Friday 21 July 2017

Too many cooks are spoiling the broth as Toon sink into the mire

From the head coach and misfiring players to recruitment, what are Newcastle's key issues?

‘After winning only five league games during 2015 the players’ confidence is alarmingly fragile’
‘After winning only five league games during 2015 the players’ confidence is alarmingly fragile’

Louise Taylor

The manager

An integral part of the problem is that Steve McClaren's title is head coach, not manager and his status as a member of Newcastle's board looks increasingly like a piece of semantic window dressing. As head coach he exercises no autonomy over recruitment and must work with players sourced and signed by Graham Carr, the chief scout, and Lee Charnley, the chief executive.

McClaren's strong suit is coaching - a queue of big names headed by Roy Keane and Michael Owen eulogise the 54-year-old's training ground abilities - but Mike Ashley harbours concerns about certain aspects of his man management.

The former England coach has long coveted the St James' Park job and made the mistake of convincing himself that, once he had gained the owner's trust, he would be permitted a say in recruitment. McClaren has to pick his battles on Tyneside but, with hindsight, the moment when he accepted Ashley's insistence on barring all media outlets except Sky and the Mirror, Newcastle's "preferred media partner", from the "press conference" unveiling him set a dangerous precedent.

Battle-hardened by his England experience he has, outwardly at least, remained commendably calm. After possibly being too nice to certain players for too long, he lost his temper at the end of last month. An apparently spectacular show of anger seemed a watershed moment but the team's response - last week's 5-1 defeat at Crystal Palace did not bode well.

The players

Products of a flawed recruitment strategy, Newcastle's players tend to be low on leadership qualities, experience and streetwise Premier League nous.

After winning only five league games during 2015 their confidence is alarmingly fragile and they seem to wilt after falling behind or when confronted with the pressures of playing in front of vociferous home crowds.

With the dressing room fragmented, there is a lack of group socialising, let alone a sense of striving for a common cause. Fabricio Coloccini may enjoy unhealthy influence in the club's corridors of power - when the captain told Alan Pardew he did not want Hatem Ben Arfa in the team, the then manager acceded. Small wonder eyebrows were raised when a centre-half McClaren initially planned to offload in the summer was awarded a new contract.

Similarly Moussa Sissoko is horribly erratic and believes he should be playing Champions League football. Others wanting out include Papiss Cisse and Cheik Tiote while excellent professionals such as Jack Colback and Georginio Wijnaldum are arguably too nice. There is a clear lack of the spiky galvanising influences offered by former captains in the mould of Alan Shearer and, more recently, Kevin Nolan.

The owner

Autocratic, stubborn, impossible to second guess and, at times, thoroughly contrary, Ashley is a manager's nightmare. In theory the owner is supposed to be adopting a hands-off role and delegating responsibility to Charnley.

In reality the sports retail tycoon continues to exert immense control. Club executives are nervous of a man who dislikes being disagreed with and invariably expects underlings to be yes men.

McClaren has had no direct contact with Ashley lately but the owner is being advised by Keith Bishop, a London-based PR guru and self-styled crisis management specialist, whose client list also includes Pardew. Neither McClaren nor Charnley, who get on well, can have been entirely reassured when Bishop turned up at one of their regular meetings last week.

Recruitment

It is no coincidence that both Aston Villa and Newcastle are struggling. The pair have pursued high-risk blueprints, buying young players from supposedly good-value foreign markets, France in particular, in the hope of selling them on for hefty profits.

Carr unearthed some diamonds, most notably Yohan Cabaye, in previous years but the chief scout is 71 now and has recently overseen some underwhelming buys. The £12m former Marseille winger Florian Thauvin is emblematic of Carr's penchant for acquiring skilful yet lightweight creators who look good on a sunny day in southern France. In mitigation, he remains under strict instructions to conform to Ashley's remit.

Although Newcastle spent more than £50m last summer, it was not sufficient to compensate for a debilitating absence of investment over the preceding two seasons.

A shallow squad containing some genuinely talented individuals including Wijnaldum and Ayoze Perez continues to look imbalanced with glaring weaknesses at left-back, centre-half, central midfield and centre-forward.The team's spine is weak and Newcastle are paying for an amalgam of failing to perform proper due diligence on prospective signings and a damaging refusal to recruit anyone aged over 26.

McClaren had hoped he could coax Ashley into relaxing this rule but will not get his way. Even worse, he has annoyed the owner by dropping hints to journalists that this policy required modification. Ideally Newcastle's manager would sign Michael Carrick in January but, as in so many spheres of life at St James' Park, he seems destined for disappointment.

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