Chris Wood to Newcastle for £25m shows Saudis have one priority
Surely no one else would pay that for a 30-year-old striker with three goals but short-term fix helps Howe and hurts Burnley
Overpriced panic buy, transformational stroke of genius or something in between? By late May, when Newcastle visit Turf Moor for their final Premier League game of the season, the answer should be apparent.
The moment Yasir al-Rumayyan agreed to trigger the £25m release clause in Chris Wood’s contract at Burnley, Newcastle’s chairman emphasised that, right now, his club have a single priority.
By paying top dollar for a 30-year-old striker who has scored three goals in 18 appearances this season, Rumayyan indicated that, in order to avert relegation, the Saudi Arabian-controlled club will press every available button and flick all possible switches. Short-term thinking is no longer taboo.
Moreover, even if the price tag dictates it is extremely difficult to have envisaged another top-tier team activating Wood’s release clause, the New Zealand centre-forward could prove an excellent addition to Eddie Howe’s side.
Wood’s perhaps surprisingly eclectic taste in music variously encompasses the Kings of Leon, Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra and Howe must trust his formidable aerial presence will bring similar breadth and diversity to a struggling, frequently one-dimensional, Newcastle XI.
The manager, having tried to start addressing this problem by paying up to £15m to transplant the England attacking right-back Kieran Trippier from Atlético Madrid to Tyneside last week, needed a central striker to connect with Trippier’s crosses.
That forward was supposed to be Callum Wilson, a generally impressive performer during a season in which Newcastle have won one game – against Burnley – but calf trouble will sideline Wilson for eight weeks.
His injury placed Howe under immense pressure, forcing a reordering of recruitment priorities, with the need for central defenders suddenly deemed less important than acquiring Wood in time for Saturday’s potentially season-defining relegation six-pointer at home to Watford.
Few pundits would claim Wood is quite Wilson’s equal but he has scored 10 or more goals in each of the past four seasons for Burnley, no mean achievement in a side frequently on the back foot.
Equally importantly, his removal from the Turf Moor equation at a time when Maxwel Cornet, Sean Dyche’s most gifted attacker, is representing Ivory Coast at the Africa Cup of Nations, could exert a disastrous effect on Burnley’s survival hopes. With three from Norwich, Newcastle, Burnley and Watford appearing Championship-bound it could effectively rescue Howe’s team.
Much hinges on Dyche’s ability to reinvest the Wood millions swiftly and successfully but he will not be easy to replace and there are fears Cornet may suffer from no longer being able to play off the former Leeds target man. Small wonder Burnley’s manager is apparently incandescent at his No 9’s departure. Or that Norwich are not overly enthusiastic about allowing their midfielder Todd Cantwell to move to St James’ Park.
Wood invariably operated as part of a front two for Dyche, typically being deployed alongside Cornet or Ashley Barnes, and with Howe keen on configuring Newcastle in a 4–4-2, a partnership with the more improvisational Allan Saint-Maximin may bring out the best in the recently disappointing Frenchman.
If one of Wood’s key roles will be to polish off crosses – often from Trippier – his ability to hold up the ball, press from the front and bully defenders into submission can only strengthen a Newcastle side who have scored a modest 19 goals.
Once Wilson is fit, it is not inconceivable he could play alongside Wood; after all the former did well in a wide role during a brief flirtation with a split striker system featuring Miguel Almirón as a false nine under Steve Bruce’s management last season.
Back then Mike Ashley owned Newcastle and the retail magnate actively pursued a policy of buying primarily players aged under 25 possessing strong resale potential. It is impossible to imagine Ashley sanctioning Wood’s signing, let alone that of the 31-year-old Trippier, but such failure to speculate to accumulate largely explains why the club were twice relegated on his watch.
Even if Wood loses his starting place on Wilson’s return, he will be deemed money well spent if he helps Newcastle avoid the fate they suffered in 2009 and 2016.
Should the worst happen, Trippier and Wood are players who would be expected to excel in the second tier, helping help secure promotion at the first attempt, but no one at St James’ Park wants to contemplate that possibility. When, last October, Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund purchased a majority 80% stake in a club co-owned with the minority shareholders Amanda Staveley and Reuben Brothers, it certainly did not envisage suffering the spectacular loss of face across the Middle East which would accompany relegation.
At a juncture when Paris St-Germain and Manchester City are thriving under the control of Saudi’s Gulf neighbours in Qatar and the emirate of Abu Dhabi respectively, such a calamity would not be remotely well received in Riyadh and Jeddah. Championship football was never supposed to be part of the geopolitical soft power playbook.
Back at Turf Moor, Burnley’s staff and players reportedly feel let down, if not downright betrayed, by Wood’s defection to a direct rival capable of damaging their future livelihoods.
Howe, Rumayyan and Staveley must hope he exhibits similar ruthlessness in front of goal.