Three months into the new season and Newcastle United are already leading the race to become this season’s surprise package. A series of impressive results, built on a stern backline, sees them currently sitting in the Champions League positions. Of course, as is well documented, Newcastle’s recent history has not always been so calm and stable.
Following Mike Ashley’s takeover at St James’ Park, Dennis Wise was appointed the club’s director of football in January 2008. Leaving under a cloud just over a year later, he shouldered much of the blame for the club’s shortcomings.
The acquisition of Ignacio Gonzalez, who arrived after Wise had been impressed by aYouTube video showcasing his talents, saw the former Chelsea captain come under heavy criticism from Magpies fans. His first actual signing, Fabio Zamblera, recently departed the club via mutual termination having failed to ever even make the substitutes’ bench.
Then there was Xisco. The Spaniard’s arrival at the club, reportedly without the consent of then-manager Kevin Keegan, was seen as a decisive factor in the abrupt departure of the Magpies’ ‘messiah’ in 2008. Three years later, Xisco remains on the Newcastle books but has played just nine league games and is currently out on loan at Deportivo La Coruna.
When Wise left Newcastle in 2009, he rightly reflected that his experience in the North East “had a damaging effect” on his career, leaving one to question who would possibly want to step into the breach as his successor.
Step forward Graham Carr. Born in Corbridge, Northumberland, Carr boasts an impressive résumé of previous employers, having worked at Manchester City under Sven Goran Eriksson after a spell as chief scout for Tottenham Hotspur. Arriving in February 2010, he is the man tasked with finding Newcastle quality players that also reflect good value for money. Gone is the aggrandising title of director of football: Carr holds the more traditional position of head scout.
One of the players he identified was Yohan Cabaye. Having just won a league and cup double in France, many in Cabaye’s homeland questioned why he chose to depart Lille in June to join a side that had finished in 12th place in the English top flight. The substantial rise in wages will have undoubtedly played a part, but Cabaye has also explained that he was sold on the project and style of football Alan Pardew wants to play.
The early signs from Cabaye have been more than promising - he is a tough tackler whose range of passing far outstrips that of Kevin Nolan, the man he replaced. With his transfer fee rumoured to be between €5-6 million, he certainly appears value for money.
His move to English football and in particular Newcastle was no accident, however. Carefully monitored and comprehensively scouted, Newcastle were made aware of a contractual stipulation that allowed Cabaye to depart for such a modest fee when he entered the final year of his deal with Lille. No doubt on the advice of Carr, Newcastle moved quickly to secure their new playmaker, surprising many in the process.
Yet this was not the first time Newcastle had made such a considered, and successful, move. Last season saw the emergence of previously little known Cheik Tiote, who rather naively drew comparisons to another African midfielder, Michael Essien. Scouted by Newcastle during his time at both FC Twente and Anderlecht, Tiote was a long-admired target, securing his move to Newcastle on the back of a glowing report from former Twente manager Steve McClaren.
In recent times, Newcastle had become a resting place for overpaid stars still dining out on former accomplishments, something owner Ashley has shown a determination to change. Ashley, often considered a parsimonious businessman, clearly believes the previous strategy is neither financially viable nor beneficial to performances on the pitch.
With so many players to look at, Carr owns a well-stamped passport. The love for his role at the club is clear to see and, in a recent interview with a local newspaper, he discussed Newcastle’s approach to monitoring players. “We are looking at a lot of players,” Carr told the Sunday Sun. “We have teams of players that we’re looking at lined up in 4-4-2 formations because we want to have someone in every position.”
Speaking back in March, one of Carr’s comments relating to the type of player he was then searching for shows a direct correlation with the new tactical approach Pardew is attempting to enforce. “We want players with a bit of pace who can get about the park,” Carr said. “And they have to be the right age and they have to come within the wage structure as well.”
The likes of Gabriel Obertan, compatriot Sylvain Marveaux and Italian Davide Santon all represent the aforementioned pace and movement that the club so desires. While a passion for the job is an admirable quality, it is Carr’s contact book that also makes him a very desirable asset for the scouting network at Newcastle.
Of course, Carr’s role involves more than just the immediate - his eye is also firmly cast on the future of the club. That forethought is typified in the club’s acquisition of Mehdi Abeid. Sharing parallels with Cabaye, a contractual situation at Lens allowed him to depart for minimal compensation. What’s more surprising is that a mere two months later, two of Abeid’s former team-mates were also on Tyneside trying to impress. Darnel Situ (now at Swansea) and William Remy were invited on trial, and impressed during a reserve outing against Middlesbrough.
With Newcastle’s transfer strategy seeming so reminiscent of the rules outlined by Lyon chairman Jean Michele-Aulas in Soccernomics, Carr even seeks the advice of locals when scouting a player. Barmen, taxi drivers and waiters all become scouts for a day - most likely without even realising - while the club will regularly read foreign media such as L’Equipe to further improve their mountains of information about targets. Transfers are planned, players are told where they will play and what is expected long before they pose at the training ground with a black-and-white shirt.
It seems obvious to suggest that Carr’s strength is French football. A physical competition, Ligue 1 is often seen as a smoother transition for those coming to the Premier League. Considering many of Mike Ashley’s decisions have been lamented, including a perceived failure to replace departed No. 9 Andy Carroll, it would seem that Carr’s appointment has laid the foundations for a bright future on Tyneside.