BACK TO THE DRAWING BOARD
Newcastle United had until April 20th to decide whether or not to exercise their option to buy Oguchi Onyewu after a brief loan spell, but in a move that comes as a surprise to no one, the Magpies have decided not take on the big defender, opening up speculation on where the Maryland native will play next.
The loan period, marked by Onyewu's difficulties in adjusting to the speed and style of the English game, and inconsistency on his part as well as the entire team, came to an end despite recent comments from the United States defender in which he stated that he hoped to stay on with the Tyneside club.
Transfer speculation concerning Onyewu began to circle long before his move to Newcastle when Spanish giants Real Madrid made a significant bid for the central defender just prior to the start of the 2006/07 season. Standard coach Michel Preud'homme elected to take a pass on the bid, however, saying that the offer had come in too late for them to find a suitable replacement.
When the winter transfer period came around, interest had spread to Chelsea and Fulham in England, AC Milan in Serie A and both Lyon and Marseille in French Ligue 1. Standard went so far as to reported all but a done deal with L'OM before Newcastle stepped in with the loan offer.
Though head coach Glenn Roeder denied interest in the central defender from the outset of rumors that were saying just the opposite, Onyewu did finally ink the unexpected deal. A departure from Standard was expected with all of the interest circling Onyewu, but signing at Newcastle was a last minute and unexpected decision and the fact that it was simply a loan deal was equally as surprising.
Two months later, not only has Newcastle decided not to exercise their loan option on the big defender, it is unlikely he'll see any more first team action with the Magpies seeing that Onyewu no longer figures in their future.
When Onyewu first arrived at Newcastle, my colleague Michael Adubato wrote an article questioning the big defender's decision to enlist in the Toon Army, citing Newcastle's position in the standings as well as questioning their status as a "big club".
Mike had spoken several times with Onyewu, had seen him play just as much with Standard and decided that had to be a method to the madness of a loan deal, saying Onyewu surely was 'just as shrewd and calculating off the field as on'.
The move has been far from shrewd and calculating, howver. In fact, it has been such a colossal failure that it seems that among the first things Onyewu should do is fire his agent.
Of all the clubs interested in Onyewu, there is probably not another "big club" in more of a shambolic state inside the United Kingdom. (The only reason that title doesn't extend to greater Europe is because, well, it's Europe. Poor management, corruption, kick-backs, match fixing and fan violence are still the name of the game in the continent that gave the world spot kicks to determine a champion).
How this fact slipped past both the player, his representation and Standard management, who allowed such a deal to go through in the first place, is mind boggling.
If you are to believe statements made on behalf of Onyewu, the former Clemson star is certainly is not without blame. He rejected an offer from Middlesbrough after visiting the club before World Cup 2006, refused an offer from Chelsea due to the apparent coaching instability concerning Jose Mourinho, turned down Fulham for undisclosed reasons and spurned a multi-year deal from Olympique Marseille at the final hour.
In fact, it is completely baffling why Onyewu would turn down contract offers from both regular Champions League participants Marseille as well as Fulham, where he would have been able to play with three other US National team players. Instead, Onyewu opted for a high-risk loan with a team such as Newcastle, who were missing players all over the field and have failed for more than two years to field a team worthy of their stature.
It could possibly have been the perception that Newcastle has as a "big club" due to their enormous fan support, their resources which allow them compete with the Big Four in signing marquee players, along with their recent string of postseason appearances. This status as a "big club" is maintained despite the fact that their trophy cabinet has not seen any additions since 1955 when they won their third FA Cup in five years - unless, of course, you count the Intertoto Cup last summer (which no one does).
Instead of looking at reputation, however, Onyewu and his handlers should have been looking at the front office to see that signing with Newcastle meant signing with a club whose board of directors could be poster children for team mismanagement and attracts a disdain from their fans that only a Baltimore sports fan could truly appreciate.
The chairman of Newcastle, Freddy Shepherd, first shot to fame in 1998 when he and deputy chairman Douglas Hall were duped Ali-G style into making disparaging comments about the club's supporters in a News of the World expose, which led the lobby-like fan group (the Newcastle Independent Supporters Association) as well as the Minister of Sport for the entire
United Kingdom to push for both men's resignations.
