Back in 2014, Nicholas Walton cheekily pointed to Newcastle United’s strategy of maintaining mediocrity as a sensible one. In an age when big-money teams held a lock on the top spots in any league, why shouldn’t clubs with limited resources simply be content with a place the middle of the table? But this most recent season of the Premier League has thrown that strategy into disarray.
In 2014 the world of football looked so different. Leicester City were a small town team, hoping to find their feet in the Premiership after a lengthy struggle back from the third division of English soccer. The crucial top four positions were dominated by teams like Man City, Arsenal, and Chelsea (Liverpool were also there, while Manchester United were undergoing what was presumed to be a brief period of “rebuilding”). And Newcastle United, as I suggested in an Allrounder article, had unlocked the secret to winning the entire game of sport.
How wrong I was.
Now, after the close of the 2015-16 season, Leicester City are Premiership champions. Teams like Spurs, West Ham, and Southampton are as credible as the traditional “big” teams when it comes to challenging for places in the European Champions League. And Newcastle? Oh dear.
My original argument was simple. In a competitive league dominated by wealthy clubs, sometimes the most effective strategy is not to compete. With only four lucrative Champions League places up for grabs, and those spots taken year-in and year-out by the same four or five teams, it didn’t make sense to pour in the investment to challenge, given the odds on failure. Look at Leeds United, who hit the big time and then hit financial disaster. They are lucky to survive as a sports club, and their days of glory are distant memories. If you just miss out on the top four positions, then you then end up in the Europa League, with the massive burden of a dozen extra matches if your team is successful. The Europa League can also involve dusting off your passport for trips to places like Azerbaijan (Qäbälä FC and Qarabağ), Russia (Kransnodar and Rubin Kazan), and Kazakhstan (Kairat). This is expensive and distracting. And if you manage a run in one of England’s two domestic cup competitions, you might end up exhausting your players and slipping down into the relegation places. Look at Middlesbrough, Hull, Portsmouth, Manchester City, Leicester, Brighton, and Wigan. They have all gone down in the same season as reaching the FA Cup final.
Newcastle realised this, and came up with a solution – under the sagacious leadership of sportswear tycoon Mike Ashley. The club is enormously popular in its home town, routinely selling out the 52,000-seat St James’ Park, and selling a heap of merchandise into the bargain. It bought players on the basis of their resale value, and settled for early exits from the cups. Newcastle’s aim was to simply tie up Premier League survival and continue to rake in the cash from television deals.
This apparently winning strategy suffered from one enormous flaw – it gradually sucked the life and dynamism out of the club, leaving it a gutless wreck, devoid of fighting spirit and stocked with under-motivated mercenary players. The supporters continued to turn up, but the atmosphere at matches turned toxic, further undermining the players. This season, when Newcastle saw how things were unravelling, they tried to remedy the situation by spending large chunks of cash, including a few big-ticket players in the January transfer window. But now, thanks to the efforts of their fierce rivals Sunderland, Newcastle have just been relegated.
This is a disaster. Next season a mammoth new television deal is coming in for the Premier League. The twenty teams who line up in the League in late August will each pocket around £120 million in TV money, compared to an average of £80 million now. Teams that are relegated in the future will have enormous “parachute payments” to soften the blow, allowing them to maintain much more expensive squads than their lower-league rivals. But this year’s three relegated teams – Newcastle, Aston Villa and Norwich – will all miss out. If ever there was a season not to get relegated, it’s this one.
Newcastle’s model, then, was not quite as clever as I – and Mike Ashley – thought it was. But if that isn’t the model to follow, what is? Newcastle’s two rivals in North East England may have the answer.
Firstly, Sunderland – only eleven miles to the south-east, with a set of supporters who are deliriously happy after their 3-0 win over Everton confirmed Newcastle’s relegation. However, the general strategy that Sunderland has been following might be termed “Newcastle-local-max.” Before this year they have been consistently more dismal in the league than their local rivals. In the last five seasons, Sunderland have finished 13th, 17th, 14th, 16th, and 17th (the 18th, 19th and 20th clubs are relegated). The football on offer has been turgid, and the only thing that has kept the club going has been a succession of wins in derby matches with Newcastle. In short, they copied the Newcastle approach (without getting relegated) but with the vital ingredient of beating their big local rivals again and again. That has been enough for the fans to forgive Sunderland their other sins. So far, it’s a winning formula, if not a particularly inspired one.
Secondly, Middlesbrough, which is a few miles further south. Boro have only just been promoted back to the Premiership after seven years in the wilderness of the second division. That is undeniably good timing, given the riches on offer with the new Premiership TV deal. But what is their model? The answer is “Bilbao-local-lite.” Boro’s chairman, Steve Gibson, is one of the few men in such positions to care as much about the town and its people as its football team. The club has invested heavily in its youth academy, and they have a habit of bringing back local heroes who have gone on to good careers elsewhere, like Gary Pallister, Tony Mowbray, Juninho Paulista (a Brazilian kind of local), and Stewart Downing. The crowd showed their local solidarity this season with emotionally charged displays connected to the closure of a steelworks and the death of a much-loved radio presenter. In this desperately poor corner of Britain the club is a focal point rather than a trinket for some foreign billionaire. This might not be quite as hyper-local as Athletic Bilbao, which still fields a team composed entirely of Basques, but it’s a more pragmatic step in exactly that direction.
So how will these three approaches play out next season, in this hotbed of football that has recently gone decidedly off the boil? For Newcastle, the model has already failed – and given how tough it will be to climb back to the Premiership with players who don’t really fancy fighting for the club, it might just continue failing. For Sunderland, the problem is that they’ve succeeded in relegating their own reason for being. It might feel good now to see Newcastle dropped from the Premiership, but another season of moribund football without the promise of any victories against their rivals will feel hollow. With no derby matches against Newcastle, supporters might just be asking what the point is.
And for my club, Middlesbrough, next season will doubtless be a struggle after so many years away. But that’s okay. The club is more than just a league placing for the supporters, and pride is high while expectations are low (as I’ve written before, Middlesbrough supporters are used to lives of misery). The simple appreciation of a season in Premiership, rather than the failure of the clubs up the road to cynically preserve their places in the league, might really be the secret of how to win sport.
Nicholas Walton was the European editor for the BBC World Service and correspondent in Sarajevo and Warsaw. He is author of Genoa, ‘La Superba’: The Rise and Fall of a Merchant Pirate Superpower. Nicholas tweets at @.