The Best Article You’ll Ever Read On The Current State Of Newcastle United?
There is an episode of The Simpsons when Principal Skinner introduces uniforms, following rioting caused by a provocative t-shirt (‘Down With Homework!’).
Once the children have been kitted out in their drab attire, they quickly lose all sense of personality and individuality. They sit sadly and quietly in lessons and say nothing. It is only when a rain storm reveals the uniforms to be cheaply made, causing the colours to run and create a tie-dye effect, that the children are revitalised and start doing the things they used to do.
At about 10 past 4 last Saturday, something happened at St James’ Park, to my memory, for the first time in 2013-14. The majority of people in the Leazes End rose from their seats to sing. At first it was to request the departure of the rotund Southerner of questionable parentage who continues to reign supreme over Newcastle United, but this was swiftly followed by support for the players on the pitch. The content of the chants was not remarkable but the fact that it happened, was. It felt like it was raining.
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Alan Pardew is the drab grey uniform that we have all gradually become accustomed to wearing over the past three and a half years. Amongst all the damning statistics and negative club records that Pardew has accrued during his spell in charge, the worst thing he has done is drive your average supporters hopes and dreams, not just of trophies and European trips but even of a good day out on a Saturday, into the ground – with his constant belittling remarks and grimly functional performances.
Few will deny that Mike Ashley is the cancer within Newcastle United, but Alan Pardew is responsible for the day-to-day symptoms of the disease, that have made the last two seasons such an infuriating and miserable time to support the club.
The first thing to say is that he’s been a master of manipulative PR and spin. Three years ago, ‘sovereign states’ were his buzz words for clubs that Newcastle United should not be expected to compete with. Now, it is ‘Southampton’.
Three years ago, we’d done magnificently to come 5th. Now the same word is used to describe any presence in the top half of the table. Three years ago, it was Manchester United and Chelsea who we must worry about taking our players. Last summer, it was a bid from penniless Everton who Pardew had now decided we must fear. Gradually he has manipulated the expectations of Newcastle supporters into nothing. He cannot be blamed solely for this of course. This is the club line, what Mike Ashley wants.
What I would take issue with is those who say that Pardew has somehow been let down by his boss. That is categorically not true. He came into NUFC post-Keegan with his eyes wide open and shook hands on the deal. He deserves none of your sympathy.
Now onto his boss. My personal feeling about Mike Ashley is that I utterly detest the man and I think that his transfer policy is absolutely preposterous and ultimately counter-productive. This being true, however, does not absolve Alan Pardew of responsibility for what he gets from his resources on a matchday. Mike Ashley’s biggest failing, by far and away, is hiring Alan Pardew. We watched Kevin Keegan send a three-man midfield containing Geremi and Nicky Butt to White Hart Lane and completely wipe the floor with them.
We have good players – Debuchy, Coloccini, Yanga Mbiwa, Santon, Sissoko, Anita, Ben Arfa, Marveaux, Cisse et al all arrived with excellent credentials and all have looked good in black and white for spells of varying length. It is the manager’s job to get the best out of them in the same way Brendan Rodgers has transformed the players he took over. Pardew is not the only manager to work with a tight owner, or with somebody else buying the players. The excuses should not wash with any of us.
When we win under Pardew, it is usually grim and ground out. When we lose, more than a third are by three goals or more. An opening goal for Newcastle is usually followed by a retreat into our own half as we attempt to defend a slender lead, regardless of the opposition.
An early goal for the opposition is typically time for us to pack up and go home. This is not a Tony Pulis argument of ‘functional football that gets results’ vs ‘attacking football that concedes too many goals’ – for the majority of the past two campaigns, other than a dull but plentiful Autumn/Winter 2013, it’s been the worst combination of both.
Mike Ashley does not force him to deploy the striker that he acquired last January as somebody to hold the full-back’s hand. He does not tell him to drift all set-pieces towards Mike Williamson. He does not instruct Pardew to bring all 11 players back for a corner, or instruct the midfield to sit when we counter attack, instead of getting into the penalty area and offering support. He does not force him to completely ostracise Sylvain Marveaux and Hatem Ben Arfa.
Ben Arfa in particular has become a poster boy for the Pardew Out campaign, not because of his achievements in a black and white shirt but because he reminds us of the reasons we used to love going to St James’ Park. He does not have the goals and assists (nor, sadly, the amount of appearances) for us to point to in the same way we did when Graeme Souness snubbed Laurent Robert, but what he does have is that ability to make something happen at any moment, to make us sit up and roar him goalwards. When he collects the ball on that right hand corner of the box, he makes St James’ crackle with anticipation. And that, more than anything else, is what Pardew doesn’t like.
