Hot Seat Narratives: Alan Pardew's Charmed Existence at Newcastle United
“It will be the greatest comeback since Lazarus.”
The late, legendary darts commentator Sid Waddell may have been talking about Cliff Lazarenko, but, had he been alive in 2014 to witness the annus horribilis endured by the manager of his beloved Newcastle United, he might well have been moved to say the same thing about Alan Pardew. And yet, incredibly, the comeback appears to be on.
In mid-October, Pardew was a dead man walking: in charge of a winless side apparently resigned to taking up long-term residence in the relegation zone, under the sort of pressure usually experienced at the bottom of the Marianas Trench and suffering the indignity of being branded “P45due” by his own club’s supporters and – worse still – “a broken man” by Robbie Savage.
Barely a month later, and he’s not only still in the St James’ Park hot-seat but the architect of six successive victories that have catapulted the club into the top half of the Premier League table and into the last eight of the League Cup at holders Manchester City’s expense. It’s an act of escapology of which Harry Houdini would be proud. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised at Pardew’s bouncebackability, though; after all, this is the man who, two months into his reign, guided his side to the greatest comeback in Premier League history as we recovered from a 4-0 half-time deficit at home to Arsenal to claim a point.
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Our renaissance means that Pardew is now virtually guaranteed to celebrate a fourth anniversary of his arrival on Tyneside next month. To put that into context, only four managers in the top four divisions have been in situ longer. He is the second longest-serving boss in the top flight, after Arsene Wenger – a status he enjoyed after just two and a half years in the job, when Tony Pulis quit Stoke, Fergie retired and David Moyes left Everton to step into his too-big-to-fill shoes at Old Trafford. This season Watford and Leeds went through five managers in the time it took Aston Villa to score a goal. These days, sackings are dished out for much, much less than the calamitous form we’ve shown for the majority of this calendar year.
In truth, though, Pardew beat the odds some time ago, having faced a battle for acceptance from the very beginning. His predecessor Chris Hughton had endeared himself to the Geordie faithful by not being Joe Kinnear, by somehow uniting a fractured club facing up to life in the Championship and securing promotion back to the top tier at the first attempt, and by presiding over a 5-1 thrashing of bitter local rivals Sunderland. Hughton had, however, not endeared himself to owner Mike Ashley, who felt his manager was too close to and too easily influenced by some of the senior professionals in the squad. Ashley took a defeat at West Bromwich Albion in early December 2010, a fifth winless game in succession, as the excuse he needed to pull the trigger – regardless of the fact that that derby demolition and a clean-sheet victory at the Emirates the following week were still fresh in fans’ memories.
We could only assume that Ashley had a big-name replacement lined up, so the actual identity of Hughton’s successor was distinctly underwhelming: a man whose most recent managerial appointment, at Southampton in League One, had ended in the sack and who had shown himself to be to punditry what Dapper Laughs is to comedy. Pardew’s reign may have got off to a decent start with a 3-1 victory over Liverpool, but that result and a 5-0 rout of his old club West Ham were soon forgotten when our old FA Cup adversaries Stevenage exacted humiliating revenge for our belittling of them 13 years previously.
That first season back in the Premier League ended in survival, and the following year the target was consolidation – though that’s not quite how it panned out. Managerial longevity is supposed to bring stability, but under Pardew our fortunes have waxed and waned as much as ever.
First they waxed, as key summer 2011 signings Yohan Cabaye and Demba Ba and January addition Papiss Cisse fired us to fifth place with tremendous victories over Manchester United and Chelsea and a glorious run of form in the spring, earning Pardew both the Premier League and the League Managers Association Manager of the Year awards (a first for an Englishman) and a new eight-year contract running until 2020.
Then they waned, as we endured an equally expectation-shattering season, stumbling haplessly into the jaws of the relegation zone with such results as a 3-0 embarrassment by the Mackems and a 6-0 battering by Liverpool in successive home matches. Safety was only secured on the penultimate weekend of the season, by which time all of the goodwill Pardew had banked as a result of 2011-12’s escapades had been withdrawn and he was in serious danger of dipping into his overdraft.
