Only a minute minority of Newcastle fans would dare admit it, but controversial owner Mike Ashley deserves some credit for sticking with Alan Pardew.
A poll by the Newcastle Chronicle last April claimed 85% of supports wanted rid of their much-maligned manager, so when the Magpies went without a win in their first seven league fixtures this season, as toxic protests from the terraces began to affect performances on the pitch, the majority of Premier League owners would have quickly pulled the plug.
The average management tenure in the English top flight is just over one year – scapegoating the man in the dugout, pinning him with every failing imaginable, even those clearly out of his control, has become the Premier League norm.
Few would have blinked an eye if Pardew, a manager so disliked there’s a whole website devoting to getting him fired that hands out anti-Pardew banners at every game, was given his P45. In fact, it would’ve probably increased Ashley’s slender popularity around Tyneside, at least for an evening or two.
Cynics will have a contrasting theories as to why he didn’t. The Daily Mail, for example, claimed in September it would cost Ashley, an owner famed for his relentless cost-cutting-turned-profit-making around St. James Park, £5million to get rid of the former West Ham and Charlton boss. It’s not difficult to imagine the beer-swigging Sports Direct mogul having a problem with that – he’s just invested around half that sum into gaining unofficial control of Glasgow Rangers.
Perhaps, however, Ashley was just doing his job as the owner of a football club and seeing the bigger picture. After all, the Toon are now 12th in the Premier League following three straight wins – four, including their march to the Capital One Cup quarter-final – with the same amount of points as Manchester United and only two off Europa League contention.
By no means a groundbreaking league standing for a club as big as Newcastle, but equally, a notable distance from the club that appeared fractured between fan, manager and boardroom just weeks ago, trapped in a relegation-bound downward spiral.
If we forget the context of last season, where Newcastle threw away their chances of European football by earning just 16 points in their last 19 games, fitting in an incredible 14 losses, the relentless criticism thrown Pardew’s way throughout August and September was quite a stunning overreaction.
The Newcastle squad contains eight different faces from last season, combining the summer signings with youngsters Roland Aarons and Mehdi Abeid, whilst also losing two of its most influential members, Yohan Cabaye and Loic Remy. The transition process was always going to be a troublesome one – only one of that eight, Jack Colback, had featured in a Premier League fixture before – and it was exacerbated further by the dissonant choruses of detest from the stands.
The striker situation was a particularly tricky one – handed three goalscorers during the summer, Ayoze Perez, Emmanuel Riviere and Facundo Ferreya, to replace Remy’s firepower, Pardew’s understandably struggled to decide upon the right fit for Newcastle’s frontline. Even now, the question remains unanswered in full, with Papiss Cisse reviving the form of his debut campaign, Perez netting twice from the bench and Riviere yet to score in his seven Premier League outings.
Protests hit their maxim after a 4-0 defeat to Southampton, the third fixture of the campaign that Newcastle failed to score in, with the emotive angst undoubtedly amplified by supporters undergoing a six hour journey from St. James’ to St. Mary’s.
That constituted Ashley’s easiest and most agreeable opportunity to axe Pardew; a repeat result of the same fixture in March, epitomising the lack of progress made since and the Newcastle gaffer’s inability to turn his side’s fortunes around. The perfect short-term spark to ignite the explosive long-term issues.
We now know however, Southampton are amongst the Premier League’s most impressive this season. They’re second in the table, only four points off league leaders Chelsea, and even amid Newcastle’s current renaissance, would probably still record a win against the Magpies at home, albeit likely to a lesser score line.
Perhaps most tellingly of all, the players are clearly working for Pardew and reacting positively to his leadership – something nobody would have said, not Mike Ashley or even Pardew himself, back in August.
They fought their way back from two-goal deficits against Hull City and Swansea City to claim vital points, and although there was an obvious lack of cutting edge going forward, the 1-0 defeat to Stoke City was feisty and energetic – the kind of performance that suggested Pardew and the players were attempting to make the best of difficult circumstances.
Newcastle’s form since Pardew’s appointment in 2010 has often polarised. Patches of brilliance followed by patches of disappointment; perhaps those using the #PardewOut hashtag or holding up banners at St. James’ simply felt they couldn’t stomach any more after the Magpies’ winless start to the campaign.
But equally, perhaps that’s why, according to Pardew, Ashley never even mentioned the security of his job during boardroom meetings. Perhaps that’s why the Newcastle owner refused to give in to the demands of the fan base, as the volume of protests reached eleven. Perhaps that’s why, foreseeing better, more regular times ahead, the fans owe Ashley some credit for sticking with Pardew.
After all, what were the chances of his replacement recording four straight wins to get Newcastle’s season back on track? In a Premier League climate where every tenure is now a case of sink or swim, the probably, at best, is 50/50, but under Pardew, Newcastle’s form was always, eventually, going to improve.