The final day of last season was a disaster for Newcastle United. It was a day that started with The Magpies mathematically able to finish anywhere between 12th and 17th in the Premier League.
Lo and behold, as is so often the case, fate conspired to bring about the very worst possible outcome for the Toon Army: Steve Bruce’s Newcastle United finished 12th.
That fateful day has led to what is sure to be a summer, and no doubt another season, of abject misery. For you see, finishing 12th on the final day has a few knock-on effects, and none of them good.
First of all, it gives the false impression of last season being a comfortable stroll to mid-table obscurity. We all know it was anything but that. It was a turgid mire of relegation fear right up until the last 8 games, when Joe Willock resolved to prove a point to Mikel Arteta, and most of the teams we came up against decided that they simply couldn’t really be bothered with this “football” lark anymore.
Secondly, it gives Steve Bruce’s legion of deluded media sycophants more ammunition for the argument that their mate has done as good a job as Rafa Benitez. 12th to 13th is, after all, pretty much the average PL position for Newcastle in the Ashley years.
I won’t go into why that argument is so pig-headedly flawed, as that’s a road I’ve walked numerous times before and frankly, if you don’t know by now, me going over it again is unlikely to help you.
Suffice to say that had that one round of fixtures gone differently, Newcastle would have finished 17th and the advocates of Steve “fantastic job” Bruce would have had a much harder time twisting the narrative to suit their own ends.
As it stands, Brucey continues to be the luckiest manager that I’ve seen in 25 years of supporting the club. But enough about Cabbage Chops for the moment.
The final and most pressing issue with finishing 12th last season is that Mike Ashley will believe nothing needs to be done this summer. A man who only aims to stay in the Premier League will look at a 12th place finish and think that the current squad is perfectly capable of achieving what he needs it to again this coming season. “12th? Calm down, Steve – 17th is the aim, mate. Clearly everything is good enough as it is. Enjoy the summer – same again next year.”
The only time Ashley has invested the club’s money (not his own, I am at pains to add, for those who think he “funds” the club) is when he’s felt there’s been a genuine threat of relegation, be that when Steve McClaren had us plummeting towards the drop zone, or when Ashley didn’t quite trust his own decision in replacing a Champions League winner with a “Man Who Looks Most Like A Punched Bag Of Ham” winner.
Fear of the drop forces Ashley’s hand. We never invest when we’re comfortable or, heaven forbid, in danger of actually achieving something. We saw it after Pardew’s 5th place finish. We saw it more recently when Benitez thought he could build a project and push us on. Ashley simply isn’t interested. And while it’s nothing to do with any takeover or lack of one – Mike has never needed an excuse to let NUFC rot – it’s beyond obvious that our owner has checked out and frankly doesn’t even pay attention to his asset unless it’s in the bottom three of the league table.
A 17th place finish last season would have allowed Steve Bruce, should he have located his backbone, to go to Mike Ashley and say “Look, we only finished one place above the bottom three and that was with Joe Willock in the form of his life. We need him back AND further reinforcements if we’re going to make sure we don’t go down next season.” It might have worked. Ashley doesn’t want the club to drop in value via a relegation, nor does he have any interest in hiring a more competent or ambitious manager, so allowing his pet clown to spend a bit more of the club’s money on the playing staff would presumably have been the path of least resistance.
As it is, however, Bruce has no leverage at all. How do you convince an owner who only cares about finishing 17th that you need to spend more money on a squad that has just achieved 12th?
It’s an argument that has fallen on deaf ears from a host of other managers over the last 14 years, and dare I say ones that could articulate themselves a lot more clearly than wor Steve, so I don’t fancy Lord Bacon’s chances very much, do you?
All the talk this summer is of Newcastle United having no money to spend and that tells you Ashley’s thinking.
Crystal Palace are spending big despite five consecutive years of significant financial losses. All three newly-promoted teams are spending money. Aston Villa finished only two places above us but have just spent £30M on one player.
Would Ashley’s austerity have been the same this month if we’d only just survived last season? It’s hard to tell, but not in my opinion. That 12th place has well and truly shafted us.