Newcastle United went from finishing fifth and qualifying for the Europa League at the end of the 2011-12 season, to finishing sixteenth and barely escaping relegation in 2012-13.
How did it go so wrong in the space of a season?
(To feature like Sam, send in your letters/articles for our magazine/website to [email protected])
Outside of the North East, Mike Ashley was hailed as a visionary for appointing Pardew, receiving £35million for Andy Carroll, and bringing financial stability to the club following years of overspending on big name flops such as Mark Viduka and Michael Owen. Tales of free-flowing football abounded as much was made of Graham Carr and an influx of French-based foreigners replacing the likes of Kevin Nolan and Joey Barton. Newcastle were apparently now a slick, well-run, and upwardly mobile organisation whose players were as hungry for success as their award-winning manager.
Twelve months later Newcastle finished sixteenth having flirted shamelessly with demotion to the Championship. In successive home games they were spanked 3-0 by Sunderland, their relegation-threatened rivals, and suffered a 6-0 humiliation to a Luis Suarez-less Liverpool. Losing top scorer Demba Ba to Chelsea in January probably wasn’t helpful, though it did negate the striking conundrum that Pardew hadn’t yet solved a year after Papiss Cissé arrived on Tyneside.
Then the transfer window brought five French additions, two of whom, midfielder Moussa Sissoko and forward Yoan Gouffran, contributed three goals of their own. The Europa League was constantly cited as an excuse despite the young and inexperienced sides Newcastle fielded throughout the competition. Injuries to key personnel was another frequent lament by the silver-haired one, though of the first-choice players there from the start of the season, only Hatem Ben Arfa made fewer than twenty league appearances. So where did it really go wrong?
One theory is that Ashley’s reluctance to sign players in the summer, Vernon Anita being the club’s only major senior acquisition, despite the additional strain of the Europa League, and several fringe players moving on, meant that Newcastle were unable to cope when first-teamers inevitably picked up injuries. This is a view that Pardew subscribes to judging by his comments regarding selection issues and the owner having to share the blame for underachievement. Yet this fails to explain the run of form that saw Newcastle lose seven of the last fifteen games, including the capitulations to Sunderland and Liverpool, when reinforcements had already proved in their first few games, the consecutive wins away to Villa and home against Chelsea in particular, that they were more than capable of adapting to the Premier League.
Gary Neville would have you believe that the soul, the identity and the heart have been ripped out of the club by foreign imports. That they don’t understand the culture and can’t empathise with the fans, that they lack the professional integrity to give one-hundred percent each and every week; that they simply don’t care about this team. As if the only side to record an unbeaten Premier League season was full of snarling Englishmen rather than Europeans, South Americans and Africans. Of Arsene Wenger’s favoured starting eleven for the 2003-04 season, only Sol Campbell and Ashley Cole were from Britain. Of course, it’d be pointless to compare two England legends with Steven Taylor and Danny Simpson, never mind James Perch and Mike Williamson. Newcastle’s problems have nothing to do with nationality.
For those of us who watched every game of 2011-12, the acclaim that Newcastle United received seemed misplaced yet beguiling; we didn’t really mind as long as we were winning. And I imagine the season-review DVD must’ve been spectacular. All those sublime highlights, Ba and Cisse’s outrageous strikes and Ben Arfa’s genius condensed into a couple of hours’ worth of footage that embodied how the media portrayed us.
Just a few months later, following the draw at Goodison Park in September, Leighton Baines called Newcastle a long-ball team. A month into the season and we’d been stripped of our ‘free-flowing’ label. Coloccini was absent but Cabaye, Ben Arfa, Ba and Cisse were present for that fixture and the style of play was no different to what we’d seen the previous year. If anything, the second half performance that saw Newcastle avoid defeat was better than what we’d witnessed up to that point in 2012-13, including the opening day victory against Tottenham. It seems the only difference between free-flowing and long-ball football are wins and spectacular goals.
The defining characteristics of Pardew’s Newcastle are industry and discipline when the opposition have possession, although it should be noted that these were never problem areas under his predecessor, Chris Hughton. Pardew’s just took it to another level. Let’s use Jonas Gutierrez as an example. When he originally signed for Kevin Keegan in 2008, Jonas was a right-winger. Joe Kinnear saw him in a similar role, and Jonas was often the sole source of forward momentum, moving the team up the pitch by dribbling through the opposition. While his end product has never rivaled David Beckham’s, the season we were relegated I loved him for his positivity. That under Pardew he became an auxiliary full-back incapable of beating his man or doing anything other than inducing free-kicks and covering Davide Santon is testament to Pardew’s coaching and general philosophy.
John Carver, Newcastle’s assistant manager, was quoted in November 2011 as saying that Pardew works on the defence, or ‘how not to lose’, for four of the five training days while Carver has just the Friday to work on ‘how to win’. Pardew evidently understands that most football matches are decided by a mistake or a set-piece, or as we saw the previous season, a moment of audacious genius. He’s a nick-a-win coach. If I have to watch whichever Newcastle goalkeeper lump another free-kick from around the half-way line into the opposition penalty area, unsuccessfully seeking Steven Taylor or Mike Williamson for a flick-on, I might just die of boredom. It never works and it’s predictable. And it says far too much about our style of play and our ambitions.
Newcastle simply don’t have the personnel to play the way Pardew wants them to. They sit too deep and waste their energy keeping their shape. When possession is gained there’s the inevitable hoof to an isolated and outnumbered Cisse. There’s not enough movement off the ball and very little fluency when they have possession, despite being a team full of ball-players, of actual footballers. What they need is a manager who can utilise their attributes successfully. Somebody with a positive philosophy, somebody they can believe in, whom they want to play for.
At the moment it seems like Newcastle are a Ferrari being driven by a nervy, overly-cautious, short-sighted geriatric who can barely see over the steering wheel. If there had been a 2012-13 season award for mismanagement, it would’ve gone to Alan Pardew.