The Ship Be Sinking

Mouth Almighty

On incompetence…

I don’t know how this missed my attention when it first happened, but Newcastle have done gone and appointed their FOURTH manager of the season. Many Premier League fans clap along to the patented “Newcastle Comedy Defense” often exhibited by their porous and now Shay Given-less back line. But, I don’t believe that most fans grasp the true nature and scope of that club’s incompetence.

As fans of the league know, the Magpies are not the first club in recent times to bumble and stumble their way to failure. To understand fully the true extent of the sheer farce that is Newcastle United though, it is instructive to compare them to the other sides that have mismanaged themselves often right out of the Premier League.

A good starting place is, naturally, Leeds United. Back in 2000, they could be found in the UEFA Cup Semifinal, to be topped the next season by making it to the same stage of the Champions’ League. When you look up and down that roster, that was a solid side – Nigel Martyn in goal, a backline featuring Rio Ferdinand and Jonathan Woodgate, and a collection of offensive players (Kewell, Viduka, Smith) that at the time was both promising and in-form.

However, they soon were plummeting back to earth in true Wile E. Coyote fashion. Their “running off the cliff” moment was when, in a scheme that wouldn’t have been out of place in today’s economy, they gambled with their future by borrowing money using future Champions’ League revenue as collateral. The moment when they looked down (always the kiss of death in the cartoons) was when they forgot the minor detail of actually qualifying for the Champions’ League. Oops.

First, Rio Ferdinand was sold for approximately the GDP of Bulgaria. Believe it or not, that was a drop in the bucket compared to what they owed…and soon, the rest of their talent was gone in a diaspora that was as sudden as it was devastating. They narrowly avoided relegation in 2003, but by the summer of 2004, they were down in the First Division for the first time in 14 years. A false dawn in 2006 would see them make the promotion playoff final, only to fall at the final hurdle to Watford. That cost them more dearly than they could know at the time.

The end of the next season saw their insolvency catch up to them, and the League deducted 10 points in the standings from the club. They were flirting with relegation anyway, and that sealed the deal – incredibly, a club with a strong and loyal fanbase and decent resources (especially compared to many clubs) now finds itself in the THIRD tier of English football.

In short, Leeds’ method of suicide was a failure to settle for incremental improvement and consolidation. Their ascension to the top levels of English and European football was a wonderful one-off achievement, but they got lost in that euphoria and fancied themselves to be a club on the level of Real Madrid or Juventus. They bet everything, and lost.

That is a fairly open-and-shut case, but it’s certainly not the only path to mediocrity. Take the example of West Ham United. Long a stalwart of the league’s upper-middle class (they seemed to finish 6th or 7th every season, give or take a little), the rot began when they appointed the spectacularly dreadful Glenn Roeder as manager. After a decent full first season, the Hammers found themselves relegated in the summer of 2003. Look at their roster! David James was in goal. The midfield was run by Joe Cole, Michael Carrick, and Lee Bowyer. Jermaine Defoe and the evergreen Paolo di Canio were up top. No, that’s not a club that is going to challenge for the title, but doesn’t it seem awfully similar to Portsmouth’s FA Cup-winning lineup of last season?

As their season crashed down around them, the media reports kept using the phrase “club that’s too good to go down.” Well, they managed it anyway, and I’ll always insist that they believed that press too much, and that they had a manager who wasn’t strong enough to settle the side and get them ready for the relegation battle (odd side-note about how these stories intertwine at times – Leeds finished just 5 points above them at the season’s end…their one-season survival occured at West Ham’s expense).

So, we’ll chalk that one up to hubris and a lack of leadership…always a deadly combination. But, sometimes it isn’t as sinister as all of that. Once in a while, you’ll get a club that does spectacularly well and overachieves for a length of time. At some point though, that team will get found out, and by some combination of factors, they will find their level again. Charlton Athletic springs to mind here – the tremendous stewardship of manager Alan Curbishley took Charlton from modest South London roots (smallish stadium, fairly anonymous in a city that boasts Arsenal and Chelsea and Spurs, close proximity to a similarly-sized club in Crystal Palace) to the top half of the top flight.