And then, even more improbably, last year was like the previous two seasons condensed into one. A flying start saw us sitting in sixth on Boxing Day after a 5-1 tonking of Stoke, but that was followed by a grand total of 16 points out of a possible 57 over the remaining months, including another excruciating 3-0 home defeat to the wretches from down the road and a six-game losing streak from mid-March right through April. We may have ended up where we’d anticipated when the season kicked off – mid-table – but we got there via a tortuously circuitous route that had initially promised so much but ultimately delivered only disappointment and anger.
Despite a raft of well-received summer recruits, the downward spiral continued into the current season and Pardew found himself increasingly the focus of the fans’ venom. But how much blame could be justifiably laid at the manager’s door? Even his fiercest critics would have to concede that there have been mitigating circumstances.
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Kevin Keegan, that legendary former occupant of the St James’ Park dugout, was recently moved to praise not only Pardew for his strength of character, but also the board for showing him clemency and patience. That magnanimity was surprising in view of the acrimonious circumstances surrounding the end of Keegan’s second spell as manager, precipitated partly by the sale of James Milner and partly by the recruitment of Ignacio González – both against his wishes and the latter (a Premier League tribunal subsequently revealed) against the terms of his contract. Keegan was clearly unhappy to be merely a head coach to whom transfer policy would be dictated from above, essentially rejecting the European model that Ashley was seeking to impose and that has since been increasingly widely adopted in English football.
If Pardew was under the belief that things might somehow be different when he took the reins, then he was soon disabused of that fanciful notion when, in January 2011, Andy Carroll was sold to Liverpool. Pardew, who had repeatedly insisted our star striker was going nowhere, was left with egg on his face and under no illusion at all as to who was in charge. With hindsight, of course, opting to bank £35m – which remains a record fee for a British player moving between Premier League clubs – for a perma-crock whose physical presence imposed constraints on our playing style has been proven prudent. But the sale set a precedent for a pattern that has repeated itself on two other occasions during Pardew’s reign.
Demba Ba – pretty much the only player to have helped us to keep our heads above water in the first half of the woeful 2012-13 season – was sold to Chelsea four days into January, the month he’d been chosen to represent for that year’s official club calendar. Again, the decision to accept the bid was Ashley’s rather than Pardew’s, though a pair of professional blabbermouths – West Ham chairman David Sullivan and then-Spurs manager Harry Redknapp – were also culpable for publicising the release clause in Ba’s contract.
Fast forward a year and another talismanic player, Yohan Cabaye, was flogged to PSG for £20m. In truth, by that point four defeats stretching from late December into January had already hinted that our season was about to unravel – but the departure of someone who had secured our first Old Trafford win over Manchester United since 1972 and had just single-handedly inspired us to a 3-1 triumph at West Ham certainly didn’t help matters. Pardew recently compared management to assembling Ikea furniture; it’s fair to say that during his time on Tyneside he’s repeatedly been tasked with building a three-legged stool only for one of the legs to be sold.
However – and I may well be in the minority of Newcastle supporters in saying this – I can’t fault Ashley’s buy-’em-cheap-and-sell-’em-expensive transfer policy in theory. The owner has made it his mission to get a notoriously unstable club on a financial even keel, refusing to risk our long-term future by shelling out on exorbitant transfer fees and salaries in pursuit of a near-impossible dream. Portsmouth and Leeds are the classic cautionary tales. We can’t hope to compete with the spending power of the Manchester clubs, Chelsea or even Wenger’s newly lavish Arsenal, so why try? Better to identify an alternative approach – one that does unfortunately involve parting ways with prize assets if the price is right.
The problem, of course, is when those assets aren’t adequately replaced, or indeed replaced at all. The timing of Carroll’s sale – the last day of the transfer window – meant that sourcing a replacement would have been challenging, but there was certainly no such excuse in the case of either Ba or Cabaye. It emerged that the latter’s exit had been agreed in principle months earlier, and, while Ba’s departure was admittedly offset by a recruitment drive dubbed the French Revolution that Pardew claimed had been accelerated forwards from that summer, none of the five players imported across the channel (Mathieu Debuchy, Moussa Sissoko, Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, Yoan Gouffran and Massadio Haidara) could step straight into his sizeable boots.