A comment that he made after Saturday really hit home with me, when he said that, “he wouldn’t have wanted to play in that atmosphere,” and I realised just how true that was. The atmosphere on St James’ Park against Cardiff was both poisonous and exhilarating, depending on your point of view, but I would be very surprised if the players preferred the deathly silence which accompanied the previous home game against Swansea, a new low in my experience of our famous ground. An atmosphere doesn’t just go one way, and Pardew knows this. Any pulsating football atmosphere is tinged with a risk that it may turn sour if things go badly. That is the nature of emotion, of highs and lows. Pardew was manager of Reading. Without wanting to be disrespectful, he knows the benefit of a docile crowd to a manager happy just to collect a wage.
He, more than anybody else, is responsible for the moratorium that St James’ Park has become. He does not want an excited St James’ Park. He wants dull wins, dull draws and dull defeats. That way, they become much of a muchness, indistinguishable. The only way you can tell a win from a defeat is to check the table after the game, and decide whether it was acceptable based on that. This way he can numb the senses, and bring forth that emotion which dominates any conversation about NUFC in 2014 – apathy.
A Newcastle side showing their full attacking potential scares him. If they do it once, they can do it again and if they don’t, questions get asked. Chris Hughton’s side maintained an unblemished home record in the Championship before wiping the floor with Aston Villa on that memorable first day back home in August 2010. The next time Newcastle played at St James’, they were beaten 2-0 by Blackpool with new signing Ben Arfa held back until 73 minutes had elapsed . The crowd was angry, the manager’s top flight credentials questioned. Hughton had created a performance expectation that he was going to be unable to maintain consistently – he did the same six weeks later on that amazing Halloween afternoon, only to then fail to beat Blackburn and again see his side booed off.
Over three seasons, Pardew has gradually put in place a mentality to ensure he did not fall into such a trap. When you’ve seen wins and been bored to tears by them, it is difficult to summon up anger for a subsequent boring defeat. To all intents and purposes, it’s the same day out, just with less points. The booing remains but the fury has gone, wilted away, appeased by just enough 1-0 wins to keep a wolf wearing a Portsmouth shirt from the door.
Even this season, with those points under his belt to prevent a repeat of last season’s near-catastrophe, he refused to let the shackles off, to give Ben Arfa or Marveaux the opportunity to fill a Cabaye shaped hole. He is not a stupid man and every move he makes is designed not to make NUFC a success but to make sure he can keep his job, now and in the future. He remembers the late stages of 2011-12 as well as anybody, when a triumvirate of Ben Arfa, Ba and Cisse ran riot. Since then, he has been forever faced with the question of ‘why don’t you do that again?’ and therefore made sure never to bother doing anything creative, inventive or attacking. Why create expectations that may later be your undoing?
It is difficult to quantify this mind-numbing tedium when attempting to get the point across to anybody who doesn’t have to endure it. Recent media coverage has proved infuriating. Pundits and journalists up and down the land have been asked for their opinion on Alan Pardew’s Newcastle United and the majority all answer in the same way. A cursory glance at the league table, liberal use of clichés – ‘hands tied’, ‘careful what you wish for’ – and an assertion that ‘he’s done a good job there’.
How many Newcastle games any of these ‘experts’ have sat through is unclear – if any of them have thought for a second that they would want to watch it every week, I would suggest that the answer is ‘not enough’. Allardyce, Dalglish and Souness have all come to Tyneside in recent years, and each sought to inflict their own turgid style of football on a populace with fond memories of great attacking sides, but at least we were given mercy after a maximum of around 18 months. Pardew has more than doubled that time in office and each day sucked a little more life out of NUFC.
Finally though, the worm has turned and not a moment too soon. Six consecutive defeats and not enough boring wins since January threaten to be the rain at Springfield Elementary for Pardew, with a mischievous Bart Simpson aka Hatem Ben Arfa playing to the crowd in the Milburn/Leazes Corner. When I stood up to sing as part of a group at St James’ on Saturday, it struck me straight away that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d done it, but that I used to do it all the time, every game.
The most-used cliché about Newcastle United is that ‘nothing will change until Mike Ashley is gone’. I could not possibly disagree more. The fundamentals are unlikely to change – the penny-pinching, the tatty advertising, the general lack of ambition. What might change, could easily change, is that we might not dread those two hours of inconvenience to a weekend afternoon, we might look forward to watching MOTD more than five times a season and we might not, as I have for the last two months, spent games willing the opposition on against us.
We must not again give Pardew what he desires – our subservient acceptance. Our voices made St James’ a very unpleasant place for him last Saturday and so it must remain. Of course the question remains of who will replace him. If they’re substandard and make no attempt to light up our matchdays, they should receive the same treatment. If Mike Ashley has to keep going through poor managers because we make them so sick of their lives, all the better. It might either make him hire someone decent, or get worried enough about another drop into the Championship to bail out. Accepting Alan Pardew and what he has presented to us has done us no favours.
Don’t let any summer signings delude us into expecting change on the field, don’t let him talk us into not demanding better.
Freddy Shepherd always used to say, when trying to laugh off his incompetence, something along the lines of, “Newcastle aren’t always doing well, but at least it’s never dull.” He was wrong.
Pardew has made following Newcastle United miserable at worst… and boring at best. And that, more than any other reason, is why we must continue to force him out.
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