TV money being poured into football has changed the landscape of the game, even just in the last ten years or so. Being a lifelong NUFC fan in my mid-twenties and having lived in different areas of the UK, I always come across the debate of exactly what makes a ‘big club’.
With Newcastle returning to the Premier League, there is a lot of debate on what they can achieve and where they ‘belong’. The main thing that irritates Newcastle fans is the myth levelled at them that they expect too much, Champions League football (as Craig Bellamy incorrectly stated recently) or even when Sir Alex Ferguson said we expect to “win the World cup.” A team that is entertaining to watch, has pride in the shirt and is competitive in the top flight is pretty much all we want.
That being said, are Newcastle a big club? Let’s analyse a range of factors to measure just where we sit in the modern game.
Success on the pitch
This tends to be the main yardstick for measuring the size of club, so let’s look at three factors as part of this; average league position, trophies won and European football participation.
Average league position – 9th
Sky Sports recently published a study highlighting showing each club’s average league position. The data has two factors, each team had to appear in the top four divisions for at least 15 seasons and the average is taken from the 1967/8 season onwards.
|Rank||Team||Average league position|
|10||West Ham United||15.06|
This is a really useful measure as getting an average from such a long period of time covers both good periods and the darker times. Newcastle sitting 9th and in striking distance of a few teams above feels about right.
This is universally the first comment Newcastle fans are taunted with when the big club debate arises. Of course, truly massive clubs win trophies regularly. But does Swansea or Birmingham both winning the league cup once each in the last ten years make them bigger clubs than us? Although we have had a long lean spell, it is not as bad as you would think when you consider there are only really two cups to try and win each year.
Historically, we remain the 9th most successful team in England in terms of trophies won, though a lot of that is not recent of course. It is also worth considering however that there are only 14 clubs who have won a trophy more recently than us in the Premiership at the moment. So like league position, looking at trophies won, we are still around the 9th mark.
As there are not loads of trophies to go around, the next measure of success that stems from a good league position is qualifying and competing in European competition. Taking away the usual ‘big four’, Newcastle have enjoyed some memorable European campaigns.
We have competed in the Champions League on four occasions in the last twenty years, which not many current Premier League rivals have achieved, barring the superpowers. We have also had runs to the Europa League/Uefa Cup Semi’s and Quarters in recent memory.
Uefa composes a European co-efficient ranking. This considers recent European performance and the strength of league you compete in, giving you a score which then determines who is the best team in Europe. Newcastle lie 68th in this list currently and the 8th best placed team in England. This measure again suggests Newcastle are not the largest or most successful team in England but certainly one of the bigger clubs.
Stadium size and fan base
This is arguably Newcastle’s biggest strength. Many clubs would love to have the support Newcastle enjoy and even last year in the Championship our average attendance was 51,064. This until recently was one of the highest in England but now ranks 6th for supporter numbers. Mike Ashley blocking expanding St. James’ Park may catch up with us eventually with many clubs investing in new Stadiums, with Spurs and Everton hoping to move into new ones soon.
One of the measures of a big club is still its support and Newcastle rank highly here.
Attracting big names
A sign of a big club is also the ability to attract big names or stars. This is an area Newcastle have historically punched above their weight in. Breaking the world transfer record to sign Shearer in 1996 was one instance, as was signing Michael Owen for our club record fee of £17m. Although he didn’t perform as hoped, signing a key England player from Real Madrid in his supposed prime was a real coup that not many other clubs would have been able to pull off.
We also famously brought Kevin Keegan to the club as a player and manager when we were not even in the top flight; something that feels similar now with attracting Rafa Bentiez to NUFC. Not too many other English clubs could have attracted him to the club, let alone in the second tier.
Finances are increasingly becoming king in modern football. The lack of investment in players from Mike Ashley is something fans are concerned about this summer if we are to compete next year. Deloitte publish a useful guide each season showing turnover of all football clubs, which is a guide to their commercial clout. The last report had Newcastle at 21st worldwide, the first time we have been out the 20 for a long while. This places us as 11th in England and the slipping down the list is mainly down to poor management of the club, resulting in two recent relegations. However, being around the top 20 richest teams in the world, whether it is inflated by TV money or not, is a measure of a big club.
This is an area Newcastle are weaker and are trying to improve. Our income from sales and merchandise abroad is one area Charley is trying to increase with links to the Chinese market and the new shirt sponsor. Being based in the North East is also often cited as a problem to being a truly big club; but as Manchester shows, if you have success on the pitch and finance behind you, location becomes less of an issue.
Interestingly, Newcastle are again ranked 9th for social media followers in the Premier League, which in modern times does show a good indication of a wider following beyond match attendance.
So where do Newcastle sit?
As all of the measures show, Newcastle sit at the lower end of the top 10 teams in England in most areas. This aligns with where we should aim to be competing once we establish ourselves in the Premier League and providing of course Ashley backs Benitez. There are always successful periods and lower times but as an average we are in the group below the big 4-6 teams. With good management, investment and time, there is no reason we can’t be competing in the top 6-8 again and only the bigger clubs have the capabilities to do this.