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Newcastle United Director of Football – Two options stand out

2 years ago

Newcastle United are at a crossroads. Well… in reality, we’ve been broken down at this particular junction for a number of years now.

The issue is this: how does a club move forward when the current owner wants out and, therefore, does not want to continually invest in the club, and yet when that same owner can’t seem to sell the club despite trying (on-and-off) for the past decade?

What is clear is that this standing still has been detrimental to the club both on and off the pitch.

Newcastle have fallen behind so many other sides in that period – not just the perennial title challengers that we once sat alongside, but also clubs who weren’t even Premier League regulars when Ashley acquired Newcastle back in February of 2007.

In 2021, we find ourselves unable to compete with sides like Brentford, Brighton, and West Ham in the transfer market – the latter of which seems like a given today, but who finished just a couple of places above us in 2007/8 and would finish 17th and 20th just a few consecutive seasons later. West Ham have, in effect, lapped Newcastle in the Ashley era, not only improving on the pitch but also off it, pushing us down the rankings in terms of stadium size since acquiring the 60,000 capacity London Stadium (the terms of its acquisition notwithstanding).

Despite these complaints, Ashley’s position on withholding investment in what he clearly thinks is a toxic asset has some prima facie justification to it. That’s why so many football pundits are quick to jump to his defence. Such defences have come from Simon Jordan, Chris Waddle, and Rio Ferdinand, for example.

They all typically arrive at this view through a simplistic and twisted logic which usually looks something like this: if I’m selling my house anyway, there’s no point spending money on it. However, this reasoning falls apart upon the slightest push – just like any house left to fall into disrepair. Jake Humphrey famously took Rio Ferdinand to task on just this issue, and Ferdinand’s final retort was, nonsensically, that houses are cheaper than Premier League players.

Despite this abject failure in analogical reasoning, Ferdinand does touch upon a valid point though – Premier League clubs are incredibly expensive toys to own, so if you’re not willing to spend a few quid then you might want to think twice about buying one. In Mike Ashley’s case, perfect hindsight isn’t going to fix his current problem of how to get rid of a club few people can afford to buy while at the same time not ‘wasting’ any money. But there is a solution to this problem: a Newcastle United Director of Football.

Why a Newcastle United Director of Football?

The fact that Newcastle United haven’t already appointed a Director of Football (or Sporting Director) is at once completely unsurprising and yet, simultaneously, utterly baffling. It’s no surprise that a club which operates on a skeleton staff at the executive level – promoting a one-time ‘tea boy’ to the top of the executive chain as a low-cost solution – and has invested close to nothing in the club’s infrastructure over the last 10 years, would fail to create a role which isn’t technically essential and whose remit includes overseeing strategic investment in infrastructure.

Yet, it’s also utterly baffling given the club’s consistent messaging about running the club in a “structured way”, or a “sustainable manner”, which has included berating the previous owners for leaving the club in a financial mess because they opted to pay transfers in instalments (something Ashley has just done in the case of the Joe Willock transfer, Newcastle’s second most expensive signing ever, yet with tribunals coming up to attempt to force the Premier League into allowing him to offload the club to the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia). If the aim is financial sustainability, then the received wisdom in the modern game is that this is achieved by appointing someone to implement a consistent club philosophy. Doing so confers great benefits in player and management recruitment that yield real cost savings.

Given that, it really means Newcastle should have appointed a Director of Football over a decade ago. And given Ashley’s sustained inability to sell the club, it should still be done sooner rather than later. The Director of Football role requires a rare mix of business and sporting acumen. It is typically filled by a highly skilled, educated and/or experienced candidate, sometimes with a background in law, sometimes with relevant business experience.

In other cases, former players have gone on to become incredibly successful Sporting Directors. Micahel Zorc of Borussia Dortmund is the most well-known example. In his tenure at the club, Zorc has implemented a vision of the sort of footballing identity the club’s fans want to experience.

For Newcastle fans, reading Zorc’s philosophical thesis for Dortmund will no doubt resonate:

“Our philosophy is linked to our region, a working-class region… so it has to be daring.., attacking… The fans don’t like it when the team plays like chess on the field.”

A club with a regional identity, based upon an understanding of the working-class roots of the fanbase, and leading to an attempt to play exciting, attacking football: could there be a more precise mission statement of Newcastle fans’ desires ever since Kevin Keegan walked out (the first time around)? More to the point, Zorc has been able to consistently deliver upon this philosophy because it has informed decision-making at every level – from manager and player recruitment to training ground development. Dortmund’s youth teams stick to this playing approach just as rigidly as the first team. Managers are brought in to implement this philosophy, not to change it, leading to consistent success with largely the same core group of players over a number of years.

