Eddie Howe has spent a season not mentioning the Champions League. “I can’t actually pronounce it, it feels weird on my lips,” he said. He may soon need to add the phrase to his vocabulary. Newcastle United’s schedule looks set to take on an extra dimension next season.
It’s safe to say this is greeted with joy on Tyneside. Newcastle were a club mired in depression and have now descended into euphoria. Optimism has returned, and on a ground so big, central, and present that it fits into a city’s identity even more than most.
Elsewhere there could be more of a mixed reaction, and not just if Newcastle sideline Manchester United or, more likely, Liverpool, from next season’s Champions League. For those of a certain age and with a nostalgic bent, returning to such a stage might bring back memories of Tino Asprilla’s hat-trick against Barcelona. For others, there may be dislike for the owners of Newcastle, feeling it represents support for the Saudi Arabian government or a triumphant sports washing project. And there will likely be a suspicion in some circles that a top four finish is the inevitable consequence of spending.
which it isn’t. Or at least not this season. The origin of Newcastle’s funds may remain an issue, but the moral and financial aspects are very different situations. There is something ominous about their rise for some of their new colleagues and there may come a time in the future when Newcastle can certainly be blamed for their success and when their spending eclipses everyone else, with the possible exception by Manchester City and, pending a possible takeover by Qatar, Manchester United.
But not yet. At the moment this is an overachievement; relative to talent, salaries and even transfer spending. It’s what makes a place in the top four a real football achievement. When Leicester visit St James’ Park on Monday in a game that could send one side offside and another in the Champions League, it is debatable which club has the higher wage bill: possibly Leicester, unless they Newcastle players receive juicy bonuses Champions League qualification.
At around £250m over three transfer windows, progress hasn’t exactly come cheap; Newcastle have historically spent far more than they could have done but not as much as some of their teammates and came from the lower base of a club threatened with relegation early in the purchase. Tottenham have spent similar sums over the last 18 months, Manchester United spent more last summer and Chelsea ridiculously managed to burn £600m to almost certainly secure a place in the bottom half.
Newcastle have proven they are an anti-Chelsea team by performing better than expected with clever recruitment and finding good value for money, although a fluke of luck could have led to overspending. The starring role against Brighton, in the win that put Newcastle on the brink of a top four spot, fell to Kieran Trippier, who cost £12m. The second goal was scored by Dan Burn, who came for £13m. The goalkeeper – along with Alisson the best in the Premier League this season – is Nick Pope, whose price tag was £10million. They’re different cases, but each one is a bargain.
Bruno Guimaraes and Sven Botman are in the next group with signings in the £35m-40m range. But the Brazilian has established himself as one of the best defensive midfielders in the division; The Dutchman was one of the best central defenders this season. Each is worth more than it costs.
The club record £63m went to Alexander Isak; When he was injured in the autumn, Newcastle had a negligible return. But the Swede was instrumental in a spring push; A summer is upon us where there will be too few top-flight forwards on the market for many clubs to want. United can sit it out and savor the prospect of Isak’s potential.
It was hardly a promising start for Anthony Gordon; A fringe figure can be overpriced or prove someone else has what it takes. Newcastle certainly paid more than expected for Chris Wood last January, although they did well to recoup much of that £25m transfer fee a year later. Matt Targett has excelled on a loan deal but has lost his spot since finally signing. But when you bring in enough players, no record is perfect: Newcastle’s scoring rate is already six goals out of nine, higher than most. Looking back 15 years, City’s early business was rather erratic.
Perhaps it always took a combination of Newcastle’s superiority, both in the transfer market and on the pitch, and unexpected weaknesses elsewhere to get them so far and so quickly.
Chelsea are having a historically terrible season; Tottenham and Liverpool have underperformed, although Jurgen Klopp’s side still have hope of rescue.
But her fate is not in her hands. Newcastle have been the richest club in the world for the past 18 months but on their way to Champions League riches it’s not because they’ve spent more money than everyone else, it’s because they’ve spent better than virtually everyone else.