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Football: pre-season ponderings on the big Northern clubs

July 25, 2022 Enterprise Comments Off on Football: pre-season ponderings on the big Northern clubs

In part one of my pre-season meanderings, I took a peek at a burning issue facing each of the three North West behemoths who seized their usual seats at last season’s top six table. In part two, I’m focusing on those who spent more time dining near the toilets.

All three clubs have designs on greater things this season with varying degrees of legitimacy, but one in particular is setting their sights on a place at the top table. Can they unceremoniously elbow one of the traditional clubs onto a side stool? Let’s start with the moneybags Magpies.

Newcastle United

21/22 League Finish: 11th

Burning Issue: Smashing through the glass ceiling

As the mercury rises, so do the expectations of Newcastle fans for the new season. Although Newcastle’s controversial owners have failed to read the room on occasion (a hot potato for another day), their recruitment as the Richest Club on the Planet ™ has been impressively sensible and forward-thinking. The club now sits third in Europe for net spend since 2020 so this is hardly the tortoise and the hare, but as Man Utd fans will tell you, it’s not the size of your budget, but how you use it. In fairness, this team could only improve from last October’s takeover, with the squad under Mike Ashley’s ownership rancid and seemingly headed for relegation.

With Ashley now a distant blob on the horizon and far too many pictures burned on the retina of insouciant fans dancing round in keffiyehs, some impressive business has been achieved. Sven Botman is the epitome of a quality statement signing – a sought after 22-year-old centre half who could form a key part of Newcastle’s spine for many years to come.

Nick Pope brings class and international pedigree as goalkeeper, with solid fullback Matt Targett making his loan permanent to bring an element of continuity. With Guimaraes and Trippier making a mockery of managers who tut at the January transfer window like a builder giving a quote, Newcastle has formed a solid and hungry base on which to build. The only turd in the punchbowl comes with Hugo Ekitike, who chose PSG in a nouveau riche battle over his signature, but this is bound to happen on occasion when you’re reaching beyond your current position.

So, as Newcastle looms in the rear-view mirror like the monstrous truck from Duel, we arrive at our burning issue. Does the team hit fifth gear and attempt to smash the glass ceiling, or continue its outward appearance as more tortoise than hare? Steady Eddie Howe has done great work, taking the club from relegation candidates to eleventh. His work with Joelinton has been particularly impressive, overseeing a transformation from bumbling centre forward to midfield enforcer and player of the season.

But if there are more failed attempts to bolster flair positions, you can almost hear the narrative creaking towards the clamour for a big-name manager who can pull off a Neymar-style signing by force of personality alone. If Newcastle doesn’t set off at pace over the first half of the season, will protestations of a long-term project start to be drowned out? Is Howe really the manager to leave the establishment clubs gibbering like Duel’s freaked-out Dennis Weaver?

Everton

21/22 League Finish: 16th

Burning Issue: Peddling backwards off a cliff

Everton felt like a busted flush last season. The team had thrown good money after bad, signing flops, has-beens, don’t-cares and middling performers. The incredibly ill-judged Rafa Benitez project preceded an underwhelming limp to Premier League survival under Frank Lampard who seemed intent on changing his excuses as often as his formation, blaming everybody and everything apart from himself.

Harsh maybe, but for many the galvanising force of this team was Richarlison, a player who combined the determination to drag a team over the finish line with antics when tackled suggesting he’d had a tarantula dropped down his shorts. Street fighter qualities which, unfortunately for Everton, have now seen the Brazilian land at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium where he can attempt to out-scowl Antonio Conte.

The deal was indicative of the Blues’ perilous finances after a period of heavy spending, pre-pandemic. Proceedings reached a nadir this offseason with talk that the club needed to offload Richarlison by a certain deadline in order to meet the Premier League’s financial fair play requirements. Further fiscal fisticuffs have been thrown their way in the form of relegated Burnley, who claim that Everton have played fast and loose with their reported Covid losses, registering £150 million more in deficits than the next closest team. Add in the sanctions placed on major benefactor Alisher Usmanov plus the funding required for the Bramley Moore stadium development and it feels a little like Everton are stood in the middle of a frozen lake listening to the ice crack all around them.

As already mentioned, Lampard isn’t the type to take flack he can divert elsewhere. After a recent poor pre-season showing, he fired up the relegation klaxon for the coming season, pointedly weaving in a comment about the lack of reinforcements. Free transfer signing Tarkowski, ironically an ex-Burnley player, should help solidify a backline that opened up bigger gaps than your average earthquake last season, but much more is needed and there are big questions as to where the money is coming from.

If this sounds like doom-mongering, it’s because Everton’s situation feels incredibly precarious. Money issues, a manager still finding his feet at the top level, an owner who denies wanting to sell but has the look of an owner wanting to sell, and a squad which seems to have regressed from the shambles which barely avoided the trapdoor last season. Everton are peddling backwards off a cliff at the moment and somebody needs to find the brakes fast.

Leeds United

21/22 League Finish: 17th

Burning Issue: Spending a windfall wisely

Hands up who had Leeds pegged as the seventh (seventh!) highest net spenders in Europe since 2020? This is a team which tiptoed quietly into a relegation scrap last season, ditching fan favourite Bielsa midway through to replace him with Ted Lasso if you believe corners of our esteemed gutter press.

While everybody was pointing and whispering abut Everton and Burnley, Leeds and new manager Jesse Marsch were getting themselves in a right pickle with an already small squad stretched beyond breaking point due to injuries and underwhelming signings. Overperforming after promotion is always a double-edged sword when it comes to that difficult second year. Ask a litany of one season wonders whose careers have stalled along with their teams. It was a tough gig for Marsch to steady the ship and solidify a team which, in part due to Bielsa’s previous tactical inflexibility, had suffered some heavy losses.

Having clung onto survival, he has now been faced with the unenviable task of replacing two of the club’s best performers in Phillips and Raphina, who have swapped a relegation scrap for Man City’s trophy machine and the truly insane project formerly known as Barcelona.

Top flight history is littered with hilariously bad splurges following the enforced sale of star names, the general rule of thumb being to focus on quality not quantity in order to avoid falling flat on your face. So just the seven signings at the time of writing for Leeds. Rules are there to be broken, especially when you’re desperately in need of some warm bodies.

Marsch has mined his Red Bull and US connections and come away with Phillips’ replacement Tyler Adams, the more attack-minded Brenden Aaronson and right back Rasmus Kristensen. Columbian winger Sinisterra was also signed just prior to Raphina’s departure. Added to this are youth option Gyabi from Man City, a further midfielder in Marc Roca, who will be hoping to form a fruitful partnership with Adams in the middle, and 18-year-old Sonny Perkins, who was signed on a free from West Ham, much to the chagrin of the Hammers.

These recruits will need to hit the ground running. With so much churn this summer, Leeds will be keen to develop momentum in the league’s embryonic stages, avoiding a repeat of the cripplingly poor form which almost proved too much to overturn last season.

So, with one major issue addressed for each of the North’s top tier teams, we hurtle inexorably towards the self-aggrandising and monstrous soap opera known as the Premier League. Celebrating 30 years of the circus coming to town, Northern Soul will attempt to keep you abreast of all the shenanigans as hopes are dashed and knees are jerked. Stay tuned.

By Chris Holmes, Football Correspondent

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