To begin at the beginning though, let’s take a brief stroll down memory lane. In the aftermath of Kevin Keegan’s acrimonious departure from Newcastle United in 2008, an under fire Mike Ashley made a statement. In this, among other things, he attempted to outline what subsequently became known as his ‘Arsenal model‘ for the club. In Ashley’s own words:
“My plan and my strategy for Newcastle is different. It has to be. Arsenal is the shining example in England of a sustainable business model. It takes time. It can’t be done overnight. Newcastle has therefore set up an extensive scouting system. We look for young players, for players in foreign leagues who everyone does not know about. We try and stay ahead of the competition. We search high and low looking for value, for potential that we can bring on and for players who will allow Newcastle to compete at the very highest level but who don’t cost the earth.”
It sounded less credible however when a mere five months later, then Managing Director, Derek Llambias suddenly revised this to the Aston Villa model. Villa were on a very good run at the time under Martin O’Neill and had recently claimed Arsenal’s usual fourth spot. To me, this tended to suggest that Ashley and Llambias were really just plucking names of familiar English clubs who were doing well at the time on a lower investment level than the likes of Chelsea and the two Manchester clubs. In other words, it just seemed like a shallow opportunism by Ashley the huckster, intended to impress, inspire but ultimately deceive Newcastle United’s fans.
Though I wasn’t impressed with Ashley’s Arsenal twaddle, or Llambias’s Villa twaddle for that matter, I DID believe that Ashley had a model of some sort. To look at it from the other side, I found it very hard to believe that he DIDN’T have a model of some sort as that would have been stupid.
Looking back at the evidence back in those days, of course, all Newcastle United fans will remember the ‘three Wise monkeys’ team, brought in to scout for boys worldwide. Then of course there was the exposure in the Keegangate tribunal of a deal with a Uruguayan agent kingpin, who would supply Wise with players in bulk over the head of Keegan. Most memorably of all perhaps, this led to Wise taking on loan a Uruguayan player called Ignacio Gonzalez as a “favour” to the abovementioned Uruguayan. When Keegan found out, Wise dismissively told him watch Gonzalez on YouTube, where there was a poor, blurry 2 minute odd video of highlights (I watched it). Like Pearl Harbour, it was an event which will live on in infamy, or it will with many Newcastle United fans anyway.
I thought about what was happening at Newcastle, did a little research on selling clubs and bingo! There was another team had been doing pretty much what Ashley said he was doing for many years, albeit in a less dishonest, clumsy and incompetent manner than Ashley. The more I looked, the more the similarities persuaded me as Ashley’s Newcastle United developed over the following seasons. As you have probably guessed from the title of this piece, my fledgling hypothesis proposed that Ashley’s real model was actually another North East team who play in black and white stripes, Giampaolo Pozzo’s Udinese from the North East of Italy. “La Zebrettas” (the Zebras) don’t have a large fanbase like Newcastle’s, but they survive and profit by being Serie A’s ultimate selling club. As Stefano Garini in ‘seireaddicted.com‘ put it:
“Udinese’s management is especially good at buying talents from minor leagues and at an incredibly low price, allowing a club with modest ambitions to bet on numerous young footballers with a cost effective team.”
Another piece on football finance blog the Swiss Ramble said in 2011:
“In the last decade, Udinese have received over €206 million from sales in the transfer market. Deducting purchases of €94 million during the same period gives net proceeds of an astonishing €112 million. In most years since 2005, there have been at least a couple of big money sales, including the likes of David Pizzarro (Inter), Marek Jankulovski (Milan), Per Krøldrup (Everton), Vincenzo Iaquinta (Juventus), Sulley Muntari (Portsmouth), Andrea Dossena (Liverpool), Asamoah Gyan (Rennes), Fabio Quagliarella (Napoli), and last summer, Gaetano D’Agostino and Felipe (both to Fiorentina). It’s a seemingly endless production line of players who were bought cheaply, but sold on for large sums.”Back in the days of Ashley and Llambias’s nonsense about Arsenal and Villa, Udinese was Pozzo’s only club. However it now stands at the head of a troika of Pozzo owned footballer farms, developing high quality livestock for top European clubs such as Milan, Internazionale, Barcelona and many others. In 2009 however, in much the same way as Ashley moves in on distressed sportswear brands, Pozzo started snapping up distressed football clubs to further develop his roster of talent. First was a struggling Granada in 2009 (they were on the verge of bankruptcy), and then a struggling Watford in 2011.
Now though, we see Ashley following Pozzo’s lead again with his heavyhanded involvement in a financially distressed Rangers, and also a less hostile involvement (so far) with Oldham Athletic. There has been enough elsewhere about Ashley’s Rangers shenanigans since he bought the naming rights to Ibrox for £1, took over the club’s merchandising, increased his shareholding in the club to 9% and called for the Chairman and another director to stand down so I won’t dwell on it. On Oldham, though he doesn’t seem to have any shareholding yet, the Latics already play at SportsDirect.com Park, wear Sports Direct ‘Sondico’ shirts and have Sports Direct running the club’s merchandising, but is there more to it than that? It’s not much, but their chairman Simon Corning also spoke of a “relationship” with Newcastle United, along with talk of loan deals of Newcastle players: “We have a relationship now, so hopefully we might be able to lean on them for one or two good players” he told an interviewer from the club’s official website. Of course, the Latics also played a pre season friendly with the Magpies in the run up to this season.
Now when big players like Alexis Sanchez, Oliver Bierhoff and many others inbetween are mentioned, some will say no doubt ‘if that’s true, isn’t it a good thing?’ It sounds great until you consider one very sobering statistic, Udinese have NEVER won a major trophy in their entire history. They hadn’t before Pozzo took over in 1986 and they haven’t in the 28 years since. Though they are currently riding high in 4th in Serie A and did once reach the group stages of the Champions League in 2005, they finished 13th last season. Their average league position over the last ten seasons has been 8th. Like Newcastle in recent seasons, they have also been erratic, finishing anywhere between 3rd and 15th in that period. Whenever the team built up a head of steam, with one notable exception (the now 37 year old Antonio Di Natale), it’s best players were sold, usually at a huge profit and replaced with more cheap youngsters. As for Granada, after five years of Pozzo they finished 15th in La Liga last season, and Watford finished 13th in the Championship.
Though it might be good for the balance sheet, this constant ‘churn’ of players has brought no success, just eternal mediocrity and soulless clubs with no hopes and no dreams.
To give you a flavour of the Udinese model, and also what Newcastle United fans, not to mention Rangers and Oldham fans might have to look forward to if my hypothesis is true, the following comes from Rob Hughes in the New York Times:
He [Pozzo] shuttles players around from one team to the other, like books from a central library, or men passing through transit camps.
Udinese alone currently have 28 players out on loan according to Wikipedia. As you can see here, in 2013-14 season alone, Watford took in 14 players from the other Pozzo stables at Udinese and Granada. Having squads as unsettled as that is not the route to real, sustained success on the pitch.
Now I’m not putting this personal hypothesis forward as fact yet, nor even as a strong theory, but I do think it will be very interesting indeed to see what develops in Ashley’s relationship with Rangers and Oldham in the future, and of course the relationship between these clubs and Newcastle United.