View From The Home End: summer SWOT analysis
So, Paul's taken stock of the season just finished - now thoughts are necessarily turning to the summer ahead, and to the new campaign beyond that. Given that we find ourselves in the strange position of supporting a club increasingly widely hailed as a shining example of prudent (financial) management, it's perhaps an opportune moment to carry out a SWOT analysis to assess exactly where we're at. Here's how that wonderful oracle Wikipedia defines the method:
- Strengths: characteristics of the business, or project team that give it an advantage over others
- Weaknesses (or Limitations): are characteristics that place the team at a disadvantage relative to others
- Opportunities: external chances to improve performance (e.g. make greater profits) in the environment
- Threats: external elements in the environment that could cause trouble for the business or project
This is equally true of the playing staff and of the business. As last season proved, we have a strong first team that can compete with and defeat the best, and some useful fringe players to step in and do a job where required. Off the pitch, our financial house is now very much in order - something for which even the most fervent Jabbaphobe must give our owner credit. In both respects we're in a prime position to capitalise and build on an unexpectedly successful campaign (the summer won't be swallowed up with torment, turmoil and soul-searching this year, for sure), and it's now down to the quality of Jabba and Llambiarse's decision making and in particular how much weight they choose to give to ambition relative to caution.
Transfer and contract policy
Much of our success has (rightly) been attributed to our transfer policy: essentially, sell star players at a premium (if possible) and bring in younger, superior replacements for lower fees and on lower salaries. It was this policy that saw the likes of Kevin Nolan, ASBO and Jose Enrique packed off down the A1 and Dreamboat, Demba Ba, Papiss Cisse and Davide Santon recruited in their stead. Our scouting network, headed up by Graham Carr, is no doubt now the envy of most Premier League clubs, and we've developed a strategy of moving swiftly, decisively and often under the radar of both rival clubs and the media when it comes to signing players - Cisse being a case in point. The summer recruitment drive, which has already begun with the arrivals of both Romain Amalfitano and Lubomir Satka, promises to be fruitful - and is very unlikely to result in us being saddled with past-it, benchwarming cash drains like Sol Campbell.
We're an increasingly attractive proposition for potential new signings, able to offer the promise of Europa League football as well as the very real prospect of going one competition better for 2013/4 (and maybe even a domestic cup of some sort) next season. Players of the calibre of HBA, Dreamboat, Cisse and Ba were enticed to Tyneside by little more than a vision, and now that that vision is taking shape there's cause to be optimistic that we can compete for some of Europe's best. The club seems to have grasped the concept of making players feel welcome - even if this is merely a matter of holding international days at the training ground and serving up goat curry - and it's notable how often personal recommendations of the club by current players now seem to be a factor in our transfer dealings. Here's hoping Dreamboat can give the hard sell to his France and former Lille teammate Mathieu Debuchy, and that Tim Krul has a word in Luuk de Jong's ear during Euro 2012.
Transfer and contract policy
First, our whole transfer model is predicated upon the ability of Carr and his team to unearth quality cheaply, and they've by and large worked miracles so far - but (and perhaps this is the pessimist in me) you have to wonder how much longer can they continue to pull rabbits out of hats? (And, as Paul suggested, not all the rabbits they've pulled out have been quite as remarkable as Cisse or Mr T - Sylvain Marveaux, Obertan Kenobi, Dan Gosling and Mehdi Abeid are all yet to truly impress or even make much of an impact at all.) Second, our relatively modest means coupled with a rigid wage structure (both of which have been made transparently obvious to all around) mean we'll inevitably miss out on the services of desirable players, either because we're outbid for them or because they know they can earn themselves a bigger paypacket elsewhere. And finally, Jabba's determination to play hardball in contract negotiations with current staff could well result in the departure of a dependable first-teamer, Danny Simpson, leaving us even shorter in a position in which we already needed to strengthen.
Integration of youth/academy players
Paul was right to identify this as an area of concern. Krul, Saylor, Big Lad and Rocky have graduated from the youth set-up to the first team in recent years, but we just don't have the same track record as (say) Man Utd, Arsenal or even the Smogs of regenerating from within. It's a problem that needs to be addressed if we're to become a more self-sustainable operation and if cherrypicking young talent from around Europe like Satka isn't to be a pointless exercise. Shane Ferguson, Haris Vuckic and Little Big Lad all showed fleeting glimpses of promise last season, but next season is high time they - and the likes of Michael Richardson, James Tavernier and Abeid - all stepped up to the plate.
