at under-18, under-19 and under-20 level, is Portuguese. Had a similar attempt been made to try and persuade Paul Dummett, born in Newcastle, to pledge his future to England rather than Wales? Alas it had not, and Dummett happily accepted a call to the Welsh senior side last week.
By virtue of not being summoned from the bench he is still eligible to play for England – where he might one day be useful with Leighton Baines and Ashley Cole probably only around for another World Cup cycle – but the message from Wembley is not to hold his breath. Had he turned out in Liverpool red, perhaps the outcome might have been different.
Newcastle owe England nothing, but a lack of homegrown talent does matter to the region. For a start, the club’s Academy remains in a sort of purgatory at the moment, playing in the elite level with no sign of the Category One status that club insiders insist is on its way. Without that foundation the club remains reliant on imported talent. It is a policy that can work, as witnessed by the fluent and fluid performance served up at Villa Park.
But it would be remiss not to acknowledge that it has altered the fabric of Newcastle United. Yohan Cabaye’s strike, for instance, was not viewed as much of a problem by the dressing room as it might have been if the majority were English-born.
Pardew addressed what he felt was a “problem” last week. He said: “We tried to bring an English player to this club (over the summer) for a lot of money. But it didn’t happen.
“The ratio of foreign players is getting tight for us. I’m very focused on the Academy promoting talent from this area.
“It’s important, in our transfer policy, that we bring in some English players.”