Jurgen Klopp has been vindicated in many a way this season but one of his comments has not aged well. “There are three clubs in world football who can do what they want financially,” he said in October 2022. No names were proffered but the sense, including at the Etihad Stadium, was that he meant Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain and Newcastle United.
On Tyneside, they must rather wish that was true. Newcastle have deep pockets and vaunting ambition. They also have constraints that mean they are unable to access most of their wealth. Their transfer window has brought no expenditure thus far, not through a lack of willingness but a lack of leeway within financial parameters. For clubs such as Klopp’s Liverpool and Tottenham, who have long looked to break even and for sustainable models, it may prove that Financial Fair Play is financially working. Others may see it as the established order’s glass ceiling holding firm, preventing Newcastle from vaulting upwards.
To put it one way, Newcastle have maxed out the credit card: not in terms of the Saudi PIF’s funds, but in terms of profit and sustainability rules. A £400m spend over four transfer windows puts them close to the limit – and, even before the charges Everton and Nottingham Forest received for overspending, very conscious of precisely how far they can go – and, if and when Lewis Hall’s loan is converted into a permanent deal for £28m in the summer, already committed to spending some of next season’s allowance.
Newcastle have not had margin for error in other respects: arguably they had not erred until last summer when, for different reasons, three of their four major recruits have not had the desired effect: Hall has struggled to such an extent that he has been substituted at half-time in three of his four starts; injury has meant Harvey Barnes has only begun two games and not featured since September; and the banned Sandro Tonali is out for the campaign.
Factor in a crippling injury list, and Newcastle are short of players and in desperate need of more. City’s desire for a £7m loan fee for Kalvin Phillips may not represent value for money – not with 17 league games left and the midfielder having barely played for 18 months – but, in any case, may mean Newcastle could not afford a target.
Methods of raising funds that permit them to spend are all unappealing, in various ways. Bayern Munich’s bid for Kieran Trippier and Atletico Madrid’s interest in Callum Wilson are instructive: suddenly Newcastle are prey. Others are looking to take advantage of their relative weakness in a way in which they almost certainly would not have done in the summer.
Newcastle have few reasons to agree to a loan but sales are a way to create revenue they can legitimately spend. At which point, their weakness two years ago becomes pertinent. Eddie Howe has done wonderfully well to transform them but having inherited a team in a relegation battle, everyone regularly involved now is pivotal, while those who are not have very little transfer market value; Matt Ritchie, Paul Dummett and the loaned-out Ryan Fraser and Isaac Hayden will not prompt big bids. The only major sale in Howe’s reign has been Allan Saint-Maximin. If it was convenient the winger went to Saudi Arabia, the price was realistic. But Newcastle’s squad has no more Saint-Maximins who, for all his flair, scarcely suited Howe’s style of play.
There are other complications. Trippier and Wilson are two of a contingent of thirtysomethings who would not yield premium prices and, in time, would bring in nothing. Their number also includes Fabian Schar and Dan Burn, while Miguel Almiron will turn 30 next month. If there is a logic to selling the catalytic Trippier, it is twofold: there may be no such bid again and, in the impressive Tino Livramento, Newcastle have bought a worthy successor.
The biggest prices would be commanded by the cornerstones, the marquee signings who would otherwise be crucial for years to come. Yet selling Alexander Isak or Bruno Guimaraes, even if for a huge fee, would create the problem of how to replace them with anyone of a similar calibre.
Then there is the Todd Boehly route to spending. Chelsea’s FFP loophole is to sell academy players who count as pure profit in the accounts; those who are bought can produce a profit, but only after the book value of the remaining time on their contract is factored in. Lewis Miley has demonstrated huge potential in the last three months; Sean Longstaff has progressed dramatically under Howe. Yet the manager appreciates having a Geordie heart to his team. Cashing in on either may feel wrong.
For Newcastle, meanwhile, this season’s accounts will be boosted by Champions League income, but next year’s almost certainly will not be. As it is, their revenue went up last season by £70m to £250m; their peers bring in far more, and even as Newcastle strike bigger commercial deals than in the past, they face a difficult balancing act.
Howe remarked recently that Newcastle have few friends in the transfer market. It was more a comment than a complaint, but it may be borne out when others try and uproot their players this month and when no one else is offering a generous loan to suit United. It will scarcely bring an outpouring of sympathy for Newcastle at other clubs and nor should it. But as they contemplate either going without reinforcements or losing valued players, they have got an unwanted reminder there are no easy choices for them right now. Newcastle certainly cannot do whatever they want.