Thursday, 21 April 2011

Why the problem is Newcastle, not Michael Owen

Michael Owen's entry onto the pitch at St James' Park the other night - his first game there since he left in 2009 - was marked by a chorus of boos and The Toon Army waving ten pound notes at their former player (on a par, as insults go, with Newcastle fans waving keys at Sunderland supporters).

Their Owen-focused anger was, no doubt, fuelled to some extent the previous weekend when former chairman Freddie Shepherd gave a newspaper interview saying: "It was probably the worst deal I did at Newcastle. That is just being frank. We paid £16m for him but didn't get £16m of value."

He's not the Messiah; he's a very naughty buy

Wow! Now, let's be frank ourselves, Freddie was the master of bad signings (Marcelino anyone?), so this must have been an absolute stinker. However, if anyone really made Owen a poor-value signing it wasn't the player himself, it was Shepherd.

The club's former chairman always operated a fairly haphazard transfer policy. For example, following the sale of Jonathan Woodgate to Real Madrid in 2004, instead of seeking out a quality defensive replacement, the chairman slapped in a £20m bid for Everton's Wayne Rooney despite having Alan Shearer, Craig Bellamy, Patrick Kluivert and Shola Ameobi to call on up front.

With Owen he simply over-valued a striker - one of the common mistakes Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski warn against in Why England Lose in which they analyse the dealings of French club Lyon, which treats buying players as a trading activity (buy low, sell high). Shepherd complains that the club "didn't get £16m worth of value out of" Owen but that's primarily because he wasn't a £16m player.

Let's not forget, the player went to Madrid for only £8m and did nothing in his season at the Bernabeu to justify a doubling in his price tag. Furthermore, when he joined Newcastle they were the only club to make a concrete offer for him - it was a buyer's market (any first year A Level economics student could tell you that). Instead of throwing brickbats at the player, perhaps Shepherd should be asking himself why he didn't negotiate a better price, or simply walk away.

In his time at Madrid, Owen scored 16 goals in 45 games or a goal every 2.81 games which was significantly less than his goals-per-game ratio while he was at Liverpool (1.87 - 158 goals from 297 games). Yet, look at his Anfield record and you see he peaks in the 2001/02 season (28 goals in 43 games at 1.53 goals per game) and then deteriorates in his final two seasons.

So, Newcastle bought a player who had shown a clear decline over the three seasons before they bought him. I'm sure Shepherd took all this into consideration at the time the deal was struck.

While Owen's star may have been on the wane, he still scored 30 goals in 79 games - a goal every 2.63 games. Not great, not terrible but, significantly, better than during his season in Spain. He showed even better form in his first season at the club when he showed brief glimpses of his Liverpool best.

Although it was curtailed by a metatarsal injury and so he only played 11 games, he scored seven goals at a rate of one every 1.57 games. His second season was effectively wiped out by the cruciate injury he sustained at the 2006 World Cup but Newcastle themselves claimed they were happy with the compensation they received after a long legal fight with FIFA and the FA. While it must have been annoying he wasn't playing, at least it didn't cost them.

In his last two seasons at the club - following that World Cup injury - Owen was joint top scorer (with eight from 28 starts and seven sub appearances in 2008/09) and top scorer (with 11 from 29 starts and five sub appearances in 2007/08). Again, maybe not the best return ever, but then also not hugely different to Alan Shearer in his last two seasons at Newcastle (10 from 32 starts and one game as sub in 2005/06 and seven from 28 starts and two sub appearances in 2004/05). But let's not mention that, eh?

Owen achieved this for a team that, in his four seasons, managed to make its way through seven managers (Graeme Souness, Glenn Roeder, Sam Allardyce, Kevin Keegan, Joe Kinnear, Chris Hughton and Alan Shearer). Of course, I'm sure per Shepherd that instability at the top had nothing to do with Owen's 'poor' performances - it was all down to the player himself.

The other question all this begs is; why were Newcastle the only team which made a serious bid for Owen when he left Madrid? In Inverting the Pyramid, Jonathan Wilson makes the case that the game increasingly requires players - and in this case centre-forwards - to have multi-functionality which Owen simply doesn't possess.

