IN the last couple of years, Mike Ashley's preferred policy for Newcastle United has become clear.

Sign enthusiastic prospects with a point to prove. Source the majority from overseas, where transfer fees and wage demands tend to be lower. Prioritise players below the age of 26, who will hold their value and potentially offer a premium for re-sale.

Provide your signings with an opportunity to develop and progress. Get them into a first team that should be more than capable of holding its own in the Premier League. Then, if things have gone well, sell them on at a profit and start the entire process again.

Loading article content

Self-sufficiency is the mantra, and while break-even was not quite achieved in the period covered by the most recent set of accounts to have emerged from St James' Park, the soaring debt of the Shepherd years is thankfully nothing more than a distant memory.

It is a modus operandi that has been enviously eyed by other Premier League chief executives, a group that are gradually accepting that the days of blank cheques and seemingly limitless borrowing is over.

But despite the staggering achievements that Newcastle have made this season, both on and off the field, it is not a philosophy without its dangers.

Two potential pitfalls leap out. The first, which the Magpies have avoided, is if the signings go wrong. Sources close to Ashley and Derek Llambias suggest the pair work on a '75 per cent rule'. Provided three-quarters of their signings prove successful, they should be able to manage their finances and potentially turn a profit. Anything less than that, and the sums become more difficult to manage.

Clearly, in the course of the last two seasons, Newcastle's hit rate has been significantly better than 75 per cent.

Cheik Tiote, Yohan Cabaye, Hatem Ben Arfa, Demba Ba, Papiss Cisse. All high-profile additions; all now worth significantly more than Newcastle paid to bring them to the North-East.

But in a strange sort of way, that can cause its own problems. Just as there are problems if none of the signings work, so there are also issues if all of them turn out to be gold dust. And that, in a nutshell, is the dilemma that Newcastle's money men will be wrestling with all summer.

To slip into football-manager speak, it's a nice dilemma to have. But it is a dilemma all the same.

You can't sell all your players at once, but there is every chance that Newcastle will be offered the opportunity to do just that in the close season.

And having agreed to the inclusion of at least one, and potentially more, buy-out clauses in order to achieve the best possible deal at the purchase stage, might the Magpies be powerless to hold on to some of their biggest stars, even if they want to?

Ba's buy-out clause has been well publicised, and despite the Senegal striker's failure to find the back of the net since the start of February, it would be a surprise if there were not expressions of interest before the start of next season.

Cisse? There'll surely be a damn sight more than interest after Wednesday night, with the striker having become the talk of Europe after an exceptional four months that have seen him score 13 goals in his first 12 Premier League matches.

Having paid £9m to sign the 26-year-old in January, Newcastle are now in a position where they can name their price. To a businessman like Ashley, that will surely appeal.

Mind you, the same could be said of Tiote and Cabaye, a duo who have established themselves as two of the leading central midfielders in the Premier League. And what about Ben Arfa, an instinctive talent that is pretty much unique in the English game?

Having established a business model that screams, 'Every player has his price', Ashley suddenly finds himself in a position where he can start to pluck numbers out of the air.

But what would that mean for the future of a side that is potentially on the cusp of something remarkable, and for how much longer can Graham Carr and his fellow scouts keep uncovering a succession of golden eggs?


THE website of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) claims that it is at the forefront of the fight against doping in sport in all its forms.

Well this week, the organisation had an opportunity to make a stand against drug cheats. Instead, it posited itself against the British Olympic Association (BOA) and set the fight against doping in this country back a decade or so.

The BOA has long concluded that any British competitor convicted of a drug offence should not be allowed to compete in any future Olympic Games.

The ruling contravened WADA's code of conduct, but so what? If you're going to fight against doping, surely you've got to afford national governing bodies the leeway to enforce stricter punishments if they feel they are appropriate.

Instead, thanks to WADA's intransigence, we are left with the unpalatable situation where Dwain Chambers will be free to strut his stuff at a home Olympics despite having confessed to a catalogue of drug misdemeanours.

Of course, everyone deserves a second chance. But no one is decrying Chambers the right to compete in a British vest and even attend a World Championships.

We are talking here about the Olympics, an event that is supposed to represent everything that is good and inspirational about international sport.

Chambers knew the potential repercussions when he embarked on a planned and sustained programme of drug taking. He cheated his team-mates, some of whom have lost hard-earned relay medals because of his actions, and his opponents.

More significantly, he also cheated his sport, helping to create an environment where any athletic achievement is now accompanied by knowing glances and suspicion.

His actions should carry a consequence, but sadly a two-year ban from competition is akin to a slap on the wrist. In years to come, we might well look back at this week as the moment when the war of drugs in sport was lost.