In the 1993 classic movie “Groundhog Day”, TV weatherman Phil Connors, played by Bill Murray finds himself in an never ending loop reliving the same day over and over. Frustration sets in early on for Connors as he struggles to understand why he is stuck repeating Groundhog Day no matter what he does. Eventually though he accepts his fate and spends each day repeating his steps in order to entertain himself and hopefully win over the heart of his producer Rita Hanson, played by 90’s favourite Andie MacDowell. Whilst the plot may seem fictitious to most, for Newcastle fans it has become their reality – reliving the same season over and over. Each and every season follows the same vicious circle – at the beginning the fans are filled with hope that this will be the season when things turn around for their club, that new players will arrive to improve the squad and Newcastle will become the team that many expected them to become. But that hope soon disappears as signings fail to arrive. What follows is a painful season as the squad limps through picking up just enough points to survive. At the end the season, the cycle starts all over again condemning the Newcastle faithful to their own footballing version of Groundhog Day.
It has been ten long years for those fans since Mike Ashley walked into their club and fundamentally changed the philosophy and approach of Newcastle from a footballing sleeping giant to a frugally driven business. Like Murray’s adventures in Punxsutawney, there have been more than a few false dawns along the way but all have ended the same way; in bitter disappointment. Whether it be Graham Carr’s French transfer revolution, Alan Pardew’s European adventure or most recently Rafa’s revival, the club has always fallen backwards rather than moving on to better things. Ashley decided a long time ago that Newcastle wasn’t going to be his hobby but instead another profit making machine within his business empire. Success on the field was sacrificed for larger numbers in the balance books. And it worked with Newcastle becoming the 17th most profitable club in the world bolstering Ashley’s reported £2.5b fortune along the way. Ashley has said publicly that despite his multi-billionaire status that the club must now be self sufficient having put £250m of his own money into the club over the past ten years but the math doesn’t stack up. in the time he has been in charge, Newcastle has raked in huge sums of money from gate receipts, merchandise, lucrative broadcast rights and player sales yet consistently spent little on bringing players in. This season manager Rafa Benitez has had to rely on loan signings, free transfers and self funded transfers (selling players to buy players) to bolster his already fragile squad. Added into this, he had to contend with the club trying to shortchange his existing squad in the run up to the start of the new season when they failed to agree a bonus structure forcing the players to take their own actions by refusing to comply with media requests. For the fans it’s a never ending cycle that shows no sign of resolving anytime soon.
Hope however may be on the horizon in the form of Amanda Staveley. The British businesswoman with her Middle East connections launched an audacious bid to buy Newcastle late last year and for a while looked like she was going to be successful. With Ashley keen to sell, Staveley matched the asking price set by the Sports Direct boss (rumoured to be £320m) only for Ashley to up his price to £400m in what can only be described as a last ditch effort to get more money. It backfired with Staveley walking away from the negotiations, leaving Ashley holding the over priced baby. Staveley is still rumoured to be interested but won’t overpay for the club knowing that additional funds will be needed to vastly improve the first team as well as completely overhaul the youth development structure at the club which has failed to bring through anyone of note since Paul Dummett.
So here is why relegation may be the best thing that can happen to Newcastle this season. It’s well understood that Ashley is becoming bored of Newcastle and would sell for the right price. It’s also understood that Ashley wants to avoid another relegation as the value of the club would drop significantly, likely to half of his current valuation. That would result in him having to make one of two choices – stick it out for another season and fund the squad rebuilding needed to get out of an increasingly difficult Championship or sell for less than the original £320m he had asked for. Given that he paid £135m to acquire Newcastle ten years ago and has likely taken enough cash out of the club since then to cover that plus his other investments, selling the club for £200m would still be a smart business move. Staveley would likely re-enter the picture (as could other potential buyers) given she sees the long term value in the club and has a desire to awaken the sleeping giant on numerous fronts. Relegation would result in several players leaving and perhaps the manager too if he has stuck around by that point. But they could be enticed back by new owners with a desire to invest that matches their long term vision for the club.
In “Groundhog Day”, Murray is caught in his endless time loop for an undetermined period. But according to director Harold Ramis, Connors is stuck for ten years before he finds redemption and escapes the loop. Its been ten years since Ashley took over at newcastle so perhaps this is an omen. With Staveley still keen on buying Newcastle and Ashley growing tired of a business that has giving him endless headaches despite being profitable, Newcastle’s escape may be on the cards. Relegation may be the trigger needed for Ashley to finally part with the club and end the fans own Groundhog Day.