Rarely do Newcastle take easy option
On a day when St George's Park, a centre designed to produce a better standard of English football, was finally opened by the Football Association, Newcastle United's training ground was the setting for confirmation of an agreement aimed to deliver a brighter future to St James' Park.
A reputed four-year deal worth £8m-a-year with high-interest payday loan company Wonga comes with controversy, but also benefits. It might not be the ideal link-up to hearten football or political purists, but in the boardroom there is a different perception. After the club's managing director, Derek Llambias, had explained how it was the
"biggest sponsorship deal in Newcastle's history"
and defended the decision to set up a partnership with the controversial company, he revealed how the latest development is an indication of further progress under the Mike Ashley regime. There was an acceptance that the Wonga deal would raise eyebrows and that it would not suit everybody. But when have Ashley and Llambias taken the easy route at Newcastle?
Less than a fortnight after handing manager Alan Pardew and his backroom team new eight-year contracts, a lucrative agreement has been reached to bring in a substantial investment from the start of next season. Wonga's decision to pay for the naming rights - in their words, to
"give the name St James' Park back to the fans" - has been well received by Pardew and it is safe to assume the majority of supporters. So it has been a satisfying fortnight for the money-men at Newcastle United.
"It's been big a big two weeks," said Llambias, chatting in the October sunshine yesterday after pulling away from cameras.
"For me it's all about stability.
"To be able to get the coaching staff on side for eight-year deals, the manager on side for an eight-year deal and then complete our sponsorship deal with Wonga, plus the stadium naming rights as part of that, it's a very good two weeks for the club."
Over the course of the four-year deal with Wonga, Newcastle's academy structure and community projects will benefit to the tune of £1.5m, which will further improve a club confident of securing category one status in the Elite Player Performance Plan after missing out in the summer.
"We're talking about pitches, we're all talking about different things they can do for our academy, maybe opening one or two more centres of excellence," he said.
"We've got five or six now - we're hoping to open another two, which will be sponsored by Wonga."
In the five years that Ashley has been the controlling shareholder of Newcastle, he has not been afraid to make controversial decisions. While sections of fans are unlikely to ever forgive him, there are also those who have weakened their stance following the club's turnaround. The common goal, Llambias suggests, is that they all want to win silverware.
"We started off poorly. I came in after the first year: I picked up from there and it's been a difficult, difficult period. We've been plugging away, slowly," said Llambias.
"You don't understand what we've done - we've done a good job. We've been realistic about what this club can do and what it can do in the future.
"Financially we are stable and we will get stronger and stronger.
"Knowing Alan Pardew as I do, that guy wants a trophy. This club deserves a trophy - FA Cup, whatever, it deserves a trophy. That's where Alan is at, that's where we're at. You have to understand, we've got an owner who's not used to failure. What we've got now is a very good format."
Crucially Llambias also indicated that
"no money will go outside the club" when he asked if the sponsorship deal will mean extra signings. He also stated:
"It adds to a pot and that pot can only get better."
He knows the criticism of the lucrative sponsorship agreement will not disappear quickly, but there has rarely been a major off-the-field decision made by him and Ashley that has been greeted with open arms. That will not distract Ashley from delivering the business model he has been striving for. With Wonga's millions on board, there is a confidence from within the renamed St James' Park that the latest, albeit controversial, step will help them achieve Newcastle's goals.
"Generally we're delighted that we've got a sponsor on board that wants to connect with us, connect with our fans and the community," said Llambias.
"It's a big statement by Wonga to say:
'We want the naming rights and we're going to give it back to the fans and the community'.
"It's a pretty big statement.
"The deal they have negotiated would not have given them naming rights. It is on top of what they've paid with the shirt. It's the biggest deal that we've done so far. We're still working on others, by the way.
"The best option was this one. For Mike and myself we're absolutely delighted. The naming rights were a very difficult pick, but it was one we felt we had to do to. Today we feel as if we've achieved what we wanted to achieve and calling it St James' Park again is a massive plus."
If St George's Park can help England to glory for the first time since 1966 then the country will be happy. If Pardew ends a trophy drought dating back almost as far, Newcastle fans will be doing the conga in Wonga shirts by the River Tyne.
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