The honeymoon period after gaining promotion to the Premier League is meant to last until the first game of the next season at the very least. Newcastle United’s, however, lasted just a matter of hours.
Even before tax-fraud-gate hit Tyneside and sucked Lee Charnley into a prison sell for the best part of an afternoon, the jubilation of returning to the top flight at the first time of asking had already been tainted by Rafa Bentiez’s refusal to commit his future to the club – seemingly a consequence of Mike Ashley’s reluctance to meet his demands for the summer transfer window.
Recent reports have claimed the former Champions League winner wants a staggering £100million to revamp his Magpies squad and that crunch talks with Ashley over the club’s summer plans will take place during the next few days. The accuracy of such reports remains to be seen, but the allegation of Bentiez demanding a stunning nine-figure budget does throw up an interesting debate – how much does it actually cost to ensure Premier League survival for clubs making their way up from the second tier?
Well, the first point of curiosity is that acclimatising to Premier League level isn’t actually as tough a challenge as most would think. Taking the Premier League’s current standings as gospel for the 2016/17 campaign, nine of the last 15 Championship clubs to make the jump up to the top flight have stayed there in their first season – none doing better than Sam Allardyce in 2012/13 when he guided West Ham to tenth place despite having to gain promotion through the playoffs.
Newcastle fans might see West Ham’s journey as a direct comparison. Much like the east Londoners, Newcastle are seen as too big to be in the Championship due to their strong Premier League heritage and sizable and particularly proactive fan base. Most would argue neither should have dropped out of the top flight in the first place.
Yet, Allardyce actually spent amongst the fewest of the 15 clubs in question when West Ham were promoted five years ago – just £20.31million across two transfer windows, although that may be slightly skewed by the fact transfer fees have steadily increased with every summer since. But only two promoted clubs have spent less in that time – Burnley and Reading – and both immediately returned to the second tier.
The difference was that Allardyce already had some proven Premier League quality in place, particularly his trademark signing Kevin Nolan, and the same can be said of Newcastle at this moment in time. A disappointing end to the season has created some doubts, but Jonjo Shelvey, Matt Ritchie and Mo Diame, for example, have already shown how effective they can be in the top tier.
Nonetheless, there are areas of Newcastle’s squad reliant on Championship quality and Benitez is clearly keen to spend – in fact, it’s a boardroom issue hanging over from the January window. So, how much would the Magpies have to spend to guarantee survival? Is there a correlation, or is Mike Ashley right to want to hold onto his money?
From the last five seasons, there is a difference in spending between those who kept themselves in the top flight and those who didn’t – around £4.4million. Indeed, those who’ve avoided the drop have an average outlay of £34.35million, whereas those who went down spent on average £29.96million. Yet, the idea that spending more increases your chances of staying up is by no means set in stone; in fact, four out of the six promoted sides to be relegated spent more than £34.35million and still went down; likewise, six of the nine clubs who spent less than that still stayed up.
Yet, it’s worth noting that the only two clubs to spend less than £10milllion – Burnley and Reading – both finished in 19th place, whereas Watford’s 13th-place finish after splashing out a staggering £71million during the 2015/16 season has only been bettered by two sides in West Ham, 10th, and Crystal Palace, 11th. There’s an obvious logic to suggesting spending more increases your chances of staying up, but rather intriguingly, the only two clubs to finish bottom after being promoted – Cardiff in 2013/14 and QPR the season after – both spent just shy of £40million, nearly £6million more than the staying up average.
Clearly, whilst there is a baseline figure clubs must spend more than, who you spend money on rather than how much you spend is the most significant factor in striving towards top flight safety. And although transfer fees tend to reflect quality as a rule of thumb, the lack of any true correlation between spending and survival suggests being resourceful in the transfer market is far more important than simply having a blank cheque – which appears to be what Benitez is demanding.
The fact West Ham, Palace, and Leicester all kept themselves in the top fight without spending more than £30million is evidence enough – but perhaps more tellingly, from the last five seasons, the club to have spent the most have finished highest in the Premier League on just one occasion, Watford – and even they were very much an anomaly with their aforementioned outlay of £71million.
So who would actually come out on top if this evidence was presented to Ashley and Benitez during their crunch talks? Well, it’s actually quite inconclusive. Whilst Ashley would argue spending clearly doesn’t guarantee anything, Benitez’s retort would claim the lack of an obvious pattern means the question of how much funding is needed should be answered by the manager.
But if there’s one thing the numbers do prove, it’s that a £100million transfer budget – especially with a squad already containing proven Premier League players – would be as unprecedented as it is unnecessary if Newcastle’s mission next season is simply survival. Perhaps the Magpies fans and Benitez are hoping for more, but no club can turn that down during their first season in the top flight. Ashley has an uneasy relationship with the Newcastle fan base but this time around, it seems Benitez is pushing his employer a little too far.