Micah Richards remembered turning on the television, seeing Robinho at Manchester Airport, cap on backwards while a breaking news ticker on the screen announced that he was joining Manchester City. “I was like: ‘This is not real, how have we managed to get Robinho?’ It was incredible,” Richards told The National last year.
Perhaps Newcastle will have their Robinho moment soon, their realisation they are shopping in different markets, their injection of unexpected glamour to symbolise a revolution at a club after a takeover. “Every club need one marquee player who is going to set the bar, then other players want to come,” added Richards. He called Robinho “the catalyst” but in a sense the Brazilian also represents a cautionary tale.
Robinho’s City career only really spanned 17 months. He sparkled in scoring 15 goals in his debut season but he was gone before glory arrived.
“I felt a bit sorry for Robinho because had he come two or three years later, he could have had some of his best years at Manchester City but because he was Robinho, everyone relied on him so much to do absolutely everything,” Richards said. “The players around him didn’t give him what he needed.” Bolting a superstar on to a mid-table team both worked and did not.
As they look to add the quality to compete higher up the table, Newcastle may study the parallels with City. In some respects, they may be encouraged by them. “Do we want to win the Premier League within five to 10 years? Yes,” new co-owner Amanda Staveley said last week. City were bought by Sheikh Mansour in 2008 and champions of England in 2012. Success began a year earlier, with a top-four finish and the FA Cup, their first trophy in 35 years.
Newcastle’s wait for silverware, dating back 53 seasons, is still longer. They are starting from a lower base. Chelsea had the pulling power of Champions League football when Roman Abramovich bought them. City came ninth the season before the takeover, and the gulf between the best and the rest has since widened.
City’s makeover was both incremental and dramatic. Some of the early buys were gone or marginalised before the trophies arrived but they signed Carlos Tevez in 2009, Yaya Toure and David Silva in 2010 and Sergio Aguero in 2011. They had come agonisingly close to a top-four finish in 2010. It may be hard for Newcastle to progress as quickly and not merely because Robinho joined in the summer window in 2008; 13 years on, another club with heady ambitions have to wait until January to buy.
But City also possessed another advantage, perhaps a greater one than they initially realised. Vincent Kompany and Pablo Zabaleta had been purchased just before the takeover; a young Joe Hart and a younger, but already pivotal, Richards were already there. That quartet made 119 Premier League appearances in the triumphant 2011-12 campaign.
Do they have any modern-day equivalents at St James’ Park? Allan Saint-Maximin is a great entertainer, but it would be hard to argue so. Newcastle may require a whole new team; perhaps more than one, if an initial flurry of recruits prove staging posts en route to more glamorous figures. It may be relatively easy to find upgrades on many of the current personnel, rather harder to immediately add some of the best in their positions.
Now there are suggestions Newcastle will target Burnley’s James Tarkowski, a common-sense signing who should help them avoid relegation, move up the table and weaken a current rival. He would not be their Robinho but with Staveley saying Newcastle will be “in the market for world-class players,” it will be intriguing who is, and when.