Newcastle United’s controversial £305m takeover by a Saudi Arabian-backed consortium has made them one of the richest clubs in the world – but the club will still need a “revolution” to succeed.
That’s according to former Manchester City technical director Mike Rigg, who was tasked with transforming the squad when City’s 2008 takeover was completed by their Abu Dhabi owners.
With many fans dreaming of world stars arriving in the next transfer windows, how can Newcastle – and the Saudi Public Investment Fund which now owns 80% of the club – build for future success and what sort of pitfalls should they avoid?
Speaking to The Sports Desk podcast, Rigg reveals his six steps for building a club to challenge the existing elite.
1. Create a new mindset – quickly
Rigg, who had previously been chief scout at Blackburn with manager Mark Hughes, arrived at Manchester City shortly after the Abu Dhabi takeover took place.
Hughes was already in situ at City, but Rigg had to build a new network of scouts. Crucially, he had backing from an established team in chief executive Garry Cook, new chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak and, seven months later, football administrator Brian Marwood.
“The chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak was a game changer,” says Rigg, speaking to the BBC’s The Sports Desk podcast.
“He had a three-pronged attack; it was what was happening on the pitch, what was happening off the pitch and the ownership leading from the front.
“He came into the training ground at Carrington and during an international break transformed it in 10 days. That established a mindset in everybody that we needed to do the same and he gave me the resources to build my team.
“So I brought in a team of scouts and we set about devising a strategy where we had targets for every position on the pitch regardless of whether we needed them or not.
“Our scouts had specific countries which they were all responsible for and the remit was to make sure we get to know the best players, their agents, their clubs, which clubs needed to sell, which clubs were prepared to enter into negotiations, which kind of agents were interested.
“To begin with it was easier to sign the likes of Nigel de Jong and Craig Bellamy but if players didn’t want to come to Manchester City at the time, it was difficult to chase. That’s one of the problems that a club like Newcastle is going to face. It’s all well and good having a list of the great players but if they don’t want to come to you, you’re a busy fool chasing something that’s not achievable.”
2. Walk away from ‘pay day’ players & sell the ‘new story’
Newcastle could now claim to be the richest club in world football.
But Rigg, who has also been a technical director at QPR and Burnley, plus a former head of talent management at the Football Association working alongside Gareth Southgate, says that Manchester City succeeded by sticking to a wage structure.
“We were talking to a lot of players at the time that would have been at successful Champions League clubs, and they would say, ‘yeah, we’ll come to City but you’ve got to pay me four times what I’m getting paid now’,” he says.
“We walked away from an awful lot of players because it was purely about money and if you bring in players on ridiculously high wages compared to everybody else in the squad, the existing players will want their wages doubled.
“The second side of it was talking to the players and the agents about what we were prepared to build. Mark Hughes and Garry Cook were really good at this. It wasn’t about maintaining a legacy like at Manchester United, we were talking about building a new story.
“That was about showing people plans for the training ground at the Etihad Campus, it was talking about the types of players that we wanted to sign and when we wanted to sign them because not everything was going to be done in one transfer window.
“The story that we were trying to sell to them was backed up by Khaldoon and Abu Dhabi at every single stage.”
3. Moving to Newcastle is not an issue
Newcastle might be able to offer premium contracts to top players, but would they or their families feel settled in the city compared with London or Manchester?
“Never ever did I have to convince a player about coming to Manchester,” says Rigg, having signed Sergio Aguero, Yaya Toure and David Silva for City.
“That wasn’t a discussion we ever got into. If they don’t want to come because Manchester lacked restaurants or designer shops, we’d kill it. If it was a discussion about their lifestyle, as opposed to their football intentions, it never really got past the first stage.
“Newcastle is a great city and there’s an international airport there if people need to travel. It’s not Russia or the United States where it takes four hours to get from one place to the other on a flight.
“If players want good weather, you go to other countries. They’re coming to this country to play in the Premier League.”
4. Build up to the game-changing signings
Manchester City were able to make a statement signing as soon as the takeover happened because the 2008 September transfer window was still open. Just.
Brazilian forward Robinho’s deadline-day signing was very much last minute, but in the next window in January, City bought Nigel de Jong, Craig Bellamy, Wayne Bridge and Shay Given.
The following summer, they signed Carlos Tevez, who had been on loan at Manchester United, Emmanuel Adebayor, Joleon Lescott and Gareth Barry, and the season after that they signed Toure, Silva, Mario Balotelli and Edin Dzeko.
“Signing Carlos Tevez put City on the map because it made us the ‘noisy neighbours’,” says Rigg – a reference to a term coined by then-Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson.
“It wasn’t just an impact in terms of the publicity but he was incredible on the training pitch and really raised the standards.
“When we signed the likes of Yaya Toure from Barcelona, other players would be looking at that and saying ‘Manchester City mean business’.
“But at the same time, we were building the academy, we were investing in the women’s team. It’s not just about buying players at the top end and hoping that it works. It’s about having complete reform all across the club.”
5. Owners need to trust people to do their jobs
The Newcastle takeover has caused plenty of debate about who will run the club. It was a key factor in the deal being sanctioned by the Premier League.
Rigg says it is important that people are trusted to do their jobs after he was given full autonomy to run his department.
“I would come into contact with Khaldoon a couple of times a year, and he used to join in the five-a-sides at the training ground, he was a decent player by the way,” Rigg says.
“Garry Cook and Brian Marwood were the executives that developed that relationship with Khaldoon, and I would speak with them on a daily basis. But at no stage did Abu Dhabi start telling us where we’re going or what we’re doing with players, it was 100% support all of the time and they trusted us.
“What we had to do was deliver and we had to be transparent so there was a lot of planning and presentations to the board. Not every player will be a success but there was no interference.”
6. Prepare for bumps in the road
Manchester City’s success has made Newcastle’s path to the top four – and even winning the Premier League – a lot more difficult than when City were taken over 13 years ago.
And arguably Newcastle are starting from a position further behind than City too.
“This isn’t Manchester United or Liverpool sustaining their success. It’s not an evolution, it’s a revolution so it will be a challenge,” says Rigg.
“But it’s going to be exciting times all around; for the fans, for people inside Newcastle and for the Premier League, even the other clubs. I’m sure a lot of them will bemoan the fact that this has happened, but maybe secretly, they’re all happy, because it continues to strengthen the position of the Premier League and it will attract some of the world’s greatest players.
“There will be bumps in the road for Newcastle, but I remember when [former manager] Roberto Mancini first came to the club, he got everyone into the dining room at Carrington and said everything will change once we win the first trophy – and he was right.”
An FA Cup win against Stoke in 2011 was followed by a first Premier League title a year later.
“For Newcastle, it’s not going to be just about winning the Premier League overnight, it will be the steps along the way,” Rigg says. “It’s achievable, it just takes time, it takes investment and you need a plan. You could throw an awful lot of money into this and it might not happen properly unless there’s a strategy.”