It has been nine months since Darren Eales was last at Atlanta United’s training ground. As he bounced up the stairs on a rainy Friday morning, it was almost as if he never left as president of the club to become CEO of Newcastle United in England’s Premier League in August 2022.
As with Atlanta United, Eales seems to be doing things well in Northeast England.
The Magpies are third in the Premier League with an important game against Leeds on Saturday. If results go favorably in that match and in Liverpool’s match against Leicester on Monday, Newcastle could clinch an unexpected spot in the UEFA Champions League.
Eales was back in Atlanta in part to promote Newcastle’s three-game series of friendlies in the U.S. this summer, which will include a match against Chelsea at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on July 26, and in part as a fact-finding and experience-seeking trip to gather ideas to boost the game-day experience and brand of his new employer.
Eales spent more than 30 minutes talking about everything from lessons learned with Atlanta United that he applied to Newcastle, what’s on the whiteboard in his office, and things that accomplished by the MLS club that appreciates more now that he’s had time to reflect.
Some questions and answers have been edited for clarity:
Q: How does it feel to be back in Atlanta?
A: Oh, it’s, it’s really special because it’s been about nine months. Obviously, it’s been very busy at Newcastle from sort of hitting the ground. But yeah, just great to be back, obviously landing with 28 degrees Celsius weather is very nice, a lot warmer than Newcastle. But no, it’s great to be back here. And just to see familiar faces.
Q: So how did this this friendly that’s going to be coming up between y’all and Chelsea come about?
A: The Premier League has always done traditionally, like a preseason tournament. It’s usually been in Hong Kong or in those sort of regions, but they wanted to do something in the United States.
It’s a slightly bigger tournament, used to be four teams, this is going to be a six-team summer series. I think it shows the importance of the United States market, obviously, with NBC and the investment they’ve given into the Premier League in growing the brand and growing Premier League on that sort of Saturday morning, which has become almost like a new TV slot.
I think it was something that was a chance to come over here and to see those fans that have got their Premier League teams that they watch on a Saturday morning and actually see them in person. So I mean, it’s an exciting one where you’ve got Aston Villa, Brighton, Brentford, (Fulham) and then Chelsea, obviously ourselves, as well.
It’s going to be a good, good, good series. From my perspective, I was really pleased when we were able to secure Atlanta as one of the venues. We’re going to have Newcastle here, and we’re actually going to stay here for the duration and then fly up for the games. Atlanta will be our base camp.
Q: Did they, the promoters, pick your brain because you’ve seen all the stadiums in the U.S.?
A: There was obviously a little bit of help in the background on securing Mercedes-Benz stadium as one of the venues. I think that’s what we wanted to do. And it was brilliant that we’re able to work with AMBSE (Arthur M. Blank Sports and Entertainment) and get it secured.
So I think it’s going to be an exciting doubleheader.
Such a great venue. I’m excited to show it to everyone else because it is different.
St. James’ Park is an amazing “Cathedral on the Hill” stadium that’s in the heart of the city (in Newcastle). But Mercedes-Benz stadium is just different, from the roof that opens and closes to the halo board, all those things. It’s just a different sort of type of special.
Q: The success of Newcastle this year when you took the job – I know, you want to win all the trophies – but are you a little bit stunned at just how quickly the team developed under Eddie Howe and the success that it’s having this season?
A: It’d be fair to say that at the start of the season, as we were thinking about our projections, we weren’t expecting to be quite as quickly as we have been in terms of top end of the table, obviously third place at the moment, with four games to go. In that respect, we’re ahead of schedule because when you look at the Premier League, you usually finish where your wage bill is, and ours is about eighth or ninth in the league.
After staving off relegation, which was ownership’s main priority when they took over, to turn that around and do what we’re doing now is pretty incredible.
For me, the stat that sums it up is in the calendar year of ‘21, the most goals ever conceded in a calendar year was by Newcastle United. And then this season our strength has been the defense and Fabian Schar. These are players that were around before Eddie sort of galvanized and just got this team spirit.
