Today, as the Premiership season at the top came to its conclusion with Manchester United winning the title. Chelsea coming second after a titanic title race after drawing with the impressive young Arsenal side that Wenger is building down at their new stadium and Liverpool playing their second team in order to rest their first team before the European Cup Final, another piece of news made the sports pages of the national newspapers- Glenn Roeder manager of Newcastle United had resigned
Roeder had been manager for 15 months- in which time the club had scarcely gone forwards at all. Previous to him Grahame Souness had also been a mediocre manager taking the club to successive midtable finishes- but his predecessor Bobby Robson had managed to take the club to the Champion's League and the FA Cup Final and before him in the mid-nineties, Kevin Keegan's entertaining Newcastle side managed to come close to taking the title. Since 2004 when Robson was dismissed, the club has spent vast ammounts of money but success on the field has not been found- its worth just analysing Newcastle and their behaviour as a Premiership Club because it exposes something about the way that British football works which is interesting.The Background
Newcastle are a huge club in the North East of England- their stadium St James's Park has the third highest capacity in the Premiership and regularly they draw over 50,000 fans in to watch games. The area around Newcastle in many ways appears to concentrate on the club with a fanaticism only paralleled in other great bastions of British football like Liverpool. This is the type of club where thousands of fans will turn up to watch a player sign his contract- not an attraction at most clubs!
In the early 1990s, the club languished in the First Division, fearing further relegations, the Board turned in desperation to the former England international Kevin Keegan. Keegan turned the club around, imparting his particular brand of enthusiasm he got the players playing an exciting brand of attacking football and obtained promotion to the Premiership. They challenged for the Premiership title- though Keegan was memorably out thought by Alex Ferguson in 1996 and brought in famous players- especially strikers- Andy Cole played at Newcastle for a while along with Peter Beardsley, they were succeeded by Les Ferdinand and Faustino Asprilla- and later Alan Shearer was bought for over 15 million pounds. However in January 1997 Keegan resigned.
He was replaced by Kenny Dalglish, a previously successful Liverpool and Blackburn manager, and then by Ruud Gullit. Both Dalglish and Gullit struggled- the club finished in the middle of the Premiership and the football played was less exciting than Keegan's football. Gullit in particular fell out with the star striker Shearer and it fell to Bobby Robson to rejuvenate the club- which he did- until he too was sacked having fallen out with Shearer and replaced by Souness who was in turn replaced by Roeder. Since Keegan therefore Newcastle have in 10 years got through five managers- of whom Robson was the most successful- and they have failed to win a single trophy.
For most football clubs- such a failure to win anything in modern times comes as no surprise- its hard to compete without either the name or the money to bring in players. But Newcastle have had both- they have been able to spend large amounts on players- particularly strikers- from Alan Shearer's 15 million pound transfer through to Michael Owen's arrival for 17 million pounds last year the board have authorised regular spending. Furthermore the fans are known to be amongst the most fanatical in England, and the squad is stocked with impressive players. Names like those of Nicky Butt a player who has a European Champion's League medal to go with several Premiership medals and Michael Owen inspire respect in opponents, whilst young players like James Milner and Stephen Taylor suggest a bright future.
So why have Newcastle under performed? The answer on the field is deceptively easy- for the last ten seasons whilst every Newcastle team to varying degrees has not struggled in front of goal, their defence has been ramshackle. At the moment, it is filled with young and inexperienced players who have few experienced leaders to rely upon. Such experienced defenders as they have are players like Titus Bramble, who have never really outgrown the promising tag and turned it into acheivement. Bramble indeed demonstrates that one of the club's major problems must be in the coaching department- a pacy and muscular centre half, Bramble has all the attributes to be a top defender save for his concentration and positioning. There is nothing stopping him being good enough even to be considered for England, if someone could teach him how to defend. But noone at Newcastle has- something that reflects badly either on the player (though there are plenty of other examples at Newcastle) or on the coaching staff.
I said the answer on the field was deceptively simple because it is- it is not just in defence that Newcastle have accumulated players who underacheive like Bramble. Leftwing has been a particular problem. Both Laurent Robert who was on the wing for the first half of this decade and his successor Damien Duff this season underperformed for players of great talent. Newcastle have had leftwingers and attacking players in general that have demonstrated genius on some days and been mundane on others. The only constant player in the side for seasons was Alan Shearer- who retired last season- who used to score goals for fun- but apart from him, the offensive players have not seemed to be consistent enough to make up for defensive frailties.
Great player or malicious influence
Shearer also is a factor in all of this. Shearer came to the club as a Geordie- and since Keegan left- has been the most popular figure at the club. Manager after manager tried to persuade Shearer to alter his style of play- he lost his speed and consequently the attacks Newcastle made had to slow down to accomodate their star striker. Manager after manager though has been sacked for falling out with Shearer. Furthermore if his influence on the playing side declined in recent years- all Newcastle's managers since Gullit have lived with the possibility that their replacement is already lined up and his name is Alan. This has meant that everyone in the club has been staring at the rising sun- assuming that the manager is going to be around for a short time.
