With most Premier League clubs getting their pre-season training underway next week, and the European transfer window opening on July 1st, the time seems right for an article which mixes the solid facts - like the existence of pre-season training - with vague and meaningless hypothetical situations, like the baseless and often comical rumours dreamt up by the media and sites like GiveMeFootball and Goal.com.
The most obvious thing to write such an article on is, as the title suggests, what Newcastle can realistically aim for next year. There is the solid fact that Newcastle will be at least attempting to compete for honours next year, and the fantasy side of just how well they can actually do. With the club no longer participating in the Europa League, focus turns entirely to the domestic front, and leaves the Magpies with just three competitions to compete for: The Premier League, the Capital One Cup and the FA Cup.
Newcastle are not exactly favourites to do well in the cup competitions – Bwin Betting have them at just over 30/1 to win the FA Cup – but then, part of the magic of both cup competitions is that the smallest clubs can produce incredible cup runs – just ask Wigan Athletic or Bradford City. Given the glory that fans are able to bask in if they win a cup competition, many feel that it is worth suffering a poor league campaign in order to win a trophy elsewhere.
There are two obvious options on offer: ignore the cup competitions, and focus entirely on returning the club to a more respectable league position – which would favour a plan of long term development and re-establishing the club as more of a force in competing for honours on a regular basis – and doing the opposite, and trying as much as possible to achieve success in the cup competitions, which would certainly mean a much more enjoyable season, but would be risky given how unlikely it is that success will come around and the potential for the club’s league position to be damaged by such efforts.
The latter statement does not by any means imply that going all out for cup competitions is a waste of time – it can break the tedium of a mindless season drifting around in mid-table, and even winning something like the much-maligned League Cup can provide supporters with much longer-lasting memories than, say, a consistent Premier League season leading to a top ten finish, at the expense of an early exit from both cup competitions.
From Newcastle’s point of view, this may well seem attractive, especially given that not including the 2009/10 Championship the club have not lifted a major trophy since the FA Cup in 1955.
If Newcastle were to win a cup competition, even if they had done poorly again in the league they could still use that to show to potential new signings that they could still compete for silverware, and this could be an important tool in attracting top players – for all that clubs such as Everton and West Brom did very well in the league last year, the former have not won anything since 1995, whilst the latter, not including the Championship, have not won anything for even longer than that.
For players who are less motivated by money and more by silverware, there must be something boring and monotonous about being at a club which is always comfortably in mid-table every year without ever promising to achieve anything more. But away from the ins and outs of player psychology, and the future potential transfer dealings of the club, reaching a cup final would be fantastic for the club even if it only meant a day out at Wembley for the fans – and the reality is that it would mean much, much more than that.
On the other hand, it can also be argued that Newcastle’s first priority should be securing a better finishing position in the league than the wholly disappointing 16th managed in the season just finished.
Although supporters often revel long in the glories of a cup triumph, those outside the club can forget those achievements surprisingly quickly – for all that Liverpool won the 2012 League Cup, for example, everybody else found that relatively easy to ignore when they then stumbled to a 8th-placed finish in the League that year.
What’s more, winning a cup competition – especially one such as the League Cup in which many top sides don’t put out a full strength XI until the latter stages of the tournament – doesn’t necessarily suggest to potential signings that the club is making steady progress, as triumph is based on a series of one-off results, with no need for the consistent performances required to do well in the league.
Moreover, winning the League Cup in particular has proven to be the ultimate poisoned chalice for clubs in recent years – Birmingham in 2011 won the League Cup and went on to be relegated, whilst losing finalists Arsenal picked their form up and secured a top four finish. In 2012, Liverpool were strongly and realistically competing for a Champions League place before they won the League Cup; afterwards they won just three more games in the rest of their league campaign, and ended up finishing 8th.
This year Swansea City enjoyed just two of their 11 League wins after they won the League Cup on the 24th of February. Clearly, for those clubs not rich enough to enjoy a large and well rounded squad, pushing for success in the cup competitions, which leads to many more midweek games and tires the squad out, can have a severely detrimental effect on League performance. Whilst the FA Cup is less damaging in this way, the fact that bigger teams tend to take it more seriously also means that it is much harder to win – Wigan and Portsmouth are the only sides to win it and finish outside the Premier League’s top 6 since 1995, and Portsmouth were 8th and only a few points off 6th themselves.
A more conservative approach to the cups, matched with a solid performance in the league, could see Newcastle finish in the top ten next year, and build well for the next five, as well as attracting the calibre of player they managed in the summer of 2011, which they were able to do thanks to a respectable league finish, despite not having competed strongly for cup competitions.
Of course, strong efforts in both the league and the cup are also theoretically possible, but the truth is for such a season serious investment is needed during this summer – and whilst the goings-out are underway, with Danny Simpson joining QPR, Newcastle’s new director of football Joe Kinnear (pause for shocked silence) has yet to bring anyone into the club, despite his bold claims on Talksport about being able to attract anyone in the world (although if his boastings are proven to be well founded, hopefully the likes of Zlatan Abramanimovic and Arjen Robbing will be gracing the black and white shirt next season).
This is where the likes of Newcastle come unstuck against the big guns of the Premier League – unfortunately, the Magpies can’t afford to shell out six-figure sums every week to keep Dzekos, Tevezes and Marins on the bench and use them only in the cup competitions, allowing them to keep competing in both the cups and the league without suffering from fatigue.
However, with good and wise investment, fans can dream of such feats, providing the club act quickly to bring in good players at reasonable value. If this proves too difficult, then the club will have to settle for one of keeping the fans happy in the short term, or building slowly for the long term.