Have we misjudged Mike Ashley and Alan Pardew?
They were, it appeared, the men who had sucked the life out of one of the country's most vibrant football clubs. Newcastle United sleepwalked through a dire second half of the season, not going down but seemingly opting out of any attempts at sporting self-improvement. Neil Moxley, writing in the Sunday Mirror in mid-May, even went as far as to ask the question: "What is the point in supporting Newcastle United?"
If Ashley's total disregard for supporter interests and apparent cronyism in his appointments is largely perceived as the source of the club's inertia, then Pardew was inextricably linked to suspicion in the regime. His surprise appointment in December 2010 followed a friendship between the Sports Direct magnate and the former Crystal Palace midfielder.
In the past two seasons, his survival through the painful (the results) and the preposterous (such as last campaign's head-butt on Hull's David Meyler) has appeared to indicate two things. Firstly, his reticence in criticising the owner and relatively low salary makes him nearly bulletproof. Secondly, the club's ambition under Ashley is as far from the 'Geordie Nation' war cry of the early Sir John Hall era as it is possible to conceive.
So what a surprise it is to see the Toon as one of the Premier League's most active and successful participants in the summer's transfer window to date. To date, Ashley has sanctioned the arrival of six recruits; Jack Colback, Siem de Jong, Remy Cabella, Daryl Janmaat and Emmanuel Riviere, with Ayoze Perez, the 20-year-old Spanish forward signed from Tenerife, expected to mainly feature with the club's development side this season.
As well as being much-needed after successive transfer windows without a permanent signing, they suggest everything that Newcastle have lacked in the last year: intelligence, ambition and a clear plan. Cabella is the nominal Yohan Cabaye replacement, after being considered too expensive back in January to immediately substitute their Paris Saint-Germain-bound talisman. With French sources indicating Newcastle will pay a maximum of 10 million euros with any eventual bonuses, their brinkmanship seems to have paid off.
The former Montpellier man is a more out-and-out attacking option than Cabaye, but de Jong's parallel arrival means he won't be lumbered with all the creative burden. Both have been regular scorers for their first clubs, hopefully fixing a lack of goals from midfield, with de Jong having the flexibility to play as a second striker.
Summer transfer window roundup
- Premier League: Team-by-team ins and outs
- Transfer Centre: All the done deals
- Marcotti: Mind-boggling transfers
- Delaney: What did we learn on deadline day?
- Horncastle: European transfer grades
- Smith: Transfers more important than the game?
- Macintosh: We worship goals, not balance sheets
Janmaat is potentially the pick of the arrivals. After a pair of spectacularly successful seasons at Feyenoord catapulted the right-back into the Netherlands side, Louis van Gaal eventually tweaked his setup to a 3-5-2 in a plan to get the most out of Janmaat. For a while, it seemed the new Manchester United coach might take Janmaat with him to Old Trafford. Riviere divides opinion back home in France, but he is burly and fast and thus has the potential to make light of any technical shortfall in the Premier League. Colback has plenty of Premier League experience already at 24, is versatile and was free.
In short, it's a good summer of business. It harks back to Newcastle's widely praised recruitment policy of a few years back, spearheaded by Graham Carr. As with that initial flush of deals, none of the newbies is what one would term a 'discovery,' but it's good, solid recruiting. They're the right players, at the right prices, of good ages, with decent sell-on potential. The purchase of Janmaat, an international on his way up who is replacing outgoing Mathieu Debuchy for half the price, seems especially canny.
So far, so good. Maybe Ashley is moving away from the interminable holding pattern of existing, rather than living, in the Premier League. Yet much as getting good players in at last is a positive step -- and we shouldn't underestimate the value of the fans actually, you know, potentially being able to enjoy themselves -- the actual investment made is minimal.
Newcastle made close to 78 million pounds last term from the debut season of the new, improved Premier League TV deal (almost a 100 percent raise on 2012-13 figures) and still had the third-highest average attendance in the Premier League last season, behind Manchester United and Arsenal. Although the club's market is highly regional, lacking anywhere near the global reach of the aforementioned clubs together with Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool, there is a decent merchandising profit to add.
In fact, the current window has much in common with the outlay of 18 million pounds on six players, including Moussa Sissoko, Yoan Gouffran and Debuchy, in January 2013 -- a real response to crisis. Pardew, and presumably the rest of the board, has clearly underlined that fresh blood is needed simply to keep heads above water and maintain the Premier League cash flow Ashley is eager to bank.
Key European club fixtures
French Ligue 1 -- Aug. 8
FA Community Shield: Manchester City vs. Arsenal -- Aug. 10
German Super Cup: Borussia Dortmund vs. Bayern Munich -- Aug. 13
English Premier League -- Aug. 16
Spanish Super Cup: Real Madrid vs. Atletico Madrid -- Aug. 19 and 22
Spanish La Liga/German Bundesliga -- Aug. 23
Italian Serie A -- Aug. 30
Even that 2013 splurge was balanced by the 7 million pound sale of Demba Ba to Chelsea, of course. The estimated spend on Cabella, De Jong, Janmaat and Riviere comes to a smidgen under 25 million, but with 20 million left untouched from Cabaye's sale, plus another 10 million (at least) from Debuchy's exit, there has been little benevolence required.
We pretty much know where Ashley's head is, but what about Pardew? Having had his request for playing resources answered, clearly more is expected of him, but to what extent are results the expectation? Staying up is key, but Pardew's selection for the FA Cup third-round defeat by Cardiff in January showed exactly how important winning a trophy was to him, and the whole club seems to see Europe as a tiring inconvenience.
Some level of upper-mid-table comfort will be desired, but Pardew is there to protect assets too. The fall from favour of Hatem Ben Arfa is a cautionary tale. Signed for 5 million after an initial loan spell, he could feasibly have been sold on for three times that at various points in the interim. The manager's perception of the France international as a luxury player, and his indecision over how best to use him, has seen a prized possession become devalued and demotivated.
If Ashley does eventually tire of Pardew and remove him, it won't be down to his boorish behaviour on the touchline or even a few ropey results. It will be because he no longer represents good value. The owner expects his new boys to rise in stock, and it's a big test for the coach. That's why, at a club that hands six-year contracts to players and staff, there is still no guarantee of stability.