I think it’s certainly probably in advance of what we’d hoped for, but it’s been thoroughly earned. It’s not been a sort of case of we’ve been going to away games and parking the bus. I mean, it’s been on the front foot and take the lead on teams. Right from my very first game, which was the Man City 3-3 at St. James’ Park, which was an incredible game, I think that it was really interesting because it was playing Manchester City, just going toe to toe, wasn’t trying to just sneak a win. And I think Eddie’s done that throughout the season.
Every now and then we’ve had only a couple of moments where I’d say we didn’t do as well as we’d hoped, like Aston Villa recently. When we’ve lost, we’ve done a really good job bouncing back and then putting together four straight wins. So I think that’s been the story of the season where if there’s been a blip there’s been a reaction to it.
Q: Some of these players that have helped Newcastle reach third right now in the Premier League table, what is the probability that we’ll see some of those faces in Atlanta when y’all play?
A: Well, we’re going to bring the whole squad with us. So we’ll have three matches because we’re going to be playing in Philadelphia, our first game against Villa, then we’ve got the Wednesday game on the 26th against Chelsea. Now we’re two days later against Brighton up in New Jersey at the Red Bulls Stadium. So the whole squad will come and so that, in those perspectives, they will get a get a chance to play.
Q: What are some of the lessons, if any, that you were able to take from Atlanta United as a startup and apply to Newcastle under its new ownership and its new goals and directions?
A: Great question. It’s funny, though, because when I started at Newcastle, (it) was just celebrating its 130-year-old anniversary.
Q: Which is amazing.
A: Yeah. Going to Newcastle feels so much like starting at Atlanta United. It’s almost like a 130-year-old start-up because I remember that first day with Atlanta United at the Falcons training ground in my office, where I think I did a photo for Twitter while holding a phone. The phone wasn’t plugged in. It was like me pretending, but I remember sitting there thinking, right, “Where do you start?”
Because we need a stadium, training ground, manager, team name, kit. And it was almost just that you could fill every day with work.
But it was about prioritizing: what do we need to do now for six months? What’s for a year from now? Five years?
And Newcastle United’s very similar. We’ve got amazing ownership. We’ve got an amazing manager, Dan Ashworth, the sport director, was already in place. A crazy passionate fan base. A wonderful stadium in the middle of the city. We’ve got so many things that we need to do. It’s almost, my job was coming in and saying, “OK, how do we prioritize getting where we want to get to?”
It’s slightly more difficult, I’d say, in some respects, because we were already playing. So at least when you were with Atlanta United there was that golden period where you didn’t lose a game for two years. But we don’t have that luxury. So we’re sort of trying to fix the plane as its flying.
When I think about Atlanta United, I think, first of all, just that process of going through something where you’re forced to prioritize because you’ve got so many things to do, my role is almost like a facilitator. It’s slightly different, as well, because I don’t have to be the front man a little bit (like) with Atlanta because we were building it up from scratch. This is different.
I’m trying to just give Dan and Eddie on the football side the resources they need to go and do their job. On the commercial side, we’re trying to grow because we need the revenues to then put onto the pitch. So it’s how do we try to organize that? We’ve got a really engaged ownership that have great connections, but how can we best utilize them because they want to help, they’ve got all the expertise, but it’s about channeling it into the right areas. So I see (myself) more as being a facilitator.
So I think that level I’ve learned a lot from from Atlanta. But the big thing is, and I’ve spoken about this quite a lot, building Atlanta United, we had to take the fans, sort of the fan engagement was a fundamental part. You know that from Arthur Blank and everything that he does. Genuinely‚ when we were building the club, the only way we were going to build a team that could challenge the other professional sports was to think about every decision through the fan lens.
And I think that’s something that we’ve done at Newcastle. It’s done in the Premier League, but I think it’s something that, I’m not going to say clubs take fans for granted, but it’s a little bit easier because you’ve usually got ... let’s take Newcastle, sold-out stadium waiting list for tickets. So to be honest, you know, we would never do that but you could almost take them for granted.
