Mid-January (at the time of writing) and still not a hint of a new signing. No surprise there I hear you cry. Of course, by the time this piece is published, Ashley could very well have gone on a Sheik Mansoor style spending spree. What? You think that unlikely? Ah, you old cynics.
Presumably your expectations, like mine, have been well and truly managed by ten years of transfer windows under Mike Ashley.
As Benítez waits patiently to be told by Ashley what his transfer budget will be, I reckon that I and 52k other NUFC fans would be willing to hazard a guess (unfortunately “sod all” will take up considerably fewer words than the 1000 I’ve been allocated for this piece).
But I bet you still cling to that possibility, that forlorn hope, that this will be the transfer window when we finally throw off the shackles and spend as big as Watford or Bournemouth!
But I’m going to go out on a limb here and predict that the Abramovich-esque transfer splurge may not transpire. And why do I think that Ashley will set the transfer budget somewhere below sea level? It’s simply because, after ten years of his stewardship, we are painfully aware of his Modus Operandi. He sticks to one basic principle. And that principle is that he will not borrow to invest in the team.
This may surprise some people as Ashley’s loan to NUFC according to the last set of published accounts (30th June 2016) stands at £129m. He loaned the club a further £33m last season of which £18m paid off a previous loan. The balance of £15m provided what the club stated were “additional essential funds for operating activities”. So Ashley’s loan to the club currently stands at about £144m.
But Ashley’s loans are simply the price of failure. As the club’s statement indicates, the additional loan was not used for team strengthening, it was for “operating activities”. In other words, with the loss of the TV income last season, this loan kept the lights on at the club. It paid the players wages.
And this is a recurring feature of Ashley’s tenure. When he took over the club, Newcastle’s debt was circa £76m. It now stands at £144m primarily as a result of the relegations in 2009 and 2016 and the collapse in relative Commercial and Match Day income. His failures, which he is ultimately responsible for, have almost doubled the debt.
Ashley will neither loan the club any more money nor allow the club to borrow externally to buy players. All transfers must therefore be financed by money in the bank that the club generates either through player sales or by operating profits.
As Ashley was forced to loan the club money last season just to pay the bills, we can safely assume that there was very little cash in the bank at the start of this season. As a result, the club’s net spend in the summer was predictably one of the lowest in the Premier League clubs (about £10m).
And this is despite the huge cash influx that we know the club will receive as a result of the Sky TV deal this season (Sunderland received £100m last season despite being bottom of the league). Some of this cash influx is due in January and the deluded optimist in me is hoping that the club is just waiting for this latest payment before embarking on a transfer splurge.
The reality is that the TV money will probably be used to pay those “operating activities” (mainly players wages) or even repay some of Ashley’s loan.
Local journalists have reported the wage bill will be over £90m this season. This seems high to me. Our wage bill was £75m the season we were relegated. Having peddled so many high earners following relegation, I’d be surprised if our wage bill had increased by such an extent. But regardless of the size of the wage bill, I’d be surprised if there’s any TV money left over to be earmarked for transfers.
So the brutal reality is that Benitez will, in all likelihood, have to generate funds through the sale of players. But if this isn’t depressing enough, I don’t think he will even get the full transfer fees of the players sold.
Newcastle pay all their transfer fees up front possibly because they receive better terms on their purchases as a result. However most other clubs buy players by scheduling their payments over a longer period. So if we sold a player like Shelvey or Mitrovic, it’s possible that Benitez would only receive a fraction of the reported fee for player strengthening in January.
Indeed, such is the breakdown in trust between manager and owner, we’re told that Benitez is loath to sell any players because he simply does not believe he will be given any of the the funds that the sale generates.
Even loans for the sort of player that will improve the side are probably beyond Newcastle given the requirement for loan fees and the wages those sort of players will demand.
So without team strengthening, Newcastle are undoubtedly in a perilous position in their fight against relegation. I’m just reading that Swansea are set to bid £25m for a striker in January. ‘Kin Swansea! Other clubs we are battling relegation against are making similar noises in the transfer market. In the meantime, Ashley once more starves the team of funds.
Benitez has said that he wanted to have all his transfer business complete by the 20th January. Depressingly, I suspect that he has.
ANDREW TROBE – Follow Andy on @TFAndy1892