Ultimately, Ashley’s policy is only as good as our recruitment process – and when, in June 2013, that responsibility was entrusted to Joe Kinnear, it was like expecting an amoeba to explain the fundamentals of quantum physics in ten different languages. The man who famously boasted that he could ‘open the door to any manager in the world‘ would certainly have been better suited to a vocation as a doorman. Over the course of two transfer windows, he mustered just two signings, Loïc Rémy and Luuk de Jong – both of whom were only temporary acquisitions and both of whom were already firmly on our radar before his arrival. The cynical among us wondered if Ashley had been inspired by watching The Hudsucker Proxy to appoint a naïve idiot as a cunning way to guarantee he wouldn’t have to open the purse strings, then forcing Kinnear out before his ruse was rumbled.
For his part, Pardew deserved considerable sympathy for having to work under such conditions – especially as he was expected to act as an apologist for the self-aggrandising potty-mouthed incompetent. After the first window shut, a statement credited to the manager defending Kinnear’s efforts appeared on the club’s official website, but after the second, in the heat of the moment after a derby defeat, an irritable Pardew was unable to comment with such forced diplomacy: ‘If I was in charge, solely, of transfers things might be different but I’m not. I think I’ve made my opinions very clear this week and all the rest of it is confidential.’ Two days later, Kinnear was toast. This didn’t mean that Pardew had completely got his own way, of course; Ashley retained ultimate control over incomings and outgoings. Indeed, he should perhaps have recalled the old adage ‘Be careful what you wish for’, because Kinnear’s ousting meant that, for the fans, he was once again firmly in the firing line, his human shield gone.
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So much for the players Pardew lost and those we could have brought in. What of those we did sign or already had?
Few would deny that the squad that only narrowly missed out on the Champions League places in 2011-12 punched substantially above its weight, albeit aided and abetted by the relatively poor seasons endured by Chelsea, Liverpool and Everton. The secret of our success wasn’t really that much of a secret: key players were both fit and in fine form throughout the campaign.
Unfortunately, the exact reverse was true in 2012-13, as all of our star men endured spells on the sidelines with injury and/or seemed completely out of sorts. Cabaye blamed his own poor performances on the hangover from France’s disastrous display in Euro 2012, while Cisse went from being a black-and-white-shirted Midas – everything he touched turning to goal – to a hapless sitter-misser who couldn’t hit Titus Bramble’s backside with a banjo. The Europa League, for which we’d fought so hard to qualify, became a curse rather than a blessing, taking its toll on a thin squad. Of course, had we prepared properly for the exigencies of the extra fixtures rather than thinking the summer addition of Vurnon Anita sufficient and naively trusting that fate would smile kindly on us for a second season in a row, then we could have coped far better – something the then chief executive Derek Llambias later acknowledged.
Again, this was hardly Pardew’s fault, but with player form the situation was less clear-cut – and this is where we start to look beyond mitigating circumstances. If Pardew could (rightly) take much credit for our achievements in 2011-12, as was implicit in those Manager of the Year awards, then he should also shoulder some of the blame for what transpired the following season. Cisse et al didn’t somehow become bad players overnight, and while they may have performed out of their skins in finishing fifth, he should surely have been able to rouse them to do better than 16th just 12 months later. The abject manner of some of the capitulations suffered that year, and again in the second half of the 2013-14 season, suggested that Pardew had lost the ability to instil belief, self-confidence and even the bare minimum – a basic appetite for hard graft and combat – in those in his charge. No Newcastle manager who presides over two consecutive gutless 3-0 defeats at home to the old enemy can expect to be enthusiastically embraced to the Geordie moob.
His reactions to such displays were scarcely more palatable to the supporters. He would make baffling tactical switches that forced key men out of position, and pointless substitutions, calling the wrong players off the bench while others who could have made a genuine difference were left kicking their heels. Unswerving but misplaced faith in his favourites meant that the likes of Jonas Gutiérrez and (more recently) Yoan Gouffran remained fixtures in the team long after they’d ceased to have any constructive impact.