When players are recruited, they’re recruited not on the basis of needing to achieve some short-term goal (like getting out of the Championship), but instead to come in and play the way that Dortmund play. Since the footballing philosophy dictates the player recruitment, they don’t go out and buy the latest star performer at an international tournament, they instead actively scout year-round for players who look like a good fit for their approach. This is what lets them consistently acquire young talent at a low cost, more often than not selling those players on at a premium, such as the recent sale of Jadon Sancho. It is also what allows them to get the most out of the players that they bring in, since they are a perfect match for the team they’re about to link up with.

In part, this has been Newcastle’s stated approach to transfers too: bring in young players with sell-on value. But the reason this doesn’t work at Newcastle is because those players can’t shine when they’re brought into a team without an identity. With each managerial change, those players’ chances of fitting into the new playing approach becomes a complete lottery. And it doesn’t even matter how good a manager you are, if the players don’t fit into your system, they simply won’t play. That’s why we’re left to lament the fact that Adam Armstrong and Ivan Toney are currently out-performing Newcastle fans’ expectations in the Premier League after being sold by the much respected Rafa Benitez. For Rafa, he wanted a target man as the springboard for his attacking approach. Salomon Rondon was a perfect fit for him, but neither Armstrong nor Toney will ever likely be that style of player. Yet, these players would probably be good replacements for the oft-injured Callum Wilson in Steve Bruce’s system.

This is exactly where a consistent philosophy would have saved us a great deal of money – and where Joelinton would likely have never become our all-time record signing, having been brought in from a club whose footballing approach got the best out of him and into a club that don’t seem to know what to do with him.

Who could we get as Newcastle United Director of Football?

The real question for Newcastle is who, if anyone, would want to take the job as Director of Football given the financial constraints of a want-away owner. However, it’s worth remembering that we’ve been pleasantly surprised under the same circumstances quite recently – when Benitez actively sought out the chance to manage us, despite his pedigree deserving a club with a more invested owner. So, with that in mind, here are two suggestions as to who could do a good job under Ashley, and continue this under a new owner should one finally come our way.

The first is Arsene Wenger.

Obviously I have no idea if Wenger – or anyone else, for that matter – would be interested in the role. But his managerial pedigree doesn’t hugely outstrip Benitez’s, so I’d say it isn’t completely unimaginable. What is certainly the case is that Wenger has proven himself able to operate under financial constraints as a manager – recruiting players cheaply and selling them for a higher price all to fund the huge infrastructure investments Arsenal needed to modernise as a club. As such, he has been closely involved with rebuilding facilities and understands what it takes to maintain a consistent playing philosophy even when the purse strings need to be tightened.

At 71, it is perhaps unlikely that Wenger would want to take on a long-term project, but in terms of pedigree and footballing outlook, he fits the mould perfectly. Moreover, should we find the need to make a managerial change any time soon, Wenger’s philosophical disciple Eddie Howe is currently available, and young enough to become the anchor for the club’s philosophy should Wenger retire after just 4-5 years in post.

A second option is Jurgen Klinsmann.

There are no age concerns here, unlike with Wenger, though he doesn’t have the invaluable managerial experience of Wenger should his football staff want or need to seek such advice. However, Klinsmann’s achievements as backroom staff are often overlooked. After a disastrous showing at the Euros in 2004, Klinsmann was drafted in to revamp the German national side with a focus on youth. And there is little doubt that this project was successful – with marked improvements by the German 2006 World Cup team, and many of the young players brought through by Klinsmann going on to lift trophies under the Klinsmann’s former assistant Joachim Löw. Klinsmann had a similar impact on youth football in the US during his stint as national coach there too. All of this is set against a rather poor showing as a club manager, however, which might lead some to doubt his credentials for a Director of Football post at a Premier League side.

Players at Bayern Munich might have questioned Klinsmann’s tactical approach, but it is important to bear in mind that the task of actually delivering the club’s philosophy on the pitch would not fall to our Director of Football, but to whoever the head coach might be. A tactically astute coach would not need to rely upon Klinsmann in order to translate philosophy into performances, but he could trust him to oversee the much-needed youth system overhaul at Newcastle in order to bring through a consistent crop of players ingrained with the ‘Newcastle style’.

Whether any credible candidate for Newcastle United Director of Football emerges or not, it is clear that Newcastle need someone with a sense of direction at the helm. Our executive is inexperienced, and our coach is currently floundering in the league and fighting with local journalists on Zoom. A cool head, with a clear long-term vision, could calm a frantic
fanbase in moments like this.

Moreover, it just makes good business sense. Should the unthinkable happen, and Newcastle be relegated again this season, the club will be unattractive to potential buyers, and our owner has stuck pretty rigidly to his over-inflated asking price. Since the PIF takeover bid was launched, Newcastle have offloaded a number of playing ‘assets’, slashing the wage bill, and recruited just a single player.

Given the state of the club’s infrastructure, there’s a real danger that a potential buyer would look at a freshly-relegated Newcastle not as a potential ‘fixer-upper’, but as condemned to long-term failure. It is only by being pragmatic and bringing someone in who can start rebuilding tomorrow that Ashley can fulfil his ambition of a low-cost, high yield investment, whether that involves him selling up or staying put.


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