Wilson says: "Owen could be one of those players who wins teams the occasional game, but prevents them from playing good football (which means he may prove extremely useful to mediocre sides, or even to a good side playing badly, but rarely if at all to a good side playing well)."

While not suggesting Owen is at fault per se (apart from perhaps a stubbornness to adapt his game) Wilson claims that even allowing for Owen's history of injuries it was significant no Champions League qualifier made a bid for him when he left Madrid.

So, not only did they pay over the odds for Owen, but Newcastle also bought a player "left behind by the tactical evolution of the game".  Again, no doubt this is something that Shepherd took full consideration of.

The fans are also partly culpable in all of this, buying into the idea that Owen didn't try, or somehow let them down. We all know about their Messiah fixation but every pantomime also needs a villain and down the years they've had a few. Currently it's nasty Mike Ashley the man who effectively saved the club from going bust.

Even Sir Bobby Robson felt the full force of the fans' anger. While they eulogised him after he died, few mentioned the fact that he was spat on when he visited St James' Park in 1982 after he dropped Keegan from his first England squad. (Although, on second thoughts he was born in County Durham, so technically that makes him a Mackem and, I suppose, fair game.) Sometimes the Toon Army's much-heralded passion seems to blind them to the reality of the situation

The other criticism Shepherd levelled at Owen was that: "He could have done more for the community". The implication here, I guess is that he just never intigrated properly. Maybe he didn't but equally the quiet family man didn't bring the club into disrepute either.

Dyer and Bowyer in the local community activity: Saturday fighting

He didn't fight on the pitch, he didn't wrap his car round the Swing Bridge, he didn't send abusive text messages to the club captain and no gang-rape allegations found their way to his door. Nor did he get involved with the community like Shepherd himself infamously did when he called the local women 'dogs' and mocked the fans for buying over-priced replica shirts, something which led to his resignation.

No, the only problem is Owen - he really was the worst of a very bad bunch.

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Andy said...

"We all know about their Messiah fixation" - I could happily churn an article out that uses clichés and media generated rubbish. You 'believe' you know about a Messiah fixation but in reality you know what you've been fed by certain sections of the media. Speak to Newcastle fans and you may understand the truth.

The Rooney 'bid' was a strange one. Not because of trying to replace Woodgate with him, but rather that it drew Man Utd out of the water to bid for him. Interestingly, Paul Stretford had an office at SJP at the time.

I don't think any anger was fuelled by a Shepherd interview. Anger regarding Owen has been present since before he left. This is a player who continually gave national media interviews talking up England when a Newcastle player. This was when he was injured and had been for some time. He never gave interviews to journalists based within the region.

It is true that he has a good goal ratio when he played - that is never in doubt. His attitude was deplorable. He visually couldn't be arsed during the final month of the relegation season - yet he could be arsed enough to produce 'Owen - The Brand' as a brochure.

You have rightly levelled blame at Shepherd. However, you have fallen for the tired and inaccurate line about Newcastle fans and that compromises your argument somewhat.

You'd also be pushing it to find a Newcastle fan who has a good word to say about Dyer, Bellamy, Bramble and Shepherd. An era defined by mercenary players and a chairman who was utterly clueless (now we have an owner is pretty much clueless towards football - not so much as nasty but you quickly simplify that and then move-on).

Andy said...

Technically someone from Sunderland is a mackem and someone from Newcastle is a Geordie. County Durham, last time I checked, wasn't in either Sunderland or Newcastle ;)

Michael said...

In addition to the previous comment, people from Durham are no more mackems than they are Geordies, and the fact that one of two idiots spat at Bobby Robson in 1982 shouldn't be used to damn every single Newcastle fan. He was, after all, a self-professed one himself.

Don't like to slam blog articles but you really haven't helped yourself with this one. I would counter more of the points you raise but a) Andy's already mentioned some and b) it would be as grimly Sysyphian a task as correcting The Daily Mail or Fox News.