It was a far cry from the early days, when Pardew appeared a master of man management, able to unite, focus and get the most out of those at his disposal. As Steven Taylor told the Independent in April 2012, ‘The gaffer has been massive on his team spirit, on his bonding sessions, on his team meals, on the paintballing, on the team nights out we’ve had. He loves the banter, for him and the coaching staff. What you won’t find is many teams where the players will mix in with the staff and the staff mix in with the players.’ No detail appeared too small; as Cisse revealed to the Telegraph, the club chef was asked to learn how to cook a Senegalese curried goat dish called Yassa just to help him and compatriot Ba feel at home.
However, when form dipped, injuries bit and results suffered, smiling faces were replaced by furrowed brows, and rumours of disgruntled players, inter-squad factions and a Francophone clique emerged. There is no clearer indication of how dramatically Pardew’s deft human touch appeared to desert him than the case of Hatem Ben Arfa. That the Frenchman can be lazy, temperamental, psychologically brittle, and in constant need of either an arm around the shoulder or a boot up the backside, is indisputable. But he is also a supremely talented footballer, capable of illuminating any game, as evidenced by goals against Blackburn and Bolton that are among the most sublime St James’ Park will ever see. So it was infuriating that Pardew lost his patience and gave up on him, bowing to pressure from certain other members of the squad and pushing him to the periphery before forcing him out of the club altogether – especially in view of the fact that the team, prosaic in midfield and goal-shy in attack, was crying out for a spark of creative genius. With the depressing inevitability to which Newcastle fans are accustomed, Siem de Jong – the nominal replacement for both Ben Arfa and Cabaye – was ruled out with injury for four months a matter of days later.
And so back to Pardew’s relationship with the supporters – one that has grown increasingly fractious since the heady days of May 2012. Those who caricature him as merely the monkey to Ashley’s organ grinder do so slightly unfairly, I’d suggest. Nevertheless, it was understandable that his unceremonious ousting of fans’ favourite Ben Arfa, compounding a sequence of appalling results stretching across seasons, drew the ire of those in the stands. Pardew’s response was not to accept a measure of responsibility with dignity and humility, or even to keep his mouth shut and his head down, but instead to accuse supporters of ‘mass hysteria‘ that was inhibiting the players from performing. This unsubtle transference of blame was nothing new; Ashley has waged war on the press, both local and national, and in April his manager followed suit, pointing the finger in the direction of journalists. The Sunday Sun’s riposte was brutally effective. Alan Pardew’s Random Excuse Generator barely qualifies as satire any more.
However, nothing could excuse Pardew’s personal conduct on 1st March, when he headbutted Hull’s David Meyler. He had previous form for touchline indiscretions, found guilty of shoving assistant referee Peter Kirkup on the opening day of the 2012-13 season and then caught by TV cameras branding Man City manager Manuel Pellegrini ‘a fucking old cunt‘ (language, incidentally, of a hue that suggested Kinnear had had some influence at the club after all). That moment of madness at the KC Stadium brought the sternest punishment the FA had ever handed to a Premier League manager, a three-game stadium ban followed by a four-game touchline ban as well as a fine and a warning. All eyes were then on Ashley; would he take the incident as a perfectly sound reason to terminate Pardew’s employment? The owner decided instead to issue his own fine and warning, and the man who had plunged a club that is no stranger to negative headlines (further) into disrepute kept his job. That his loss of discipline had lost him the respect of the dressing room soon looked crystal clear; of the seven games for which he was absent from the dugout, we lost six. Personally speaking, I had been refusing to side with the vocal majority who wanted him out, but this was the final straw.
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So why did Ashley opt not to cut Pardew adrift in March, when he had ample justification to do so? Why not in the summer, after we’d limped bloodied and desperate to the end of a campaign that had gone horribly pear-shaped, to allow someone with fresh ideas time to work with the squad and build for the new season? And why not a few games into that new season, after miserable defeats to Southampton and Stoke, when it appeared that – despite personnel coming and going – precious little else had changed?
