“Wherever you go, go with all your heart.”
I would like to start my first column for The Athletic with this quote from Confucius, the Chinese philosopher and politician.
People in Newcastle have been talking about my decision to move to China without knowing what happened behind the scenes during my three years at St James’ Park.
I haven’t wanted to say too much about that — I’ve encouraged supporters to get behind Steve Bruce and his new team — but I’ve been made aware of what Lee Charnley, Newcastle’s managing director, claimed in the club’s match programme last weekend and I think it’s important I address that.
Hopefully, it will be the last time I have to do so. In the future I want to write about football and nothing but football.
When I joined Newcastle in 2016, I did it with all my heart. I could feel the history and see the potential of the club and I wanted to be part of a project and to stay close to my family on Merseyside.
I tried to do my best every day, even staying when we went down to the Championship and saying no to other offers — bigger offers than the one I recently accepted with Dalian Yifang, by the way. If I was only interested in moving “for money”, as Charnley stated, I could have done it much earlier.
Over my long career, and especially in my time at Newcastle, I’ve always shown commitment to my club, its city and its community and I’ve done it with professionalism and honesty. I want to remember the good moments I spent in the north-east — and there were many of them — and not have to keep denying things about my time there or about my departure.
Newcastle’s board had a year to sort out my contract but, when we met after the end of last season, they didn’t make me a proper offer. They told me they didn’t want to invest in the academy or the training ground — if they like, I can explain the reason why Mike Ashley refused to do that. Their idea of a project was a policy of signing players under 24 and, in my opinion, the budget available was not enough to compete for the top 10.
After that meeting, I knew they would not come back with a serious offer and, when it arrived, 19 days later, it was for the same salary as three years earlier and with less control over signings. Charnley’s comments in the programme about having a deal agreed for Joelinton in February explains a lot that I couldn’t understand at that time.
After three years of unfulfilled promises, I didn’t trust them.
When we finished 10th in the Premier League in our first season back, all players and staff were paid a bonus — aside from my coaching team. That felt like a punishment for me not signing an extension.
So, by the end, I knew there would not be a proper offer and they knew I was not signing.
I couldn’t explain that in public because I was not allowed to talk to the press without their permission, so I was waiting until late June, like every fan, hoping there would be good news about Newcastle’s prospective takeover.
The time was passing and we were losing job opportunities in Europe. I couldn’t wait forever. I’m a family man and I have a responsibility to them, my staff, Paco, Antonio and Mikel, and their families, too. I don’t like to gamble with the future of my people.
In front of us we had three options: nothing serious from Newcastle, the hope of a possible takeover or a different project. Yes, it was a big offer in China — I have never denied that — but it was also another continent and another league, from a club giving us a lot of recognition and respect. That decision wasn’t easy, but it was clear.
So, here we are in the Chinese Super League with an ambitious club that has a big company in Wanda behind it.
At Dalian, we are trying to build something important in this massive, fascinating country. It is another level, another way of doing things, another culture, but they believe in us, they listen to us and their priority is not just to make a profit. They are investing big money in developing a new scouting department, they are building a new training ground for the academy, the under-23s and, obviously, the first team. And, yes, they are using our experience to guide them.
The CSL has 16 clubs so that means 30 league games plus the cup (we are in the semi-finals) and the Asian Champions League, if you qualify.
The Chinese Federation tries to promote young players, which means the top teams like Guangzhou Evergrande, who have had the best young Chinese players for years, can manage better than us. We can’t compete with them at the moment, but our target this year is to finish in the top 10 (we are sixth), and we are improving and growing. They expect us to leave a legacy, the basement on which to build something.
The whole experience is a challenge, none bigger than the language. I have worked in Spain, Italy and England, but this is very different. Here, you need a translator for everything: to transmit your thoughts in training sessions, team talks and to the media, down to working on computers. But there is a rich culture here; the city, the food, the life are all nice. And, as I say, we have been treated with nothing but respect.
Over the coming weeks, I will talk more about that and more about what’s happening in the Premier League but, as I have started with Newcastle, I will finish with them, too.
What can I say about them? Before their first game, I wished the players, fans and Steve Bruce all the best and I meant it sincerely, because they deserve it. Arsenal was their first match of the season and their first with a new manager, so we have to give them time.
The signings we made to take us from the Championship have more experience in the Premier League now. I think the combination of “our” young players, like Jamaal Lascelles, Isaac Hayden, DeAndre Yedlin and Javier Manquillo, the new squad members like Miguel Almiron and Sean Longstaff, together with the experience of Paul Dummett, Matt Ritchie, Martin Dubravka, Fabian Schar, Florian Lejeune, Federico Fernandez, Jonjo Shelvey, Ki Sung-yeung, Ciaran Clark, Karl Darlow and Christian Atsu will be enough to stay up.
The new players will have to make the difference if they want to finish better than 10th, but they will need — and they will have — support from the fans, even if they are not happy with how things have been done, because they know the club is bigger than anyone. They have to be United; Newcastle United.
On Sunday morning, I switched on my television in Dalian and there was a documentary about Alan Shearer being shown. Can you believe that? It’s true.
I saw joy in the faces of Newcastle fans after every goal. I didn’t need the reminder, because I was there so recently, there with all my heart, but it made me think again about that history and potential. And it made me consider something else: what would an 18-year-old Newcastle supporter think about his club now?
Best wishes from China,