So what is actually wrong
What is actually wrong at Newcastle? I have named problems that have continued for several seasons under different managers- some of whom have been successful elsewhere- so there is obviously a problem- to me there seem to be two major reasons for Newcastle's failures- and the club's recent downturn.
Firstly the mentality of the club appears to be wrong. I mentioned earlier the way that thousands of fans turned up to greet Michael Owen- in the expectation that he would win them a Premiership title. Similarly Alan Shearer was always thought of as a talisman and at several points managers have signed players to solve the defensive crisis- most notably Jean Alain Boumsong for 8 million pounds two years ago. The mentality appears to be that Newcastle are only missing a player- a signing and then they will catapult up the table. They have never been a club for long term planning- and many of their moves in the transfer market have seemed to be panicked- in need of a player they sign a player without paying much attention to where he will fit into the team. Ultimately such an attitude stems in part from the supporters, and the board- but more it comes from managers who are always looking over their shoulders.
A mistaken sacking?
For that is the second reality that has undermined Newcastle. In 2004 they sacked a manager in August who had achieved top five finishes in his previous three seasons- Bobby Robson was undoubtedly a good manager but was sacked. His successors have seemed both less than inspired choices- both Souness who had a dodgy record at Liverpool and Roeder who took West Ham done were not popular choices- but likewise neither was given time and both had excuses. Roeder for example had signed Owen- but Owen has hardly played during the time that Roeder has been manager. Robson's sacking though demonstrates that the board were trigger happy and completely ignorant of the way that a football club has to be built up from the ground piece by piece- given the money available and the importance of building a psychology of continuous success (confidence is everything in football), you cannot expect managers to immediatly achieve trophies- time is of the essense- but Newcastle's Board have no time.
Ultimately the reason that Newcastle have underperformed has been that the board have badly managed the club. Despite pouring money in, there is a sense in which the club has been a vast popularity project for directors. They seem to have seen their role as representing the fans to the manager- and not shielding the manager in times of crisis. Indeed the directors have too often been led by short term enthusiasms- often taking decisions behind managers' backs (Robson in his autobiography speaks of players being sold without him being told about it) because of perceived popularity gains to be made. The Board ultimately have held Newcastle back.
The Future- who comes in to succeed Roeder
The English Press are full today of rumours about Glenn Roeder's successor- they mention Sam Allardyce who until last week was a key figure in Bolton's rise to the Premiership and certainly Allardyce would be a popular choice and is perhaps, given that he resigned swiftly from Bolton days before this announcement, being lined up for the job. (Despite denials the suspicious coincidence of the vacancy and his unemployment, should he take the job would make most people in football beleive that a deal had been struck.) But is Newcastle a club that can succeed?
Sam Allardyce thinks
Is he next?
Well there is no certainty in life- but the omens for Roeder's successor aren't good. Firstly the Newcastle Board and fans are notoriously impatient- they want success now. Secondly several of the structural issues- around the coaching of defenders need to resolved. Thirdly the squad will need considerable reinforcement. Perhaps most importantly though the mentality of the club will make it difficult for a manager to stamp his personality on it. Successful teams- Clough's Nottingham Forest, Ferguson's United, Wenger's Arsenal, even Mourinho's Chelsea- reflect the personalities of their managers- whether a manager will be allowed to dominate at Newcastle the way that Ferguson dominates at Manchester United is doubtful.
What does this say about English Football?
I recently posted an article
on how Leeds United- once one of Newcastle's competitors at the top of the English League fell back. Superficially the stories of Leeds and Newcastle have little in common- Leeds are bust, Newcastle aren't. But drawing back a little there is something they have in common- both clubs tried to buy success, in both cases the boards decided that they wanted instant success and priced it in players. Newcastle's story and the club's problems illustrate another dimension of the problems with the structure of ownership in English clubs.
Because football clubs are essentially an ego project for many directors and chairmen- often those directors and chairmen require the kind of success that is unrealistic in a very quick time. Often as well they assume they know what the club needs and consequently don't allow the manager to run the team and the football side of the club. The problem is that for men like Ridsdale and Shepherd, they have no constraints on their behaviour- they can as Ridsdale did bankrupt the club in the cause of their own vanity- or like Shepherd they can assume the role of a tyrant, devoting capriciously money and malice to their managers. Shepherd's means of managing Newcastle have not been successful- for the future of the club one can only hope that he learns- others like Roman Abrahamovic at Chelsea would also do well to learn from Newcastle's travails- definitely it would make most managers think twice before taking the role but will it be enough to deter Sam Allardyce.