But what we’re trying to do is think about, OK, how can we think about that fan engagement, and then there’s the different levels of fans. We’ve got our season-ticket holder. But then we’ve got the fan that wants a season ticket, but it’s never going to get one in the near future unless we can find some way to develop St. James’ Park. How do you make them feel connected? How do we make the Atlanta Mags, as an example, here in Atlanta feel connected?
So we’ve got to start thinking about that fan engagement, both locally and globally. I think that’s something that, obviously America and sports commercially, does things a little bit differently. You can’t just cut and paste. But I do think my time in America that was really eye-opening for me was just the way that the fan engagement, the fan experiences thought about the commercial partners, how do you integrate them? And that’s something that we’ll be looking to do is grow Newcastle United now and as we have that success, to just perhaps sort of use some of those insights to help build the club as we go forward.
Q: Was there something that you did here that when you got to Newcastle, you said, “Well, I’m going to learn from that experience and not do that again?”
Conversely, what was a positive that you did that you said, “I’m definitely going to do?”
A: I think, from our perspective, something that we want to do, we’re very focused on St. James’ Park. Being in the city, we’re very fortunate, I love the stat, I think within half a mile, there’s 130 pubs. The next highest in the Premier League is Wolves with 30.
It means that I think we have to be a little bit more thoughtful about how we can engage beyond just the stadium itself. We’re looking at things we can do.
One of the, frankly, coming here this weekend, showing some of the Newcastle staff the tailgate and what’s done around them. It’s not just the 90 minutes of the game, but thinking more about can we do things in the build up for different aspects of our supporters? It might be different for youngsters than it’s going to be for the 20-something bloke, but what sort of things can we think about around that?
So we’ve got some ideas where it’s been sort of communicated, we’re in the process of purchasing some land that’s right next to the stadium. That gives us a bit of flexibility to think about the footprint beyond just the stadium itself. I think that’s very much like we have here in Atlanta and the way that we sort of built Atlanta United. So that’s something that’s good.
It isn’t a case of doing everything we did in Atlanta with Newcastle. It’s different sort of culture, different level of history and nuance. I think that’s the key thing of just, again, taking some of those perhaps bigger philosophical thoughts and then how to actually do this that works in the Premier League and Newcastle and sort of trying to do that.
Q: What do you miss about Atlanta?
A: Just all the friends that that were built here.
I think the weather is definitely, a little bit warmer. Today, it feels like a Newcastle day with the rain.
We had 7-1/2 years as a family and loved every minute of it. Certainly, as far as I’m concerned in America, where I’d call home and love the city, proud of what was achieved here. It’s just fun to be back and seeing some familiar faces.
Q: Now that you’ve had a few months to kind of, I don’t know how much time you’ve had to reflect because I know you’ve got your hands full with this wonderful project at Newcastle, is there something that you think about now that maybe you didn’t think about a lot while you were here that you’re proud of?
A: I think actually, this trip, probably just driving up here to the training ground and you think about how much work went into building the training ground, how quickly we did it, and that was just one of like 25 work things.
Because we obviously were doing the stadium and then we had the delay to the stadium. We were putting the team together, trying to build a fan base.
That sense when you’re in it, sometimes it’s hard to reflect and I think coming back now, certainly sort of on the flight over, just thinking “Wow, where did we find time that we did?”
And you know what it was like. It became almost like just a train going down a hill that it’s got that momentum and the supporters were just amazing and continue to be amazing. I mean, obviously watching the games on on Apple now we can get it over in England and you still see the crazy fan base.
I think that’s the bit that that gives me the most sense of pride is that, because this is Atlanta’s team, we always said the 17s and they grabbed it. That will always be there. I think that’s the great thing.
So I think at Newcastle with 130 years, and you start to think, just imagine the World Cup coming, but 50 years from now, just the privilege to have been part of building something that means so much to the community is, is a real honor.
Q: I’ve always wanted to ask you this, and I don’t know if you’ll answer: What is the one thing that a lot of us reported that was just absolutely wrong?
