Wednesday 13 February 2013

Ashley Keeps His Pards Close To His Chest

So, there we have it. January has come and gone and Alan Pardew remains in the hot-seat at St James’ Park despite overseeing a drastic and disastrous slump that has left Newcastle fighting for their lives.

Newcastle’s so-called ‘fickle fans’ have been remarkably understanding and supportive as they have witnessed the wheels come off in spectacular fashion this season after the heroics of the last campaign. The tide of public opinion was beginning to turn against the manager after the 2-1 reverse at home to Reading but the club’s swift and decisive transfer dealings since then have served to dissolve the negativity and pessimism that has been circling around Tyneside for the last few months.

In many ways, it’s a masterstroke by Mike Ashley. While mistakes were made last summer when the squad was not reinforced with some top-class signings, backing the manager so significantly during this transfer window has given Pardew a great platform to build on and has also silenced the critics who question Ashley’s dedication to the cause. Last season’s achievements notwithstanding, it’s fair to say that Ashley has shown remarkable restraint as, let’s face it, far greater managers have been sacked for less. I just hope that Pardew knows how lucky he is.

Fans are willing to absolve Pardew of some of the blame for this season’s woes after the calamity of last summer’s failure to strengthen the squad – after all, he plays little part in transfer dealings and is employed primarily as a coach, although that’s not to say that he is not to be held accountable for the disastrous season we’re having. While he may not be entirely culpable for the results (based on the shallow pool of resources he’s had at his disposal), the buck must stop with Pardew for the team’s performances; the one-dimensional play, the poor positioning, the ineffective set-pieces, the negative mindset, and, most worryingly, the lack of resilience. Regardless of the tools he has at his disposal, Pardew should be able to send out a team that is well-drilled, knows what it wants to do and plays with passion, pride and confidence and, sadly, that has become the exception rather than the rule.

The circumstances of his arrival on Tyneside remain unknown but, unlike Chris Hughton, who viewed the PR side of the job with a jaundiced eye, Pardew revels in his role as spokesman for the club and happily fields questions which would never even be directed his way if Llambias and Ashley conducted their business more transparently. He keeps his mouth shut, trots out the company line and gives media-friendly soundbites which reveal very little about what goes on behind closed doors at St James’ Park and that seems to be something that his superiors value greatly.

After a few interviews before the recent flurry of activity in this transfer window where he looked jaded and anxious, Pardew is back to spinning out the hackneyed lines about each remaining game being ‘like a cup final’ and players returning from injury being ‘like a new signing’, so it’s full steam ahead for the SS Bullshit.

Nevertheless, and despite Newcastle’s shocking recent league form, there have been enough flashes of brilliance amidst the dross of recent months to suggest that the spark remains and that Pardew retains the support and trust of his players but the soundbites are wearing thin and he has to put in the hard work on the training ground to ensure that he arrests the slide and turns the team’s fortunes around.

He must rediscover the defensive solidity that underpinned last season’s success as well as ensuring that he sends his charges out equipped with more ideas than the very basic ones contained in the hit best-seller ‘How To Skin A Cat’ by Shola Ameobi.

January’s arrivals also spared Pardew some backlash for his comments about the fans getting on the team’s back during the Reading defeat. While he was right in saying that the fans were negative and that it spread to the players on the pitch, he neglected to acknowledge the fact that his substitutions were the catalyst for the negativity in the first place. Pardew’s criticism of the players currently in the ‘development squad’ also had the potential to be divisive but, luckily, just when it seemed that his mouth was about to get him into trouble, Ashley intervened and the script has been re-written.

However, Pardew would do well to remember that just as one swallow doesn’t make a summer, five Frenchmen do not necessarily make a team (as Raymond Domenech and Laurent Blanc would no doubt attest) and this long overdue recruitment drive throws the ball straight back into his court. The lack of depth in the squad has been addressed and now is the time for Pardew to get back to basics and put in the hard hours on the training pitch or else the only French export he’ll need to worry about will be the guillotine.