Then, Curbishley left. That first domino falling was all it took – the subsequent replacements could not right the ship, the halfway decent players left for greener pastures, and all of a sudden the work of a decade was undone in a season. A few seasons before that, Ipswich Town crashed the Premiership party in a big way by finishing in 5th place (with a hilariously tiny and anonymous squad) and marching triumphantly into Europe. That, of course, was murder on said small squad, and they went from Europe to relegation in short order.

All of that is a long-winded way of saying that incompetence is usually sudden and unforgiving, much like the demise of someone unfortunate enough to suffer a heart attack. Also, the symptoms are typically very clear and traceable. With Newcastle though, they are more like the poor guy with slow-moving but terminal cancer. Even the Toon Army themselves know that this club is fading badly, and there’s nothing they can do about it.

Of course, some of the symptoms are immediately recognizeable. It’s easy to forget that as recently as 2004, Newcastle were firing manager Sir Bobby Robson for failing to qualify for the Champions’ League. That’s right – in a scenario where the top four clubs qualify for a tournament in a league containing Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool (Chelsea had of course not yet received their injection of Russian blood money), it’s amazing how many clubs burned on the altar of the Pyrrhic victory of finishing fourth and earning the right to get annhiliated by the likes of Inter Milan or Barcelona.

I digress, though. The Chairman, Freddy Sheppard (himself a known financial miscreant who was found to be siphoning money from the club to fund dodgy investments for years), replaced Robson with Graeme Souness – a man remarkable for his ability to keep finding employment despite being a failure in every coaching job he’s had (think of him as Scotland’s answer to Isaiah Thomas). That went about as well as you’d expect, so Souness was canned and replaced by…wait for it…Glenn Roeder! Yes, the same guy who got “The team too good to be relegated” relegated!

That explains the on-field deterioration of the club from one finishing in the upper middle-class of the table and occasionally finding themselves in Cup finals to one languishing in the lower positions (though not quite relegation fodder). But, what of the institutional lunacy that plagues the club now?

Easy. As horrendous as Sheppard’s leadership was, the Toon Army had seen nothing yet. Enter new owner Mike Ashley.

Now, Ashley is not a stupid man. Short of winning the Powerball or lucking into an inheritance, one does not come into tremendous sums of money by being a moron. In his arena, he is a smart and ruthless businessman. However, football is its own little world entirely, and having skill sets in the former is not an indicator of survival or competency in the latter.

After Roeder was finally dumped after several seasons of incremental regression, the long-suffering Geordies finally had the man to lead them back to respectability. Whatever I may think of the man personally (short version: his teams play disgusting and brutish football, he’s an arrogant and odious man, and let’s not forget the allegations of financial irregularities with agents), Sam Allardyce is a manager who has a track record of achieving remarkable results with barren resources. That was Sheppard’s last act at the club, and had Big Sam been left to his devices, it could have gone some way towards making up for his other mistakes (which are legion).

Ashley fired Allardyce 8 months into his tenure. The cancer spreads.

His replacement was the living embodiment of the phrase “you can’t go home again”, Kevin Keegan. Most older fans remember his early-90s sides, including the one that choked away a 12-point lead to hand the title to Manchester United.

You know, now that I mention it, how different would all of this be if they had won that title? I’m not saying they’d definitely be a top club still, but the mid-90s was the beginning of the era that saw the calcification of the pecking order in English (and world) football. Prior to that, a club could follow the Ipswich path in a short amount of time. Now, the top four are the same every season, the next 3-4 are often the same, and the relegation battlers are typically the same. If Newcastle had won that title and then reinforced that squad with one or two more players, we could be talking about a Top Five today.

Anyway, Keegan returned, despite his admittance that he was not a tactician of the caliber of many of his peers. That actually forces me into yet another digression, but it’s a necessary one.