A: I think it’s like anything. When you’re in football, you’ll see stories and they’re so crazy, some of the speculation. You get into that state where you can’t just say that’s wrong because then you’re get it on every rumor. Nowadays, in social media, as you know, the tendency is just to throw out 10 different things and if you’re right one in 10 you use that to sort of show that you’re in the know.
I think it’s changed a lot, the media, in that respect. So there was loads of times when we were linked with players or players were linked otherwise, yeah.
Q: Wayne Rooney was linked here in the Fall of 2016, I think.
A: Exactly. That never happened. So, Newcastle, I mean, you can imagine there’s sort of players or agents, so that’s always the fun of it. And I think the sophistication of the fan base, I think they understand now that agents are going to be a reason they might want to put a player in or a club’s got a reason. So you should probably sort of take one in 10 of everything you read as having sort of substance,
Q: What’s written on your whiteboard in your office at Newcastle (Eales used to write funny message on the whiteboard in his office in Marietta that reporters would look at during Zoom interviews. One was “Sign Messi)”?
A: I’ve got an electronic whiteboard. Yeah, that’s Premier League money for you.
It’ll be interesting as we’re growing the club now because I think, no different from Atlanta, then it was the Designated Player, who you’re going to sign? We’re going through that now with if we do get Champions League, who are the players coming in?
So there’s that speculation, and that’s part of the fun of being in football is the fans all speculate on who they want.
Q: With the success that Newcastle is having the season, how has that affected the timeline given to you or that you have set for the franchise to kind of take next steps? And what are those next steps?
A: Well, I think we’ve got our vision, which is to be a sustainable top-six club in the Premier League, competing for trophies, and the key thing with that though is sustainability.
We have the financial fair play regulations in Europe. So in effect, that caps your ability to spend. You have to spend within your means. You have to generate the revenues in order to spend. It’s a business proposition. And we want to be a club that’s self-sustaining. But we understand that to get where we want to get, to break into that top six, you have to have a certain level of salary to spend. You can’t just wish that’s what you want to be. It’s not good enough to just say, “well, we want to be top six.” But if you haven’t got the wage bill to back that up. ...
So I think, we’re not under any illusions that we’re having great success this season in terms of punching above our weight, given what we spend on salaries. But if we are fortunate enough to get that Champions League, I think it just helps us accelerate that process because we’ll get Champions League revenues. We can reinvest that into the team.
So in effect, you know, we’ve got this steady state that we see ... in five years time being a top six, sustainable club competing for trophies. But this (season) probably gives us that little bit of a step above the curve. The key thing now is how do we maximize that? Because the converse of that is and, a shout out to ownership, Eddie and Dan have done a great job in the players they brought in, but we haven’t had any sort of misses, right? The problem we have is we don’t have the resources at the moment where you can afford to do 50-million, 80-million pound player, and for them not to be a significant contributor. So we have to be really efficient with our spend at the moment to be competitive.
My challenge now is, and it’s a great champion problem to have to use Tata’s (Gerardo Martino) famous words, that because we’re now doing over and above on the football side, it helps us now with the revenue, we’re going to have bigger exposure to help grow the revenue. The revenue is always going to be behind football, because it’s going to take us longer to build the infrastructure to do that. But we’re in a great place because of the way the team is playing. We’ve had the most-televised matches we’ve had in in England for a number of years. That brings you incremental revenue. The profile of the club has never been higher. We’ve got an Amazon documentary series that’s being filmed.
There’s this level of focus on the club. In the world of football it’s an exciting project because it is a club that has 50 years plus since they’ve won a trophy. The fans have stuck with them through thick and thin and most of it’s been thin recently.
They’ve got these chance now to take this regional powerhouse and can we can we build it into a top six club? So the success on the pitch is helping us speed the process up. But again, we’ve got to be realistic. It doesn’t mean just because you’ve had one season, you’ve made it. The Premier League is littered with teams that have broken into that top four and then fallen away. Leicester, at the moment, a great example of a club that five years ago had won the trophy and had European Champions League. Sort of two campaigns there where they won the FA Cup, and then they could go down this year.
