Will the Old Trafford side’s decline be stopped before they become a version of the Magpies?
Roy Keane once said of Newcastle that he “always felt they were an arrogant bunch, for a club that had won f*ck all.” Years later, something similar could be said about his former team Manchester United. If they are not careful, there could soon be more in common between the teams than Red Devils fans would care to admit.
The similarities start at the top and fans could be forgiven for believing that neither of the clubs’ owners care about football as much as they probably should. Mike Ashley wants the club to pay its way, but a lack of nous when it comes to setting up for success means that the Magpies seemingly stumble from one calamity to the next with little to show in between.
The same can be said of the Glazers. At first, they were fortunate enough to have a manager in Sir Alex Ferguson who could use his genius to deliver trophies without breaking the bank.
Since then, they have entrusted Ed Woodward to grow revenues but have seemingly failed to realise just how much money has been spent on bodge-job signings, glamour transfers over practical ones, and managers who haven’t had the tools – personally or otherwise – to succeed in one of football’s most prestigious positions.
Newcastle enjoyed an upturn in fortunes when former scout Graham Carr hit a hot streak with French players such as Hatem Ben Arfa and Yohan Cabaye, but Ashley’s frugal approach to transfers meant that the club could never build on that momentum.
In truth, however, the scouting and recruitment overseen by Woodward has delivered less value than Newcastle have managed. Matteo Darmian, Daley Blind, Marcos Rojo, Luke Shaw, Eric Bailly, Romelu Lukaku, Nemanja Matic, Anthony Martial, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin are all examples of players who cost millions in fees and wages, and never really lived up to their billing.
The decision to hand Alan Pardew an eight-year contract at St James’ Park was certainly a curious one, but then so was the call to hand Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Marouane Fellaini bumper renewal deals.
Both Newcastle and Man Utd’s squads are in a mess. They have expensive talent, like Joelinton and Paul Pogba, but they have cut corners elsewhere and retain the services of Jesse Lingard for Ole Gunnar Solskaer, and Javier Manquillo for Steve Bruce.
Newcastle’s support base has never been a fan of Ashley. Emblazoning St James’ Park with Sports Direct branding and introducing Wonga as the club’s shirt sponsor saw to that from an early stage. Every stadium feels sacred to its own fans, and to plaster it with the logo of a company known for its aggressive staffing policies has not gone down well.
The involvement of Wonga, meanwhile, a short-term loan company that has been called out for exploiting the vulnerable, served only to compound that distaste.
The Glazers have, for now, avoided that route, but the negligence shown in the upkeep of Old Trafford betrays a similar indifference to the perceived prestige and value of the ground.
Journalists may complain of poor WiFi, and there are leaks in the roof, but the main problem is that other clubs have caught up with the sheer scale of the ground while United could have invested more in developing the club’s home.
You don’t have to strip out the soul of a ground to make it modern, you can simply improve its amenities and add more seats for a global fanbase. That hasn’t happened, though. In essence, nothing has changed.
Such consistent mismanagement and ostensible lack of foresight by the owners has set in a barely arrestable decline. For Ashley’s part, his problems caused have stemmed largely from waiting on the right offer to come in to be bought out, while the Glazers seem happy enough to continue benefiting from United’s global commercial pull while problems persist on the pitch.
Kevin Keegan had imbued Newcastle with a sense of glamour and joy, and Sir Bobby Robson alighted on occasional and dignified excellence. Ferguson’s genius, in tandem with the ascent of the Premier League, established United as one of the very best and biggest teams in the world.
Now, to use the modern phrase, the pair of them present as ‘banter’ clubs. That is reflected in their choice of manager.
In Rafa Benitez and Jose Mourinho, the clubs had Champions League winners for managers, who had shown they could outperform when they were given enthusiastic support. Instead they were given unreliable assistance. Money threatened to come but was never sufficiently deployed. Both had enjoyed greater success elsewhere but were handicapped here.
Once they departed, in came underwhelming replacements. Solskjaer’s managerial faults are covered up by his playing career, while Bruce’s appointment was dreaded by fans who felt he was a massive step down from Benitez.
The pair of them have been dealt a duff hand, but the sense remains they are both out of their depth. Recruited as firefighters, they are in imminent danger of being overcome by fumes.
There was always an arrogance to Newcastle, Keane believed. When it comes to his former club, perhaps it is more accurate to say that there is a hubris, a complacency that risked disaster.
Well, it is almost here, and if serious action is not taken, then Newcastle might be an example of where the Glazers are headed.
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