Newcastle must cut through their own barriers on and off the pitch as defining period approaches

Newcastle United finish a run of difficult fixtures when they host Manchester United in the Premier League tonight. The Tyneside club are about to enter a crucial phase of the season. The next five weeks offer a series of winnable matches for Eddie Howe’s team and the transfer window opens in five days.

It is hard to see a side that has conceded 11 goals in the past three matches against top-half clubs getting anything against United tonight. These are strange times, though. Ralf Rangnick’s team has not played for 16 days. The German is still getting to grips with life at Old Trafford. Still, Rangnick has plenty of talent available to him and clear ideas about how he wants United to play.

There has been less clarity at St James’ Park since the Amanda Staveley-led, Saudi Arabian-backed consortium’s takeover was rubber-stamped in October. The past three months have been a harsh learning process for the new owners. More difficult lessons lie ahead.

Time was never on Newcastle’s side. Teams in the bottom three do not have the luxury of regrouping. Days were allowed to slip away before Steve Bruce was sacked. Weeks passed before Howe was appointed manager – only after Unai Emery turned down the job. Months have gone by without a chief executive and director of football being engaged. Nicky Hammond has been involved as a consultant but the 54-year-old is a very short-term stopgap. By the time the window opens it is likely he will no longer be involved at the club.

Part of the problem is the way the majority owners, Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, operate (PIF). The sovereign wealth fund has almost as much bureaucracy as it has cash. The decision-making procedure has been tortuous. An insider described it as being “caught up in the PIF process.”

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This makes the search for a chief executive more important. Newcastle need someone with the authority to make decisions on the ground as a matter of urgency. Increasingly, Nicola Cortese’s name has been cropping up in conversations about the role.

The former Southampton executive chairman has not worked in a front-line football job since leaving St Mary’s eight years ago but he retains a reputation for being a tough and efficient operator. The Swiss-Italian took over at Southampton when the team were in League One and oversaw the club’s return to the Premier League. He won many admirers – including John W Henry, Liverpool’s principal owner – but perhaps his independent nature and ruthless approach scared off potential employers who preferred a more malleable figure. Cortese is ruthless.

The former Swiss banker brought Mauricio Pochettino to England. He took a very robust stance on agents, refusing to pay them through the club. If the worst happens and Newcastle are relegated, he has experience of getting a team out of the Championship.

An illustration of Cortese’s thought process is that when asked about his greatest mistake at Southampton, he reflected for a moment and said it was not parting company with Nigel Adkins after the side had earned promotion to the top flight. Cortese’s rationale was that the manager was ideally equipped to bring a team up but lacked the mindset to thrive in the Premier League. Adkins was talking about survival from the moment Southampton were back in the elite; Cortese had bigger ambitions and aimed to get into Europe.

The owners in Newcastle have similar aspirations. That may not be reflected in the spending in January. PIF operate on “normal investment industry standards,” according to one source. They will not “splash the cash.” The Saudis will open the coffers for the right player but are unlikely to replicate the haphazard spending that characterised the early years after the Abu Dhabi takeover of Manchester City.

The first three months of the new age for Newcastle have been described as “learning by elimination.” People with no experience in the game and with little knowledge of football have been involved in making significant decisions that will affect the development of the team in the immediate future. The lack of expertise means that famous names have been higher on the short-list of potential recruits – both on and off the pitch – than lesser-known individuals who have more to offer the club. That is changing. “The penny is beginning to drop,” the source said.

Newcastle have plenty of pennies. They need to spend them wisely. A defining period is about to begin on Tyneside.

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