So we’ve got to be humble. we’ve got to be methodical. We’ve got to have a structure in place. Hope’s not a plan. So it’s not good enough to say, “Well, we did it this year, we hope we do it next year.” We have to build the revenues to then support the football side to then be able to say, “Okay, it’s a realistic assumption for us to be consistently top six because we’ve provided those resources and we expect that.”
Q: In that vein, recognizing that you weren’t sporting director here and that you’re not sporting director at Newcastle, but did working within MLS, with its salary cap and the different mechanisms, is that affecting your thinking on how to approach and sign players for Newcastle to build this depth?
A: I think I always spoke about it when I came to to MLS, it definitely helped me coming into MLS from Tottenham and West Brom because both clubs, we had almost like a self-imposed salary cap because a percentage of turnover went to wages.
So I think that’s always a good discipline because it was never a case where you could just spend what you wanted. Or if the fan base are calling for a player you just did it to appease them. So I think having that focus, and we have a focus at Newcastle. My role as Chief Exec is how do we maximize our revenues to create the biggest pot that we can give to the football side for them to deploy. For them to deploy my help is in the financial other ways around if there’s sort of certain players we want to bring in and the ways that we can structure it to help within the financial fair play regulation.
We’re a good team. And I think it helps comin from a salary cap because you have that same discipline. You have the same rule structure that means you can’t just ... that’s our reality is we’ve got an ownership group that is committed to building a sustainable club. Theoretically, if there were no rules they probably could spend more than we are doing currently now and would do willingly because they want success. But we are guardrailed by the financial fair play regulations, so we have to do it as efficiently as possible and that efficiency of spend is the key.
Q: Are we going to see any MLS players on Newcastle’s roster going into next season?
A: I’m not sure. I couldn’t possibly... (laughs)
Q: And how much do you miss American beer?
A: (laughs again) Yeah, don’t miss that.
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Atlanta United’s 2023 MLS schedule
Feb. 25 Atlanta United 2, San Jose Earthquakes 1
March 4 Atlanta United 1, Toronto FC 1
March 11 Atlanta United 3, Charlotte FC 0
March 18 Atlanta United 5, Portland 1
March 25 Columbus 6, Atlanta United 1
April 1 Atlanta United 1, New York Red Bulls 0
April 8 Atlanta United 1, New York City FC 1
April 15 Atlanta United 2, Toronto FC 2
April 23 Atlanta United 2, Chicago 1
April 29 Nashville SC 3, Atlanta United 1
May 6 Inter Miami CF 2, Atlanta United 1
May 13 vs. Charlotte FC, 7:30 p.m.
May 17 vs. Colorado Rapids, 7:30 p.m.
May 20 at Chicago Fire FC, 8:30 p.m.
May 27 at Orlando City SC, 7:30 p.m.
May 31 vs. New England Revolution, 7 p.m., FS1
June 7 or Sept. 13 at Los Angeles FC, 10:30 p.m.
June 10 vs. D.C. United, 7:30 p.m.
June 21 vs. New York City FC, 7:30 p.m.
June 24 at New York Red Bulls, 7:30 p.m.
July 2 vs. Philadelphia Union, 4 p.m., Fox
July 8 at CF Montreal, 7:30 p.m.
July 12 at New England Revolution, 7:30 p.m.
July 15 vs. Orlando City SC, 7:30 p.m., FS1
Aug. 20 at Seattle Sounders, 10:30 p.m.
Aug. 26 vs. Nashville SC, 7:30 p.m.
Aug. 30 vs. FC Cincinnati, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 2 at FC Dallas, 8:30 p.m.
Sept. 16 vs. Inter Miami CF, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 20 at D.C. United, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 23 vs. CF Montreal, 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 4 at Philadelphia Union, 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 7 vs. Columbus Crew, 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 21 at FC Cincinnati, TBA
About the Author
Credit: Jason Getz/AJC