It was the summer of discontent at Newcastle United, but there were still two schools of thought when it came to Andy Carroll’s St James’ Park return on a free transfer. The timing, deadline day, fed into the sceptics’ belief that it was nothing more than a PR ploy from a football club desperate not to implode amid a sea of angry protests at Steve Bruce replacing Rafael Benitez; but there were those who got swept up in the romanticism of seeing the former Magpies number nine, a native of neighbouring Gateshead, back at the club after nine years away. That was regardless of his chequered injury record, which had played havoc with his intermittent career at Liverpool and West Ham United.
One thing that can lead to a consensus is the fact that the decision to re-sign the 30-year-old was steeped in irony. Though his homecoming was mooted every season after he moved to Anfield for a then-British record £35million in January 2011, it felt each time the opportunity arose and was passed on, the chances of it became slimmer. Carroll moving away was, arguably, the original fuel in the fire that has continued between owner Mike Ashley and Newcastle supporters to this day. Wounds from the treatment of club legends Kevin Keegan and Alan Shearer in the relegation season two years prior seemed to be beginning to heal, thanks to promotion and a comfortable return to Premier League life. Sacking manager Chris Hughton in December 2010 showed cracks still remained, and selling Carroll, against his will it has since been revealed, threw everything up in the air again. Bringing him back was never going to fix everything precisely because of what happened without him.
European qualification the following season gave the impression that everything would work out, but signing and selling players as if they were on a conveyor belt in Ashley’s retail warehouses soon showed the real impact. Supporters felt they had someone they could rely on; they believed they finally had stability, stemming from someone who truly understood the club. The early promise Carroll showed, netting 11 goals in the first half of that season, was stolen away from them, without a proactive solution to the resulting problems ever really being found.
The sadness of Carroll’s story in relation to his boyhood club needs to be remembered. It was cast aside by the euphoria of his return, despite the caveat that his powers had waned to a huge degree. Not only were fans never going to see the care-free battering ram who loved nothing more than to bully defences with his power as a 21-year-old, but he would only be rejoining on a pay-as-you-play contract, heavily incentivised by the number of appearances made. Therefore, any new memories at all would be few and far between.
For the first time, the clouds of emotion are beginning to disperse, with clarity shining through. After a long wait, until September against Brighton, for his second debut, Carroll had begun to make an impact, bringing leadership thanks to his experience and giving the team a structure. But heading into mid-February, with just a few months remaining on his deal and no goals to his name, another serious injury, this time with no diagnosis, could spell the end once again. Carroll hasn’t played since the FA Cup third round replay against Rochdale a month ago, and won’t be involved against Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday.
Giving Joelinton the number 9 shirt in July suggested there was a degree of opportunism in Carroll’s return. It wasn’t planned. As great as it has been to see someone who loves the club in and around it once again, the issue of signing him to paper over more cracks cannot and should not be ignored. Considering his exit originally set the tone for the further deterioration of fan and board relations, bringing him back against the usual rules surrounding age and resale value, the very factors that saw him depart, was always going to be a risk in every sense. Whereas Joelinton has masqueraded as a replacement for Salomon Rondon, who Newcastle opted against signing permanently despite him winning Player of the Year during his loan spell from West Brom last term, Carroll has fit the bill perfectly; he just can’t get on the pitch regularly enough. There is even more cruel irony in that.
Nobody can say Carroll hasn’t offered anything in his second spell; on the pitch, key contributions have been fleeting but important nonetheless, while at the training ground he has been invaluable. Volleying a ball has led to this continued mystery layoff, and that shows just how fragile he has been. Carroll has said he has the determination to stay another five years, the response to which would be almost unanimously positive, but a reported £20,000-per-week basic with £75,000 on top for every start, contract negotiations must be honest and frank. Whether Newcastle used their emotions or played on supporters’ when he came back, they must take the next step using only logic.