Focus on Newcastle United

Barton furore masks future imperfect

August 18, 2011
By Norman Hubbard
(Archive)

First highlighting issues and then obscuring them with his all-encompassing, multifaceted ability to generate headlines across multimedia platforms, Joey Barton has had quite a month.

Portrait of the Tweeter as a 28-year-old Newcastle midfielder with a temper
GettyImagesPortrait of the Tweeter as a 28-year-old Newcastle midfielder with a temper

Newcastle United's one-man firestorm contrived to raise the wider world's awareness of a shift of emphasis at St James' Park but, with his acute and often misplaced sense of injustice, he then deflected attention away from it as he and the alternately all-seeing, non-seeing Steven Taylor reacted with furious indignation - and a Steve Kean-esque inability to get their story straight - to Gervinho's gentle slap, deadly punch or vicious elbow, depending upon whose version of events you believe.

The consistent controversialist, forever twittering, appears the antithesis of the reclusive owner, Mike Ashley. Briefly, Barton was also setting himself up as his nemesis. While he and Jose Enrique, who has since joined Liverpool, appeared likely to follow Kevin Nolan and Andy Carroll in leaving Tyneside, the many points raised could be boiled down to a few words: where's the money gone?

The vast majority of the £35 million received for Carroll remains unspent, along with the £10 million recouped for Enrique and Nolan. Transfer-market expenditure in 2011 is around £8 million. A sense of discontent is understandable, yet this is far from a typical case of asset-stripping.

Newcastle made a net loss of £17 million in the 2009-10 financial year when, after an ignominious demotion, they were in the Championship, with Ashley loaning another £42 million to the club. It has been alleged of late that Tom Hicks, Merseyside's least favourite American, enriched himself at the Texas Rangers' expense. It is harder to argue the same about Tyneside's least popular Buckinghamshire Cockney, even if Alan Pardew appears to have been misled when he said he would have the proceeds of Carroll's move to Anfield.

But Ashley is a businessman who seems to have deemed Newcastle's an unsustainable model. The senior professionals who rallied under Chris Hughton restored a sense of equilibrium and, if only temporarily, dispelled the notion of United being a crisis club. They were also overpaid, the legacy of an earlier era, and their ages dictated their market values were falling. While Nolan's predatory instincts ensured he found a willing buyer, in Sam Allardyce, the former manager's greatest mistake is unsellable. Alan Smith is free to leave, but a salary of over £3 million a year is a deterrent to any other employer.

The message appears to be that St James' Park no longer doubles up as a pension fund for the elderly and infirm. In its place is an economic model: buy low, sell high. It is a culture shock for what has been a buying club to realise the up-and-coming talents they sign may be sold on, but it is an approach that promises rewards: Cheik Tiote cost £3.5 million and may be worth five times as much. The irony is that, for all the triumphs of the scouting system, the most profitable move had more organic roots, the homegrown Carroll generating the eighth highest transfer fee ever.

But the radical identity shift is brought into focus in a week that divides the North East. The rivalry with Sunderland is a constant since the 19th century, but Newcastle's historic black and white now comes with a dash of red, white and blue, given the Francophone recruitment policy. It raises the question of whether recent imports are as attuned to the club's traditions as even honorary Tynesiders such as Nolan. Perhaps uncoincidentally, Shola Ameobi, the longest-serving player and a bona fide Geordie, has an outstanding record against Sunderland.

Newcastle's new signings Yohan Cabaye and Demba Ba in training
PA PhotosNew signings Yohan Cabaye and Demba Ba. Promise but by no means guaranteed.

The concern is that Ameobi is rarely prolific against anyone else, averaging under four goals per top-flight season, even if much of that time has been spent on the bench. Demba Ba is a more natural goalscorer but his underwhelming debut against Arsenal and reputation for being injury-prone bodes less well. Without a penny having been paid for a striker since Carroll's departure, the symbolically significant No. 9 shirt remains vacant.

A potential ineffectuality in attack probably accounts for some naming Newcastle among the relegation favourites. Examine the rest of the squad and, while it is thin in places, there is pedigree. Shane Ferguson may be Enrique's long-term replacement and Sylvain Marveaux, who appeared on the brink of a move to Liverpool, is an intriguing addition on the left flank.

The demotion of the loyal Steve Harper to make way for Tim Krul is harsh, but is also a sign that Newcastle have two promising goalkeepers - Fraser Forster, now loaned to Celtic, is the other. With the arrival of the France international Yohan Cabaye from Ligue 1 champions Lille, the centre of midfield, where he is partnering Tiote, could prove the strongest section of the team.

Another option there, of course, is Barton although, no doubt, the direction of the club will take second place to his incendiary antics when the Tyne-Wear derby kicks off.