Kevin Keegan, ever generous of spirit, may have been prepared to give Ashley the benefit of the doubt and chalk it up to an enduring faith in Pardew’s ability to turn things around. However, during his time at Newcastle, there’s not been much evidence to suggest that the owner is man blessed with much patience. Llambias may once have claimed that the club hierarchy ‘do not make knee-jerk decisions’, but time and again Ashley has acted rashly and without thought or sentiment: sacking Hughton, making executive appointments that seem almost deliberately designed to unsettle the managers in situ at the time (see: Kinnear, Dennis Wise), disrespecting more than a century of tradition and history by attempting to rebrand the stadium, leaping into bed with a payday loans company to seal a sponsorship deal. Neither is Ashley noted for his generosity towards employees – as is underlined by the fact that 90% of Sports Direct staff are employed on zero-hours contracts.
No, the true reasons for Ashley’s persistence with Pardew are, I think, much less noble.
First and most obviously, there’s that contract – the length of which most of Ashley’s other minions could only dream of. The deal was purportedly offered to ensure stability, but one wonders whether Ashley got slightly caught up in the moment and it’s now the source of some regret. Certainly, sacking Pardew would be a costly business for someone who is notoriously tight-fisted (if hardly short of a bob or two). The prospect of compensation is, of course, also the reason why, despite all the pressure and abuse, the manager has refused to do the decent thing and fall on his sword even when his position has looked untenable. What’s more, like Graeme Souness before him, Pardew is only too aware of his extraordinary good fortune, knows he’s in the best job he’ll ever get and is understandably reluctant to relinquish it.
Pardew’s gratitude brings me to the second, and arguably more significant, reason for Ashley’s steadfast refusal to pull the trigger: Ashley knows that, though he may strain against the leash every now and again, Pardew will generally toe the party line and work in conditions that many managers would find as intolerable as Keegan did. If Pardew was to have been jettisoned, who would have been prepared to step into the breach?
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Us Newcastle fans are often accused of being a fickle bunch, so let me go on the record to maintain my view that Pardew should have been sacked. Our recent revival hasn’t changed that – you won’t find me getting his face and the legend ‘Messiah‘ tattooed on my inner thigh any time soon. However, the turnaround has been so dramatic that grudging credit has to be given where it’s due.
Even when we were winless, there were signs in the draws against Hull and Swansea that new reserves of resolve and battling spirit might yet be located. Cisse scored braces in both games, one of three players who seemed determined to save Pardew’s skin. Gabriel Obertan, a man who had been out in the cold so long it was amazing he hadn’t lost a couple of limbs to frostbite, returned to the side to snatch the only goal in the make-or-break match against Leicester, before strikes from Ayoze Perez in each of the next three league games – header, poacher’s finish, exquisite backheel flick – propelled us to maximum points. Equally remarkable has been our sudden recollection of how to defend properly, with Tim Krul picking the ball out of our net only once in five matches.
Even Pardew appears to have rediscovered his magic touch. Not only did the recall for Obertan pay off, but the half-time introduction of Sammy Ameobi and Perez at Spurs reaped dividends within seven seconds as both subs scored to overturn a deficit. Against Liverpool he also got it right, withdrawing an off-the-pace Cisse and replacing him with ultimate match-winner Perez. Meanwhile, Ryan Taylor – drafted in for the tremendous League Cup win at Man City, his first appearance since August 2012 – spoke warmly of Pardew’s work behind the scenes to keep his spirits up during the course of his long lay-off: ‘The manager’s had me scouting, watching training, learning new things about the game‘.
It’s less than two years ago that Pardew insisted ‘We want to make our own players, but the truth is the players from the academy we put in haven’t produced’ – a fact underlined by a 2-0 FA Cup defeat to Brighton. Now, the emergence of Ameobi Junior, Paul Dummett, Rolando Aarons, Mehdi Abeid and Adam Armstrong allied to the acquisition of Perez, bought on the basis of potential but progressing ahead of schedule, suggests that the future might possibly be bright after all.
How much of that future will be under Pardew’s stewardship remains to be seen. He surely knows there is an enormous amount of work to be done – not least in repairing his relations with the club’s supporters, whom he approached at the Hawthorns with all the caution of a man returning to a lit firework. But, given what he’s already come through, and given Ashley’s obvious reluctance to sack him, it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that he could yet see out his contract and find himself in 2020 teaching Ray Mears and Bear Grylls a thing or two about survival in extremity.
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