At an impromptu meeting of the Newcastle United board three weeks ago, within the bowels of Vicarage Road, Mike Ashley urged those around him to start spending the club’s money.
In the stands there was yet more rebellion from those who had travelled from Tyneside to witness another abject FA Cup surrender – the club has not passed the fourth round since Ashley bought it in 2007.
The most abused player of the day was Florian Thauvin, a £12.7 million signing from Marseille. He had been part of a £50m spending spree in the summer transfer window designed to push the club up to the top eight. Newcastle were, instead, in a more familiar place, the Premier League relegation zone, when they tiptoed quietly out of yet another domestic cup competition. Still to come was the inexplicable folly of agreeing to play Sunderland in a friendly at the Stadium of Light.
Barely 18 days after that Vicarage Road meeting, following the latest acquisition, this time of Andros Townsend from Tottenham Hotspur for £12m, Newcastle have spent more than any club in the world during the January transfer window (Tianjin Quanhian of China are £1/2m behind them).
It is an eternal quest to make sense of events at Newcastle United. Their spending in the last four transfer windows has now passed £120m. That followed two transfer windows of inertia under the hapless stewardship of Joe Kinnear.
Then, the mantra inside St James’ Park was simple: don’t spend. Only the emergency of impending relegation in January 2013 released those financial constraints, five French players arriving in a chaotic spell of Channel hopping.
Ashley remains largely deeply unpopular on Tyneside. There are wounds that are unlikely to heal, from the treatment of Kevin Keegan and Alan Shearer to the self-inflicted relegation of 2009 and the folly of attempting to change the name of St James’ Park.
More so, in recent years, the anger has been fuelled by the simple monotony of supporting the club. The team has become increasingly dull. Fighting relegation is an annual event.
It is the changing narrative within the club that now seems so curious. In the summer of 2014, Newcastle spent around £40m on nine new players under the guidance of the internally promoted managing director Lee Charnley. It was not spent particularly well but it was a sea change in attitude.
By the final game of last season, Ashley was persuaded to appear on television for the first time. He spoke of carts and horses and said he would not leave the club until a trophy had been won. It did not quite rally the Geordie nation, but West Ham United, Newcastle’s opponents on the final day, had one foot on a sunbed, and safety was assured by a goal from a player, Jonas Gutierrez, who had recovered from cancer and was then told his contract was not being renewed by the outgoing head coach in a telephone call.
To that backdrop Newcastle appointed a new head coach – not manager – in Steve McClaren and quietly spent just north of another £50m in the summer of 2015, again targetting bargains from abroad.
McClaren knew nothing of Thauvin, the player who would be jeered by Newcastle supporters six months later at Vicarage Road. The three other signings – Chancel Mbemba, Georginio Wijnaldum and Aleksandar Mitrovic – were on their way to the club before he arrived. At that point, McClaren remained peripheral in recruitment.
Newcastle struggled, dropped to near the bottom of the Premier League, and when more abuse came the way of those in charge of the club at Watford, it felt like a Geordie Groundhog Day, something that has chipped away at the soul of the city for years.
It did not quite tie in with a club that had spent £90m in 12 months. It also did not quite tell the story of what was happening behind the scenes: the outsourcing of much of the match-day operations, the change of staff contracts with bonuses replacing pensions, the belt-tightening of a business now firmly carrying the Ashley stamp, and of a business making money.
In February Newcastle will release their accounts and it will show a profit.
That scenario lends credence to Ashley’s earlier vow. Newcastle United is now in line with most other businesses underneath his Sports Direct umbrella. Just shy of nine years since he produced a takeover of Newcastle that took everyone in the north east by surprise, not least of all Freddy Shepherd, the second-highest shareholder at the club who lay ill in hospital, the club is now in line with the aims of the founder of Sports Direct.
“When Mike came in there was a step change in business attitude,” John Irving, the club’s former finance director, who left in the summer of 2015, said this week. “It’s not the fun stuff but they have [now] got the ability to buy players. When he first came to Newcastle, he came to enjoy the football. That is still what he wants to do. The model works at the club. They are not where they should be this season, but they’ll be better next year. Mike won’t accept anything less.”
That was the picture Wijnaldum had sold to him last summer, to persuade him to leave the champions of the Netherlands, PSV Eindhoven. Newcastle had scouted the Dutch midfielder for four years. He was the Eredivisie player of the year before his £16m move to St James’ Park.
“Before I came here they told me 2015 was a bad year and they wanted good signings to create a new team,” he revealed. “Three players won’t change a team.”
Since then three more have arrived in Townsend, Jonjo Shelvey and Henri Saivet. There will be a centre forward before the window closes – Saido Berahino, Loïc Rémy and Bafetimbi Gomis are the current frontrunners. There could yet be a new left-back.
It is still, however, a club desperately fighting relegation – they face a wounded Everton at Goodison Park on Wednesday. It is also one capable of calamitous own goals. On Wednesday, Newcastle played a secret derby against rivals Sunderland at the Stadium of Light behind closed doors. Newcastle, who have lost the last six derbies to Sunderland, were beaten 6-0. No one at the club has taken responsibility for agreeing to a fixture that has aided the fitness of their relegation-threatened rivals 13 miles away.
It is a reminder, as is their position in the Premier League relegation zone, that much has still to be done. There will also be increasing scrutiny of McClaren’s growing role in player recruitment since he was kept at arm’s length in the summer.
However, there is a feeling, backed up by 18 months of signing players, that Newcastle United are finally changing direction.