They have been called the richest club in the world but money is not the answer to Newcastle United’s problems. Eddie Howe’s team have too few points in the bank. That is the only currency that matters at the moment. It makes them Premier League paupers.
The reality of the situation is reflected in the club’s approach to the transfer market. Fans dreamt of Saudi cash bringing big names to Tyneside. Chris Wood is not the sort of exotic foreign signing they expected. Newcastle have met the £25m release clause for the Burnley striker. The New Zealander has scored just three goals this season.
Everything at St James’ Park is focused on avoiding relegation. The view is that the second half of the season boils down to a five-team mini-league. If they can beat Norwich City, Burnley, Watford and Leeds United, they think the team will stay up. Six of Newcastle’s 11 points and their only victory have come against these sides.
In this context, the next two games are make-or-break. On Saturday they face Watford at home. A week later Howe takes his side to Elland Road. Everton, who they have not yet played and who may get sucked into the relegation battle, are up next. This is the time to save the season.
Wood may not guarantee the goals needed to keep Newcastle up, but sources at the club say they are looking to bring in “fighters” and the 30-year-old fits the bill. Kieran Trippier, who cost £12m from Atletico Madrid, was also bought to add backbone to the team.
The England right-back had a chastening debut in the 1-0 FA Cup defeat by Cambridge United on Saturday. He was given a crash course in the mess that is Newcastle.
Some of the squad were bemused by the visit of Yasir Al-Rumayyan and Amanda Staveley to the dressing room after the match. The appearance of the chairman – who is also governor of Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund – and minority shareholder Staveley was intended to send out a positive message to the players. Others interpreted it differently, seeing it as another example of the naivety of those in charge.
It did nothing to strengthen Howe’s credibility. Everyone knows the 44-year-old was nowhere near his bosses’ first choice for the job and it is hard enough for managers in this situation to maintain their authority. It smacks of meddling and interfering in areas that are beyond the expertise of the owners.
They need to concentrate on overhauling the infrastructure of the club. Three months on from the takeover, the posts of chief executive and director of football remain empty. Staveley did not foresee Steve Nickson, the head of recruitment and a holdover from the Mike Ashley era, still being involved in the transfer window. The brief engagement of Nick Hammond as a consultant left even insiders scratching their heads.
Many of the players are aware that their futures lie elsewhere, whatever happens between now and the end of the campaign. The new regime recognises that it cannot expect maximum effort from a proportion of the squad. Newcastle was broken under Ashley. The club is a long way from being fixed.
Part of the thought process in signing Wood was to deny Burnley a weapon in the battle against the drop. Cynics will wonder if it might not have been better to leave a striker who has only scored three times this season in place at Turf Moor, but Callum Wilson’s injury forced the issue. Availability, more than desirability, is taking precedence in the transaction.
On the positive side, Wood – like Trippier – has a mental toughness that many of his new teammates lack. That is more important than quality right now.
The links with Sevilla’s Diego Carlos and Reims striker Hugo Ekitike are intriguing. Howe is desperate to stiffen up the defence, and 28-year-old Carlos has underlined his credentials in La Liga. Foreign imports often take a while to adjust to the pace and physicality of English football. Newcastle need the Brazilian to assert himself immediately if he pitches up on Tyneside.
Ekitike, at 19, is an enticing prospect but probably needs time to develop in a different football climate, although a loan spell at Vejle in Denmark means the teenager has experience outside France. Nevertheless, any transition to the Premier League is unlikely to be easy.
For the moment, Newcastle have to make do as best they can. They have a manager they never planned for, are buying players that were nowhere near their wishlist before the takeover was confirmed, and have a club that needs a serious overhaul at executive level.
On Saturday they host Watford, mini-league rivals who are on a horrible six-match losing run. This is a must-win fixture. It is the biggest game since the new owners moved into St James’ Park. Forget the money. Now it is all about grit. Have Newcastle got enough of that?