If your intention was to court controversy, you succeeded. But in the cheapest possible way.

Michael said...

Although, on second thoughts, I can't resist the 'Ashley saved the club' line. What he actually did was buy the club at a vastly inflated price because he hadn't bothered to check the books beforehand. It's the people who are still turning up, buying merchandise etc who keep the club afloat. Without the fans, Ashley's investment would be even worse than it currently is. Shepherd might have been a fool in the transfer market, but he had the fortune to find an even bigger one when it came to flogging his shares.

Roger Domeneghetti said...

I live in Durham, I work in Newcastle. The number of times I and other colleagues from Durham (albeit jokingly) been called a Mackem by Toon fans suggests that, in their minds at least, County Durham = Mackem.
The same Toon fans do seem strangely fixated by certain 'hero' figures. "Alan Shearer must replace Allardyce because he's the only person who understands the club" is a refrain I heard often. therefore, I do genuinely believe they are - to a certain extent - culbable for the club's problems.
The amount of money Shepherd took out of the club and financially perilous position he left the club in is well-documented.
Ashley, conversely, has to date only put money into the club.

Michael said...

This, I think, says it all:

Peasepud said...

"in his four seasons, managed to make its way through seven managers (Graeme Souness, Glenn Roeder, Sam Allardyce, Kevin Keegan, Joe Kinnear, Chris Hughton and Alan Shearer). Of course, I'm sure per Shepherd that instability at the top had nothing to do with Owen's 'poor' performances"

Interesting that you blame the manager instability on Shpherd yet more than half of those mentioned were installed by Ashley.

B+ for imagination
E- for research

Roger Domeneghetti said...

@Peasepud If you read it properly you'll see I don't blame the managerial instability on Shepherd, I merely argue that it won't have helped the team (and therefore Owen) and suggest that Shepherd doesn't take this into account in his current re-telling of history.

C- for comprehension

Michael said...

Although you do, rather typically, manage to gloss over Peasepud's point about Ashley. "Ashley has to date only put money into the club" doesn't begin to answer why Newcastle fans should be expected to eulogise a man who paid a vastly inflated price for a club without bothering to do due diligence and then - by his own admission - made a complete hash of running it. And what have Newcastle fans done to date if not put money into their club? For a damn sight longer than Ashley has too.
Oh, I forgot, some fans say silly things, which makes the whole lot of us culpable for the failings of our club. I look forward to similar posts on why Barca's socios are personally responsible for their club's struggles to pay their wage bill, why Man United supporters brought the Glazers on themselves and why Portsmouth fans are 100% liable for the near-bankruptcy of their club.

Michael said...

"The same Toon fans do seem strangely fixated by certain 'hero' figures." Again, and Liverpool, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Spurs, Celtic, Sunderland and Stockport County fans aren't?
The only strange thing is how tortured your argument has got without you beginning to suspect that you're guilty of inaccurate generalisations...

Roger Domeneghetti said...

Michael, Where do I ask Newcastle fans to eulogise Mike Ashley? Please tell me.

Michael said...

"Currently it's nasty Mike Ashley the man who effectively saved the club from going bust." What else should we do to the man who saved our club?
Now your turn: why are Newcastle fans culpable for the mismanagement of their club? Was Ashley's constructive dismissal of Keegan (costing millions of pounds in compensation and a major contributory factor in the relegation of the club) done at the behest of the fans, for instance? Did he appoint Shearer solely because some fans wanted him to?

Michael said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Roger Domeneghetti said...

Ashley has made numerous mistakes - I would never suggest he hasn't - but again I think the widely-held view of him is in many respects unfair. I don't expect anyone to eulogise him - that is your interpretation of my comments - but I do think fans should take a balanced view of what he has done and the situation he inherited.
Anyway, thanks for your feedback.

Neil said...

Andy you start by saying 'they' have a 'messiah fixation' and end it by saying 'now we have', are you THE toon fan without the messiah fixation ?

Micheal:- "Did he appoint Shearer solely because some fans wanted him to? " ... Yes