Shepherd and Hall succumbed to the pressure and resigned, but remained majority shareholders in the club, and were thus able to reappoint themselves to their previous positions less than a year later. While woefully mismanaging the beloved North England club, Shepherd (along with his brother, Bruce) have done quite well managing their own Shepherd Offshore bank accounts, reportedly having made over $30 million from ownership, share dividends and annual salaries since 1997.
Newcastle did enjoy a nice three-year run thanks to Sir Bobby Robson, who Shepherd brought on at the beginning of the millennium. After righting the ship in his first year, Robson led Newcastle to fourth, third, and fifth place in consecutive seasons following four years of mediocrity prior to his arrival.
Yet Shepherd couldn't escape more controversy when he fired Robson in August 2004, just three weeks into the season, despite the three straight Champions League qualifications, and only after making public remarks about Robson's age and siding with players when reports of a mutiny surfaced.
Graeme Souness followed, but to no one's surprise, was unable to give Newcastle the lift they were so desperately seeking and the Scotsman was let go after little more than a year giving way to Glenn Roeder, who was appointed as interim manager.
The current boss took a team that was sitting 14th in the standings to a seventh place finish, forcing Shepherd's hand to earn the permanent job. The honeymoon is certainly over with Newcastle's injury woes leading to a wildly inconsistent season for the Magpies and questions about Roeder's own managing skills. While Onyewu has been shown an early exit, it's even money that Roeder will be right behind him once the season has ended.
Most US fans found it, nonetheless, easy to become excited about Onyewu's move to St. James' Park at the end of January. Newcastle is a highly visible club that does have a great history, despite their lack of silverware.
Outside of the big four of Liverpool, Arsenal, ManU and Chelsea, they have more resources than any other club in the Premier League. In addition to criticism directed at Shepherd's management of the club, though, there is also significant concern that during his tenure, anything beyond the first team has been neglected (which ranges from poor training facilities to overall decay of the youth system).
Even without the recent history of mismanagement, since the advent of the Premier League, Newcastle have finished in the bottom half of the standings twice as often as they have qualified for Champions League play. Only a tiny amount of scrutiny concerning the ability to field a competitive team this season would have - and should have - thrown up red flags for Onyewu and his handlers.
The Magpies' #1 forward, Michael Owen, has made only 11 appearances since signing at the start of the 2005/06 season, and was not expected to play again this season. Their #2 forward, Shola Amoebi, finally succumbed to a nagging hip injury and played his last game of the year three months prior to Onyewu's arrival.
Seeking to shore up a backline has been the bane of NUFC for the last two seasons, Roeder brought Onyewu on expecting him to adjust from the Jupiler League to the Premier League overnight. In his short stint, Onyewu was paired with three different center backs and seven different backline combinations. If that weren't enough, first choice keeper and Ireland international Shay Given had been injured three weeks before Onyewu arrived.
While England seeks to discard its deeply ingrained class system, Newcastle remain a relic to its trappings while its fans seem to feel that they deserve to be considered by birthright as a top club, are proud to feel that way, and they're not changing.
They expect anyone that comes to play for them to be a star today; the type of development that the soon to be 25-year old Onyewu still needs should be done before trotting out in the black and white stripes.
While Onyewu ponders his future, he'll hopefully remember that this will have been the second time that he has been put through the ringer by a club. His first European contract was with FC Metz, who had just been relegated to the second division prior to his arrival.
Saddled with fiscal constraints, Metz were unable to even sign the defender to a professional contract until almost two months into the season, only for him to be injured not long afterwards. Though Onyewu made a couple of appearances in the second half of the 2002-03 season, including a Man of the Match performance in a Coupe de France match versus Bordeaux, he never really figured in the plans of trainer Jean Fernandez, who had coincidentally been hired after Onyewu's arrival.
Now it's back to the old drawing board for Onyewu and where he next suits up is anyone's guess. One thing that should comfort him is his next decision can't possibly be any worse.