When Keegan’s teams were challenging for the title, they were a swashbuckling outfit famous for their mentality of “you can score four, but we’ll score five”. One could possibly argue that Newcastle’s defensive woes as a club could be rooted in the adoption of that strategy. Some clubs – Spurs in decades past, Arsenal now – become associated with attacking football, and the pressure from supporters to maintain it can have knock-on effects to other aspects of the game. Oddly, that trend reversed a bit after Keegan left, as the beginning of the Alan Shearer as the main striker years saw them largely become a one-man offensive team buttressed by a workmanlike-but-decent defense. During the Robson years, the defense slowly started to get better. After the team conceded 54 goals in his second season (despite finishing 4th), the next campaign saw them reduce that to 48 on their way to 3rd place. In 2003-04, that further dropped to 40 despite falling two places to 5th. Robson was fired in August the next season.

Let me reiterate – Robson was fired after a season in which they conceded about 15 goals less than their usual, and where they finished in a UEFA Cup-qualifying position. Marvel at the amazing stupidity of this with me as we move along.

Under Souness, they dropped to 14th with 57 goals against (lest we forget, this is the campaign that ended with Bowyer and Kieron Dyer fighting on the pitch). He was dismissed the next season, and fair play to him, Roeder got them back to 7th with 42 conceded. However, that largely proved to be a fluke as they went right back to business as usual from then on.

This fails to take into account the sheer ineptitude of the team’s back line. Don’t forget that during all this, the Magpies benefited enormously from the presence of Shay Given, who hindsight has shown to be one of the most underrated goalkeepers of recent times. Were it not for his heroic work between the sticks, one can imagine with little hyperbole that this club could be two divisions lower than it is right now. Also, while some buys like professional clown Titus Bramble require little explanation, what of the others? What of the example of Jean-Alain Boumsong, a center half chased by many top clubs before Newcastle got him? His strong play became erratic and error-prone, but he was still talented enough to be sold to Juventus. What does that tell you?

If I knew what the exact cause was, I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this. I can tell you though that a club run by Souness, Roeder and Keegan in order is never going to remind anyone of the ferocity of Arsenal’s Dixon-Keown-Adams-Winterburn back line.

Back to Keegan – his arrival did galvanize the club somewhat, if only for his motivating abilities and talismanic presence. Again, if this had been left to its own devices, the patient may at least have been stabilized. Naturally, Ashley decided to install a contiental-style upper-management structure, where the manager answers in large part to a Director of Football. That’s fine for the clubs that have operated that way forever, but ham-fistedly trying to install that setup (and dubious-at-best hiring of Dennis Wise for the Director position) to a club already in turmoil is not the course of action I would have suggested. Keegan refused to report to Wise, and soon quit.

The best part is, Keegan didn’t come out and say it, and neither did the club. Things hung in limbo for a bit, before Ashley sheepishly admitted it was true. Soon after, he penned a long, rambling missive about how he was selling the club. I know I’m just re-stating history here, but seeing it lined up in order outlines the lunacy and institutional incompetence of this club. The point I’m trying to make is that this isn’t a Leeds or a West Ham – this is a veritable textbook that all sports franchise owners should read about how not to succeed.

We all know the story from here. Joe Kinnear was brought in and did OK until heart problems forced him to step aside. For long weeks afterward, the club ambled along with no permanent manager until Shearer was named. With just 8 matches left to go and the Magpies sitting in the relegation places (albeit only 3 points behind 14th-place Sunderland), a complete rookie is expected to guide the club to safety. He’s been retired for several years now, and the man still does not have his UEFA Pro License to coach. He has no time served on any coaching staff. It’s another talisman, and honestly the last one this club has. If Shearer fails, this patient is dead.

That’s the worst thing, from their perspective. If this gambit fails, then they have truly played their last card. They will head to life in the extremely competitive First Division with a squad bereft of young talent, no one who can play defense, a career backup starting in goal and left with no tricks left in the bag.

Newcastle and Leeds used to meet in the Premier League all the time…they may see each other again before we know it.

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April 1, 2009 - Posted by | Other Soccer

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