Saturday, April 26, 2014

Newcastle Disunited: Pardew faces end of the road

Saturday 19th May: The sun shining, the train clinging to the coast in between Dunbar and Berwick.

A day to feel optimistic. Somewhere behind me Hibs fans are travelling west in numbers, hoping, praying for a longed for, pressure relieving win.

I'm leaving them to it. Ahead of me, as the blue skies fill with clouds, Newcastle United, St James' Park and Swansea. England v Wales. Alan Pardew v Gary Monk.

A young manager fighting for survival in his job and in the top flight. And Pardew, safe in the league but apparently never less comfortable, a Cockney losing himself and occasionally his mind in the northern wilderness.

Swansea's plight is unfortunate. They looked set fair to establish themselves in the Premier League. Winning a trophy brought delight and European football. Did they get twitchy about Michael Laudrup too early? Possibly. Did they compound that by then promoting Monk too soon? Probably.

But for me the intrigue lies with Pardew. At times Newcastle seem less a football club than a collection of cliches: the sleeping giant, the great football city, the topless fans in the winter cold, the nasty southern owner with no feeling for a northern citadel.

And yet, like most owners, Mike Ashley would surely be tolerated - if never liked - if he somehow managed to deliver success.

His style, so successful elsewhere in his empire, seems particularly unsuited to football, to this football club in particular.

But it wasn't so long ago that it looked like he'd found a way of making it work.  Alan Pardew was manager of the year, Newcastle were qualifying for Europe, their scouting policy envied, there was talk of cracking the top four.

The NINE bar at St James' Park: Rebranded in tribute to a revered shirt rather than a favoured son. You can still buy a Shearer's Burger but if atmosphere is an indication of quality you probably shouldn’t.

Tottenham v Fulham plays out on the TV screens. In the dugout another dead man walking v another relegation contender.

Some watch half heartedly, some watch transfixed. Others ignore it, chatting quietly. It's more Toby Carvery Sunday afternoon lull than pre match boozer.

Maybe that's understandable, the whole place is just another front in football's corporate takeover. Wear their replica shirts while drinking in their bars before buying their food and taking a seat in their stadium. But the real passion will always be found elsewhere.

Or maybe not. There's over 50,000 people in the stadium. The faithful are still attending but they're giving the hymn singing a miss.

They're briefly roused when referee Chris Foy takes a clearance to the face and takes a delayed tumble. Has any referee ever fallen over gracefully? He raises himself but eventually has to be replaced.

The players seem to be feeding off the crowd, the game is flat. Shola Ameobi gets them to their feet with a calm finish in  minutes.

Swansea lack incision. The style that brought their recent success isn't clicking and Plan B seems out of reach.

But they have Wilfried Bony and they have the largesse of Newcastle's defence. Just before half time he's given space at the near post and his header gives the visitors parity.

The second half meanders along, the spring sunshine and lack of urgency lending proceedings the air of a meaningless end of season game. With Newcastle on a four game losing streak and Swansea not out of relegation danger that must frustrate the managers.

Newcastle look slightly more dangerous for long spells but it's Monk's substitutions that work. In the closing minutes Marvin Emnes goes on a run. Fabricio Coloccini, whose performance suggests he's already thinking about the summer and life after Newcastle, tracks and tracks without intervening.

As they reach the penalty spot Cheik Tiote decides to do something. It doesn't look the sternest of challenges but it's a giveable penalty.

The crowd go through the motions of noisy protest, then turn their attention to trying to distract the penalty taker. Undeterred, Bony is on hand to knock the penalty away and secure the three points.

The Swansea fans, more vocal than their counterparts all day, go into party mode. They've taken a big step towards safety.

The Newcastle fans trudge out: While neither side could have complained about the draw, Newcastle really complain about losing. There's been a defeated air lingering around St James' Park all day. A banished Pardew phoning in his instructions from the stand and too many players phoning in their performances.

Alan Pardew's programme notes expressed sympathy with a Swansea side suffering from the detrimental affects of competing in the Europa League.

Didn't I, poor, put upon Alan, not suffer the same thing last season, he seems to be saying. But I got through it and this season we're a top ten club with no danger of relegation and no danger of European football.

Maybe that's the only target the club has at the start of the season. But it seems a sad not to aim a little higher.

If that's the only league ambition then the fans should at least expect more consideration given to the cups.

The Europa League might not have helped Swansea this season. But they're close to surviving now and, if they do, then in the last couple of year they'll have given their fans the promise of a third straight Premier League season, a cup win, some enthralling European nights and famous wins over Cardiff and Manchester United.

What have Newcastle offered their fans? A win at Old Trafford (and hasn't everyone been doing that this season?), a couple of meek cup exits and a worst ever sequence of Premier League results.

Meanwhile the manager has tried to blame the world and his dog for his predicament and stuck the heid on an opposing player.

Alan Pardew's blame game headlines (@NUFC_Stats_It is true that Mike Ashley has dealt Pardew a poor hand, the owner cashing in on prized assets with the money not being diverted back to
the squad.

With the prized assets gone Pardew has been left with a squad of journeyman that he can't seem to motivate while being unable to get the best from his best players. That's the sort of managerial combination that loses you five games on the bounce.

On Monday evening they visit Arsenal. Cardiff at home and a trip to Anfield round out their season. The winless run might just stretch to the end of the campaign.

Pardew has lasted longer than others in Mike Ashley's Toon soap opera. But it was hard to come away from the game and not think that he's reached the end of the road. The idea of seeing out that ludicrously long contract must fill him with almost as much dread as it does the fans.

It's hard to tell how the Ashley era will play out. This is a club that deserves more from an owner.

But in the short term it's also a club that deserves more than a manager who's run out of ideas, luck and excuses.

Pardew might well realise that himself. If he doesn't then it's time someone told him.

(Image via @NUFC_Stats)