The aftermath of a summer, which as Mike Ashley promised, was not devoid of activity at Newcastle United, began on Sunday with a credible two all draw against last season’s surprise package, Southampton. Any residual sympathy for the memory of John Carver and Steve Stone had vanished quickly with an encouraging first half display.
New signing Georginio Wijnaldum quickly endeared himself to the fans soon after half time with a quite sensational header. Despite this, new manager, sorry head coach, Steve McClaren seemed to be frantically reaching for the phone at every break in play. Rumours his Geordie accent is already almost as broad of Paul Gascoigne’s have yet to be confirmed.
The jury is very much out on whether his appointment is a step forward for the club. It probably will be for the majority of the season. Similar to the reception that greeted Alan Pardew (who was relegated with Charlton Athletic), many are pointing to two of Mclaren’s most notable failures. Namely, those at Wolfsburg (a win percentage of just 29%) and Nottingham Forest (23% win percentage).
It’s a simple statement of fact that all appointments are a risk and that the vast majority of managers have failures. Brian Clough was sacked by Leeds United after just 44 days. Alex Ferguson came very close to dismissal at Manchester United in 1989. To some of the fans it seems anything less than Jose Mourinho is a failure.
A quick glance at various fans forums and many were lambasting the new boss for his comment about Newcastle striving to be back among ‘Europe’s elite’. This veneer of hypocrisy reigns true amongst many Newcastle fans. If McClaren had been much more measured in his remarks, he would have been lambasted for the apparent lack of ambition that has been symptomatic of the Ashley reign.
McClaren has achieved much success at club level. He brought Middlesbrough to league cup glory in 2004 (still the club’s only major trophy to date) and the 2008 UEFA Cup Final. He won the Dutch league title with Twente (the club’s only league title ever to date). Both no mean feats with limited resources.
However, it is important to note that at Middlesbrough, McClaren had a very supportive chairman in Steve Gibson to rely upon during more testing times. Incidentally a chairman that was very much open to dialogue with supporters, something Newcastle has gone about rectifying with the monthly email from Steve McClaren about recent goings on at St. James’ Park.
What really caused much division amongst the fans last season, and that appears to have carried into this season, was the former ‘Pardew Out’ brigade all but vanished once the glaringly obvious inadequacy of John Carver became apparent.
Ludicrously, many have now tried to claim they only wanted Pardew to depart on the assumption that Carver was not to be the replacement. This is simply not true. The reception that greeted the players at full-time seems to suggest even the permanently disillusioned are willing to give McClaren time and at least a small chance.
The problem McClaren faces is one of approval and aspiration. Some of the delusional and idealistic visions are beyond all proportionality and realism. Older observers will point to times past when the club was in much a similar position, such the Gordon McKeag years.
Yes, Kevin Keegan wowed us all and surpassed the fans wildest expectations of achievement, but it is highly unlikely any manager could replicate this consistently in the current climate of financial inequality, despite glib promises from Ashley. The fifth placed finish under Bobby Robson, was at the time seen as abject failure, memories of beating Juventus the previous season still all too vivid.
As one fanzine bluntly put it some years ago, wouldn’t we all kill for a fifth place finish now? (Didn’t someone achieve that for Newcastle not so long ago?). The question is, and always will be, what manager better than Pardew, and now McClaren, would have realistically taken a position to work under who they see as a demonstrably unreliable dictator such as Mike Ashley?
The size of the club and passion of the fans is not enough to woo would be managers in the modern climate. Ultimately, when it comes to enticing new managers, it breaks down to three key facets – 1) to what extent will the manager have control of transfers, 2) what level of funds will be available, and 3) what wage ceiling, if any, is in place?
In the case of Newcastle and many other Premier League clubs, there exists a transfer committee, which led by Graham Carr has achieved reasonable success in the last few years. Many managers in our recent past, for example Graeme Souness and Sam Allardyce, proved utterly incompetent when given a free reign on transfers.
But then again, it was Dennis wise who gave the club Xisco and Ignacio Gonzalez. McClaren appears to relish the role of head coach. Perhaps the transfer market can be an unwelcome distraction for managers. Is it just coincidence Arsenal have struggled in the years since David Dein left the club and Wenger had an increased workload in terms of transfer dealings?
This same question about McClaren’s suitability can also be applied to Mike Ashley. Do the fans really want anything but Ashley? The profligate waste that went on under Freddy Shepherd, is all too often forgotten. A man who ‘bleeds black and white blood’ paid himself a handsome salary, all the while sneering at fans who bought replica shirts, to bring the club the brink of total financial oblivion.
Whilst Ashley has his shortcomings, appointing a former, albeit unsuccessful, England manager hardly continues the perceived lack of aspiration which has dogged his tenure as owner to date.
It is often trotted out but one thinks of the plight of Leeds United, the starkest example in English football of how over ambition and lack of financial prudence can have dire and far reaching consequences for a football club. The hated Ken Bates discarded, fans expectations rocketed with the takeover firstly by GFH finance then later by Massimo Cellino.
Twelve months and four managers since Cellino’s arrival, the club is arguably in a much worse position now than when Bates left, marooned in the second tier of English football indefinitely it seems.
Season after sorry season, the accusation is frequently levelled at the club, and by implication its owner, by the fans is that they are unique in being a ‘selling’ club. Are they really? The fact is, outside of Real Madrid, Barcelona, Chelsea and possibly the two Manchester clubs, all clubs are ultimately selling clubs.
Look at the players arsenal have sold over the years, Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry, Freddie Ljungberg, Marc Overmars, Cesc Fabregas, and Robin van Persie to name but a few. These all-encompassing franchises have the finance to buy players from us due to their massive financial clout. Manchester City are backed by sovereign state for goodness sake.
This leads on to McClaren being accused yet another in a long line of ‘Yes’ men. Without meaning to patronise, Mike Ashley is their boss and their working under conditions they agreed to. Football is an industry and management is simply a type of employment within said industry. As anyone who has worked in a stressful environment will testify, constantly raising points of grievance with your boss soon ends with a letter in the post entitled ‘P45’.
All that said, there is a glimmer of hope amidst the abyss. There was a real zest and tenacity to the performance on Sunday. Whilst I am in no way trying to excuse Ashley’s failures at Newcastle, McClaren should not be the figure fans voice their discontent at for this.
The opening game, and also McClaren’s reputation suggest that he is, at the very least, deserving of time. Something Mike Ashley has afforded his last two managerial appointments.