With every passing defeat under Steve McClaren, I grow more convinced that Alan Pardew did an exceptional job during his rollercoaster four years in charge of Newcastle United.
I’m not the Crystal Palace manager’s biggest fan but he held together a club riddled with off-field issues and underinvestment to qualify for the Europa League and record an average final standing of 12th from his five seasons at the helm, despite never having anything close to the full backing of the Tyneside support.
In fact, quite the opposite; the sheer existence of SackPardew.com, a website that helped orchestrate protest demonstrations and handed out anti-Pardew paraphernalia at St. James’ Park, tells all about the 54-year-old’s frosty relationship with the Toon Army.
McClaren’s struggles since taking Newcastle’s managerial reigns in the summer, claiming just ten points from his first twelve Premier League fixtures at the helm, pay testament to Pardew’s relative success. But considering how supporters chewed up and spat out his predecessor, who unfortunately became the face of everything wrong with Geordie football, the fear is that McClaren will soon endure similar treatment unless results improve. Mick Quinn of The Chronicle, Newcastle’s regional news service, is already calling for the axe to be wielded.
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Yet, McClaren’s credentials cannot be debated. Although, like most managers, there are many blotches on his CV – the largest and most notable being his nightmare spell in charge of England – the 54-year-old is talented and proven, having won a League Cup and reached a UEFA final with Middlesbrough as well as leading FC Twente to the only Eredivisie title in their history during the 2009/10 season.
There is no instantaneous remedy to the damage caused during Pardew’s tenure – mostly centring around recruitment policy – and rather than a query of his own ability, the underwhelming start to McClaren’s regime proves that the problems at St. James’ stem far deeper than simply the man in the dugout. His loudest sound-bite since taking the Newcastle job has been simply one of patience and it’s not hard to see why; McClaren is rebuilding a squad, a philosophy and a club almost from the ground up.
Some have lamented Newcastle’s play as too simplistic – a style belonging to the previous decade in which McClaren recorded his greatest achievements – but I see a manager going back to basics after inheriting a squad riddled by inconsistency. Pardew drew just 41 of his 185 games in charge of Newcastle but the ability to scrape out a point under unaccommodating circumstances is essential for any bottom half Premier League club. Maybe that’s not what Newcastle fans want to be but that is the reality nonetheless and knowing how to take a point, especially on the road, is a weapon that must be added to the Magpies’ arsenal.
That is no easy task when your squad boasts neither dependable firepower nor a resilient defence, which is why McClaren has started the season playing simple, direct and largely cautious football. He’s trying to implement a level of organisation that can overcome the deficiencies of his team, split almost exactly down the middle between players of Premier League quality and players lacking it, and that requires hours of work on the training field.
It hasn’t always been pretty and the results thus far are by no means astounding, but the Magpies have claimed nearly half as many clean sheets as last season, three compared to seven, in just twelve games. Defence must come first when you’re in the Premier League’s bottom five and those clean sheets are a sign of improvement. That rear-guard smash-and-grab display against Bournemouth before the international break, for example, could prove integral come the end of May.
Of course, a few hard-fought wins can change everything and that’s what McClaren is banking on. Before he can allow his team off the leash and play a more open brand of football, they need confidence and form on their side. I’m sure that will happen at some point and as a consequence, I’m sure Newcastle will improve as the season goes on, especially in aesthetic terms. But it will require the patience of a fanbase that has grown fickle and short-tempered under owner Mike Ashley.
The motivation to do so is certainly more carrot than stick. Whilst McClaren isn’t offering an instantaneous return to Newcastle’s heyday of scintillating attacking play and top half finishes, the aim of simply surviving this season and building on from there is realistic. The summer marked Newcastle’s most expensive window to date under Ashley but clearly the squad still lacks vital components, particularly at the heart of defence, and McClaren is dependent on players he probably wouldn’t select if more options of his own choosing were at his disposal.
Although he is working on fine margins, with Newcastle currently 17th and just one point above the relegation zone, McClaren has stayed on the right side of them so far. Barring an appointment like Jurgen Klopp or Jose Mourinho, I doubt most managers would fare significantly better and sacking him feels almost like a pointless enterprise, simply putting a new face on pre-existing, long-standing problems. If the Magpies are ever to return to the glory days of old, they need a manager who will be in the job for four or five years and given time to reinvent the club, making it an attractive proposition for transfer targets of proven quality.
Rome wasn’t built in a day and there will be many more days of toil ahead of Newcastle fans. But in the context of both this season and turning the club around in the long term, McClaren is still the right man for the job. It’s just a case getting over an early and admittedly rather sizable hump first.