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Why Transfer Window Was Subdued – Despite Mike Ashley Splurge

Why Transfer Window Was Subdued – Despite Mike Ashley Splurge

Wednesday, 6 February, 2019 - 07:15
Signing Miguel Almirón for £21m finally broke Newcastle’s club record signing of Michael Owen for £16.8m – in 2005. Photograph: Serena Taylor/Newcastle United
London - David Conn
The headline nobody expected at the start of this or any other transfer window finally wrote itself as January ended with a cold snap: Newcastle spend big on a player. In a Premier League window otherwise dominated by an eerie spending freeze, Mike Ashley appeared to blink first in his icy stand-off with Rafael Benítez and sanction that club-record £21m outlay for the MLS midfielder Miguel Almirón.

While Benítez has been far from shy in expressing his frustrations with the tightness of the purse strings at St James’ Park, Ashley’s motivations are more baffling to decipher, an exercise in Kremlinology or Sports Direct-ology.

Last January Newcastle were alone among clubs at risk of relegation in not signing any players permanently but the loans of Kenedy and Martin Dúbravka were ultimately sufficient for Benítez to steer his team to finish an unlikely 10th. Investment in the summer would have built on that achievement and avoided so much unnecessary unhappiness since. But instead Ashley’s apparent insistence on no investment without agreement from Benítez to sign a new contract beyond the one which expires at the end of the season has met the savvy manager’s arms-crossed refusal of an extension without a commitment to strengthen the squad.

Somehow over the past six months of Benítez’s exasperation and supporters’ demonstrations Ashley has seemed to lose sight of the plain fact that signing players is a basic component of football club maintenance and improvement. While the obligatory and familiar lectures were delivered about financial sustainability, and Benítez pressed on largely with players who won promotion from the Championship in 2017, fans could compare Newcastle’s stasis with the Pozzo family’s beguiling recruitment arts at Watford, and ambitious signings by Brighton and other clubs traditionally considerably smaller than Newcastle.

Even in this strangely subdued transfer window in which Chelsea’s £58m signing of Christian Pulisic from Borussia Dortmund was the greatest outlay by £37m, Bournemouth, still based in their 11,000-seat home, did spend a combined £29m on Dominic Solanke from Liverpool and the defender Chris Mepham from Brentford.

Ashley has trademarked bullish defiance throughout his rise to be king of a British high street crumbling around his cut-price Sports Direct business model but this time, at Newcastle, he has seemed to crack. Signing Almirón has finally broken the club’s record signing of Michael Owen for £16.8m – in 2005, when the Premier League TV revenues were less than a sixth of the current £2.8bn per season.

He seemed to recognise or be persuaded that, while he could defiantly sail close to relegation again and risk almost certainly losing Benítez, he would do better all round, whether he truly wants to sell the club or try to like it again, to strengthen the team. Now he has a better chance of trying to keep a top manager and has given loyal supporters some chink of recognition that football is indeed about anticipation and excitement, not just the balance sheet and ringing of tills.

Elsewhere the distinctly odd spectacle of most clubs sticking with their squads while Ashley spent money may be more a collection of individual circumstances, given record outlay in the summer, than a new trend.

At the top Liverpool did not need to strengthen Jürgen Klopp’s squad for the nerve-stretching title run-in, having spent £75m buying Virgil van Dijk last January, and a further £172m on Alisson, Xherdan Shaqiri, Naby Keïta and Fabinho in the summer. Manchester City have provided Pep Guardiola with a surfeit of expensive acquisitions, so their January was most marked by the exit of the fine prospect Brahim Díaz to Real Madrid; the main arrival being the £7.2m signing of the 18-year-old Croatian midfielder Ante Palaversa, who was immediately loaned back to Hajduk Split.

Manchester United are only now, under the caretaker management of Ole Gunnar Solskjær, beginning to see the best of the galactic talents signed for José Mourinho, so this was not the time for United to spend money. Arsenal, not competing in the Champion League this season, and Tottenham Hotspur, paying for a very expensive new stadium, had their own reasons not to spend.

At the bottom, the struggling clubs appeared to face the realities of possible relegation and the financial downsizing it entails; Huddersfield, Fulham, Burnley and Southampton all declined gambling on expensive signings to avoid it. The only exception were Cardiff, who did opt for the exciting signing of the striker Emiliano Sala. That was an expression of footballing hope and ambition, which appears to have culminated in human tragedy.

The Guardian Sport

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