Newcastle United fans are up in arms over the club’s strategy of simply holding a place in the middle of the table. Yes, the team avoids relegation, but it’s also content to abandon any chance at the top spots. Fans need to learn: Why make expensive runs for titles and cups when mediocrity pays so well?
The banner unfurled by Newcastle fans before their Premiership match at Swansea in South Wales was a classic example of terrace wit. “LLWDLLLWWLWLLLLLLWLLDDLDL,” it said, with the punchline below explaining: “Not a Welsh town. Our form in 2014.” For those that didn’t get the point there was another banner nearby – a caricature of the team manager, Alan Pardew, dressed as Pinocchio, above the word “Hopeless.”
Followers of Newcastle United seem to have good reason to be angry. It’s not just that miserable sequence of Losses and Draws, with only a rare Win here and there, but the seeming lack of ambition that hangs around the club like a blanket. Its fans would rather have death-or-glory tilts at the top honours, and a cycle of unrealistic hopes, near misses, calamitous failures, and unlikely resurrections that put them back on the path of unrealistic hopes once again. But have the fans missed something? Has Newcastle United actually discovered the Philosopher’s Stone that lies at the heart of 21st-century sport?
The current malaise – if that’s what the fans insist it is – seems to date back to the acquisition of the club in 2007 by a successful businessman called Mike Ashley. The popular charge sheet against him notes that Newcastle’s famous St James’ Park has been rebranded the Sports Direct Arena, that this proudly North Eastern club has seen an influx of disliked senior figures from Southern England (the “Cockney Mafia,” according to fans), and that the club has lost every vestige of the ludicrous ambition that used to define it.
The current manager, Alan Pardew, is held up as the perfect example of that lack of ambition. He is by no means a bad manager – even winning the Premier League Manager of the Season award in 2012. But when your team’s record is LLWDLLLWWLWLLLLLLWLLDDLDL, most sporting crowds will demand a change. The calls for Pardew’s head have been loud and insistent. Perhaps, however, the Newcastle brain trust has stumbled upon the optimal approach to the whole game of football – and the world of sport?
Think of the way that sports operates in most of the world. There are leagues and there are often supplementary cup competitions. Leagues, at least outside the weirdly socialist and redistributive U.S. model, are exercises in Darwinian survival – finish at the bottom and you get relegated, replaced by new blood, while those at the top get more money to reinvest (none of those progressive NFL draft picks here). That’s exactly how English soccer works, with the added factors that the top league, the Premiership, has massively more cash than the next division down, and those who reach the top four get to enjoy European Champions League football, which is akin to being given wheelbarrows full of cash. Domestic cup competitions have shrunk in importance. Most teams would rather finish in fourth place than have some silverware to polish and a few memories of cup glory. God forbid that you risk the Champions League payday by spending too much money in a hapless tilt at glory. At least in England, though, the TV money is fairly evenly spread among all teams in the Premiership. In contrast, the big two in Spain – Barcelona and Real Madrid – enforce their near-duopoly by creaming off massive proportions of La Liga’s TV money.
What does this mean for the teams? In England it’s led to a distinct stratification of the league. At the top, the four teams in the Champions League have tended to be the same four each year, their accumulation of wealth and prestige excluding most interlopers. Oddly enough, ownership by a sheikh from Abu Dhabi or a Russian oligarch also seems to help. Below them, teams like Spurs and Everton have jostled in a narrow band from fifth to eighth place (often qualifying for the second-tier European competition, the Europa League, which involves a massive strain on resources but very little extra cash – in effect it tends to prevent these clubs from a meaningful challenge on the top four places). Below that there is much more flux. At the bottom you’ll tend to see one or more of the three teams that were promoted from the division below, and a sprinkling of teams losing their grip on the top division thanks to bad management or a simple loss of momentum. In the middle are a gaggle of teams not really going anywhere, but consolidating their position in the table and jealously guarding their Premiership status. For now, at least.
So far, so simple. But what makes it all so much more interesting is when a degree of entropy sets in. Look at Manchester United – the kings of the Premiership era, but recently facing life after Sir Alex Ferguson, its legendary manager. Last season the new boss, David Moyes, failed to keep the momentum going and they slipped right down to seventh. He lost his job. The new man, Louis Van Gaal, is struggling to right the capsizing ship. Despite spending a record amount in the last transfer window, there is absolutely no guarantee they will make it back to the top four this season or next. Manchester United’s decline freed up a place in that exclusive group, grabbed by a resurgent Liverpool. But this season they’re also faltering, and with Arsenal also looking shaky, a gaggle of clubs now has very real designs on a place in the top four.
The trouble is that six or seven into four does not go. But the gamble that they can make it means spending a couple of kings’ ransoms without any guarantee of success. There is every chance that one of that group of clubs accustomed to the top half of the table is going to reach stalling speed and end up in a tailspin that could last a generation. Below them, other teams will continue to either spend a fortune to hang on to their Premiership status, only to see it slip away thanks to a striker’s torn hamstring, or spend even more for that big push higher up the table. The lower divisions are full of massively indebted teams that won cups and even qualified for European competitions – like my own team, Middlesbrough – who found that gravity caught them out in the end. Those mid-table places are the hardest to hold in the face of rising expectations from fans and the ambitions of players, managers, and owners. Like businesses, one generation’s powerhouse is often the next generation’s basket case.
And Newcastle? Their model is the sensible one. The priority is simply to stay in the Premiership. They seem to treat cup competitions as a frivolous and dangerous distraction. If they finish too high, they end up with the exhausting burden of the Europa League. They spend just enough money and energy to ensure survival, but little more. It seems there will always be three worse teams out there, and Mike Ashley seems happy to face down the ambition of fans and just keep the engine ticking over on minimum revs. He knows the stadium will almost always be full, and the TV money will keep coming in.
Some might say this is uninspired and uninspiring, and the fans are livid. Settling for mediocrity and allowing your dreams to be extinguished is, after all, the most difficult thing in sport. But in terms of pure logic, it’s also the most sensible thing for a club like Newcastle. In this era, when footballing success is dictated by the endless petrodollars of Russian oligarchs and Gulf royalty, ambition is unrealistic and even dangerous. If only Newcastle fans would realise this, and start raising banners in support of mediocrity. Surely it’s time for more sports fans to put their hopes of glory to the side, and learn that real sporting success in the 21st century lies in secure balance sheets and steady revenue streams.
Nicholas Walton was the European editor for the BBC World Service and correspondent in Sarajevo and Warsaw. Currently based in Singapore, he consults for various NGOs, hosts the podcast New Books in European Studies, and is looking forward to publication of his first book, a history of Genoa. Nicholas tweets at @.