It is becoming increasingly clear that this summer will see the biggest restructuring of Newcastle United’s squad for many years.
The arrival of Luuk de Jong on the 4.30pm flight from Amsterdam on Tuesday was the latest indication of the imminent overhaul. Signed only until the end of a campaign which will now surely end with Newcastle safely nestled in the hinterland between European qualification and relegation spots, De Jong is the third of Newcastle’s four recognised strikers who will not be their player at the end of the season.
The fourth, Papiss Cisse, was also jetting out of Newcastle Airport yesterday and while it wasn’t for the mooted move to Turkey there can be little certainty about his place in United’s plans for the future either. The imminent attacking void presents a challenge, an opportunity and also a daunting task for a club at a crossroads.
The next era begins for Newcastle at 11pm on Friday with the slamming shut of the transfer window. Before then it is about filling the creativity gap left by Yohan Cabaye’s sadly predictable exit, but there are no assurances or indemnities offered by those inside St James’ Park.
It can be a confused and chaotic place these days. Tracing the black and white power lines can be a tiring process and you must dodge Joe Kinnear’s curveballs as you do it. “We will not be selling anyone,” he told Sky Sports last Monday – a prediction that was proved wrong just days later after a round of negotiations that he had little to do with.
Before anything unfolds in the summer, Mike Ashley’s biggest dilemma is what to do about Kinnear, a friend and ally of the Newcastle owner. There is clearly something in Kinnear that Ashley values but it is time for him to analyse the cold, hard facts of the director of football’s tenure on Tyneside and assess whether he can realistically be kept on board with such a pivotal close season ahead.
What he is actually practically doing at Newcastle remains unclear. He is in the pictures when a new player arrives but he rarely scouts. “Judge me on my signings,” he once said and Ashley now faces a big question. Can he really trust the current status quo to deliver in a summer when the squad will be subject to such change?
In the background, Derek Llambias remains keen to get back into football. He is open to moving to Southampton to work for the Liebherrsw but he knows Ashley and the prospect of a return – maybe even in an advisory context – is not the most far-fetched suggestion.
The scale of the changes this summer could be sizeable. As well as the striker situation, Newcastle must also address the Fabricio Coloccini situation head on. The defender is an outstanding player and terrific captain but his injury absences are becoming more regular and that burning desire to return to Argentina is still the elephant in the room whenever we analyse his contributions.
Defensively United have improved ten-fold this season. Mike Williamson’s excellent form has solved a problem there but Newcastle must decide whether he is the long-term answer, and his performances between now and May will be scrutinised closely.
It is difficult to shake the idea that Steven Taylor remains at risk despite his recall. Charging Willie McKay to look after his affairs will hardly douse that speculation if he loses his place between now and the end of the campaign. Elsewhere fringe men like Gabriel Obertan, Gael Bigirimana, Haris Vuckic, James Tavernier and – unfortunately – the lightly-used Sylvain Marveaux will be available. That is a lot of gaps for Newcastle to fill with few genuine prospects coming through from the Academy. There is a big chance for Adam Armstrong, included on the bench on Tuesday night, to stake a claim for a squad number if he knuckles down. Ditto Sammy Ameobi, who looked assured at Norwich.
The targets are exciting. Remy Cabella, of Montpellier, is likely to figure prominently and Dele Alli of MK Dons is included too. France, Portugal, Holland and a new frontier of Switzerland have been scouted extensively.
Against the backdrop, United face a crucial 48 hours in their efforts to replace Cabaye. When Alan Pardew spoke last night of making sure the money was spent as wisely and sensibly as the Andy Carroll legacy, it raised the prospect that Newcastle might not spend at all.
Wisdom in the transfer market is unusual in the final days of the window and there is a nagging suspicion that if Newcastle don’t land Clement Grenier, of Lyon, they will bank the Cabaye cash and look to invest with more time on their side in the summer.
That’s fine in principle: no one wants Newcastle to waste cash on players they don’t need. But on the back of everything that has happened in the last 12 months it is potentially disastous both in terms of United’s strained relationship with their supporters and also for the message it sends.
They are serious about Grenier and have made a substantial offer. But scepticism has seeped into the black and white DNA and to end January with just one loan signing would be depressing and, to be frank, downright scandalous. United have cash ready to make bids – see their interest in Florian Thauvin just before the summer deadline – but when they don’t land the targets the message is that they have to be careful.
Kinnear claims “one or two signings” a season will suffice, but it is undeniable that this squad – with two of its frontline strikers on loan – needs a refresh. It already feels like an opportunity has been missed to really push on this season and the consequence of their inaction is that players like Cabaye, who covet Champions League football, will only ever be passing through.