Running the risk of an identity crisis at Newcastle
Newcastle’s transfer movements this month have seen them bring in five players from Ligue 1, taking their first-team tally to 10, plus four more that were born in French-speaking countries, but the question that is on everyone’s lips is will this foreign invasion of sorts have a negative and potentially destabilising influence further down the line?
Of course, the evidence of such an impact was not visible during the club’s 2-1 win against fellow Premier League strugglers Aston Villa on Tuesday evening, their first away victory in the league all season, with new signings Moussa Sissoko and Yoan Gouffran both impressing on their debuts and Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa being introduced late on.
Cast your eye around the Newcastle squad, though, and the spine of the team next season is likely to be French. Captain Fabricio Coloccini, while he may have been forced to stay at least until the end of the season, may still angle for a move away closer to home in the summer and the Yanga-Mbiwa purchase must be seen as an insurance policy ahead of a likely departure. It seems perfectly feasible next term to see Mathieu Debuchy, Mbiwa, Yohan Cabaye, Gouffran, Sissoko and Hatem Ben Arfa all line-up in the starting eleven; seven out of eleven players hailing from outside of these shores is a bold, but given the personnel available to Pardew, entirely logical next step.
You can clearly see where the club are coming from; the French league offers value for money quite like no other in Europe, with each of the five fresh faces brought into the club this month not only all affordable, but secured on long-term deals as they enter the peak of their careers. Head scout Graham Carr must have opened a boulangerie in Paris given all the work he’s done in the region this past year. Nevertheless, the sheer volume of French influence at the club is precisely what has attracted such interest, speculation and criticism.
Former Liverpool manager Gerard Houllier warned last month of the potential negative that lies ahead, telling reporters: “You can’t stop the French speaking French. The dressing room will be unbalanced. There will be problems.” Considering the 65-year-old has managed the France national team in the past, plus trying to integrate several players from his time at Anfield, you suspect he knows his eggs on this subject. Obviously trying to head off such criticism, Pardew revealed last week: “They have to learn English or they will face penalties and hopefully they will grasp it.”
However, the main quotes doing the rounds this past week come from Pardew’s time at West Ham back in 2006, railing against a transfer policy at Arsenal very similar to the one that Newcastle now have: “I saw a headline saying Arsenal are flying the flag for Britain and I kind of wondered where that British involvement actually was when I looked at their team. It’s important that top clubs don’t lose sight of the fact that it’s the English Premier League and English players should be involved.”
Devoid of context, the quotes make Pardew seem fairly ridiculous and will have left him somewhat red-faced at being reminded of them, but it’s clear that while the Newcastle academy hasn’t produced any players of top flight quality these past few years, even if it doesn’t quite explain why they’ve aligned themselves so clearly with one country when the global game is a potential smorgasbord of talent.
With Danny Simpson set to leave in the summer when his contract expires, and Mike Williamson little more than a back-up centre-back, only really Steven Taylor stands a chance of consistent selection for the first-team out of the English players in the squad. Shola Ameobi, James Perch and Ryan Taylor are useful squad players to have, while Sammy Ameobi, James Tavernier and Shane Ferguson all represent viable prospects for the future, but there’s little to suggest any of them can make an impact on the starting eleven within the next year or so.
The club were in desperate need of recruits going into the January transfer window, with Pardew’s explaining their policy in greater detail recently: “There is slightly more value in the French market. Obviously, we have exploited that. Zaha is a typical example of trying to take a young player out of the Championship. I like him. I wanted to take him but, seriously, we had no chance. We just can’t pay that. We got four players for that. It suited our needs better to strengthen several positions for that sort of money. None of them was a knee-jerk reaction; otherwise we would have bought a 31-year-old from a squad in the Premier League.” There is nothing wrong with that assertion whatsoever.
The fans have urged owner Mike Ashley to invest this month or further run the risk of getting sucked into an ugly and increasingly messy relegation battle and the win against Aston Villa put breathing room between them and the bottom four once more. When the French market has worked so well for them these past couple of years, why even bother to try and look elsewhere? They have a strong scouting network in the country and the value for money is excellent.
Moreover, with the world shrinking (in an economic and communicative sense, not literally), the days when clubs could field a number of players from the academy are long gone and plenty of other sides in the top flight have fielded solely foreign-born sides and been no more worse off for doing so. To put this into context, the squad that got relegated back in 2008/9 contained 11 Englishman – do you forsake some sort of local pride and a lose connection with the surrounding community for success? The higher up the ladder you climb, it’s inevitable and to pretend otherwise is naive.
Pardew is clearly not in charge of transfers at the club, with the recruitment committee of Carr, managing director Derek Llambias and club secretary Lee Charnley all influential figures that report directly to Ashley. There is no recipe for success in the league, just different paths. Buying domestic players at the prices they cost these days is simply not an option for a club that’s ultimate aim is to balance the books.
They are being sensible over their financial future, and should be applauded for not being as reckless as many of their rivals. They are bringing in established international players from a hotbed of talent that traditionally adapt well to the English game. The club clearly need to make improvements in integrating local players and academy prospects, but if they’re not good enough in the first place, then what’s the point?
A balance needs to struck in the future, but for the time being at least, needs must and the new recruits look certain to provide a much-needed shot in the arm for the entire squad while simultaneously boosting their fragile confidence, which should go a long way to ensuring their top flight status for another year. For those that want to bang the jingoistic, vaguely xenophobic drum that the Magies are beginning to represent everything about the decline of the English game, well I’m afraid that ship sailed a long time ago.