The cliche is that football is a game of opinion. But those who peddle the cliche may not know just how right they are.
They usually mean fan opinion, the fact that everyone can have a view on how a game went; was it a penalty, should the striker have scored, did Yaya Toure actually run for that split second, or did it just look like it?
But football contains even more opinion than that. It’s the opinion of managers when they pick certain players and put their trust in certain tactics. It’s the opinion of club directors on specific players, and whether they are worth spending their owner’s cash.
It’s also the opinion of players – which club do they want to join, or even on the pitch, their opinion on whether or not they should lunge in for that risky tackle or break their neck to get into the box on a counter attack. All of these opinions matter a great deal, and you can never get away from the niggling thought that you made the wrong one when things don’t go your way.
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Just over a year ago Newcastle let manager Alan Pardew go to Crystal Palace, and straight away the club fell into freefall, almost falling on the craggy rocks of the Championship. It’s a long drop, a sore one, and Newcastle know very well what a big one it is. This season they’re still fending off the drop, and it might still go that way.
Yet you get the feeling that if Alan Pardew were still Newcastle manager, the club would have finished in a safe, midtable position last season, and would be sitting in a safe midtable position this season. Plodding along nicely.
But that’s just one opinion.
You see, there’s always another way of looking at things. And when the world ends, and we get to see time stretched out in front of us like one big timeline, when you zoom into the history of Newcastle United, you’ll see that one decision usually has knock-on effects that last longer than just a season or two. Sometimes you have to see the long game.
And Alan Pardew is the perfect example of that. Newcastle fans, to a man it seems, hate Pardew, a man who took over at a newly promoted Newcastle United and took them into Europe – though he also took them into a relegation battle.
Seen as the face of colonialism, the visible front of the Mike Ashley invasion, the Viceroy of the occupation of the Southerners, even if the Newcastle fans did accept that Pardew is a very fine manager, they’d never accept that he was their manager. Just as the occupied population of a colonial land would never accept the puppet Prime Minister as their Prime Minister.
But more important than simply being hated is the fact that Pardew took Newcastle to midtable mediocrity.
It’s a position in the table most Newcastle fans would happily accept this season. They’d be thrilled if their team could mount the fight and the quality to be able to get themselves away from the relegation dogfight and into a safe position, ready for a decent cup run and a go at trying to get into Europe next season.
That’s the great thing about football fans, always looking up when there’s optimism to be had.But the fact that Pardew could get them to the middle of the table and then just stop for the rest of the season just seemed to drain the optimism. How can you look up and target Europe or a cup run when the manager sees ninth place as a glass ceiling?
So with McClaren, Newcastle shouldn’t get that. There is ambition shown at the club for the first time in a while. The transfers fees are big, Alexandar Mitrovic came for a big fee and looks like he could be a wonderful player for the club if the boss can temper his temper.
Georginio Wijnaldum is looking like a fantastic signing, and the new arrival Jonjo Shelvey’s debut performance shows now just that he’s a young player with heaps of ability, but it also shows that he can hit the ground running at Newcastle, crucial when you’re a January signing at a club at the wrong end of the table.
Because it’s all about looking up. It doesn’t matter if you’re in the gutter, as long as you’re looking at the stars. Newcastle seem, in league table terms, worse off than under Pardew, but the feel is different.
Whereas before they were looking over their shoulders to make sure they weren’t in any trouble, just happy to plod along as long as it didn’t mean they weren’t going to suffer a relegation battle, they are now trying to build something that will get them out of trouble and look a little higher up the table.
Just a few weeks ago McClaren was reportedly under pressure given the poor performances and the lack of points. Now they’re out of the relegation zone and some big players are starting to find form.
It is again about opinion. But when McClaren was under pressure, no one could understand why the fans were so placid, especially given the ferocity of the protests against Alan Pardew. But it was because everything just felt that bit different.
It’s hardly the case that Newcastle fans love McClaren, but they don’t hate him to the same level because, even though the players weren’t performing, there was a sense of looking up – though how could you be looking down when you’re bottom of the league?
The nagging doubt among neutrals that Newcastle did the wrong thing by letting Pardew go isn’t an opinion shared by Newcastle fans. They’re seeing the whole board on this one, not just one snippet of it. Pardew took Newcastle to a certain level, but they could never go much further than that without some extra ambition.
It remains to be seen whether or not McClaren can instil that in the side, but for now it’s clear that the team are playing better football than they have at any time in the past year, and possibly even for quite some time before that, under Pardew. It’s McClaren’s opinion of where the club should be heading that satisfies the Newcastle fans much more than Pardew’s ever did.