I'm loath to include this, given all the (generally misplaced) accusations of being wildly unrealistic that us Newcastle fans have had to endure over the years. However, for once we have reason for real optimism so there's a danger that even the most characteristically downbeat supporter might start to get carried away with thoughts of Champions League qualification and title challenges. Such expectation levels could potentially create unrest, internal divisions and unnecessary pressure if our summer activities in the transfer market are deemed unsatisfactory or if the team makes a slow start to the new campaign. It's notable, then, that the Silver Fox is ahead of the game, seeking to dampen hopes before thoughts have even fully turned to the season to come.
I don't know about you, but it irritates me no end when European qualification is talked up as a prized target and yet bemoaned as a burden by the manager as soon as it's been achieved. Let's look at the positives instead: in addition to making us more attractive to transfer targets, our participation in the Europa League presents us with the chance to have a tilt at a fourth trophy and (if the Silver Fox feels it's appropriate) to give fringe players some game time while also blooding youngsters, something I've identified as key above. Most importantly, however, given it's been argued that our prospective development and progress is dependent upon revenue growth, European football will mean more money flowing through turnstiles and greater income from televised fixtures.
Stadium naming rights
Removing the St James' Park signage and inviting corporations to rebrand our ground was a flagrant bid to boost the cash coming into our coffers. The summer is make-or-break for what remains an incredibly unpopular decision - the close season presents the ideal time and opportunity for Jabba, Llambiarse and assorted club suits to pursue and secure a wadge of wonga in return for naming rights. If they can't strike a financially palatable deal in the circumstances - with the club upwardly mobile and once again on the global stage - then the scheme should just be unceremoniously abandoned.
The circling vultures
Our finances being in rude good health, there's no accountant-prompted imperative to sell players. However, as Jabba has made clear, everyone is expendable given the right price. We're arguably most at risk of losing Mr T, with both Man Utd and Chelsea among those rumoured to be sniffing around him, while all and sundry are well aware of the fee required to trigger Demba Ba's release clause, thanks to West Ham's gobshite chairman David Sullivan. Just as our recruitment drive may be hit by a refusal to fork out a fortune in wages, current members of the squad might be tempted to jump ship if sufficiently sizeable salaries are waved under their noses. However, perhaps we should actually just accept and even celebrate the fact that we now have the ethos of a stereotypical selling club; perhaps we should classify the presence of lurking poachers as an opportunity rather than a threat. After all, as suggested above, that ethos has borne considerable fruit over the last two years and could well continue to do so as long as fees received are reinvested shrewdly.
This summer's imminent international tournament is very much a double-edged sword - just one that cuts us both ways. Not only will it mean greater exposure for some of our star performers (Dreamboat and HBA in particular, but perhaps Krul too), and therefore increased predatory interest in their acquisition; it will also almost inevitably result in long-term targets like Debuchy coming to wider attention, pushing up prices and alerting those with deeper pockets.
Olympics, Europe and African Cup of Nations
OK, so here comes the complaint I was trying to avoid earlier: our current squad might well struggle to cope with the demands of three domestic competitions plus the Europa League. Factor in the facts that some of our key players are still to face the rigours of Euro 2012 before getting a well-deserved breather, and that Cisse and Ba could yet be pressed into action for Senegal in the Olympics before both accompanying Mr T to the African Cup of Nations in January, and we start to look somewhat stretched. That deficiency will be offset if we can get the most out of our fringe and youth players. However, with the full-back positions not nailed down, Alan Smith and Peter Lovenkrands goners, and Danny Guthrie, Leon Best and Nile Ranger all possibly following them out of the door, reinforcements are certainly needed for us to be suitably competitive on all fronts.
The 'big boys'
As much as we'd like to think this season's fifth place was achieved purely through our own exceptional efforts, the truth is that we undoubtedly profited greatly as a consequence of the shoddy and occasionally shambolic performances turned in by Chelsea and especially Liverpool. If we're to repeat the feat next year, we certainly can't be complacent and expect either club to perform so poorly again - much-improved rivals are very much something for the objective-setters to bear in mind.