As almost anyone could have predicted, Newcastle United’s week of apparent introspection ended in exactly the way it started: with a chastening defeat and an unforgivably poor performance. Steve McClaren had spent the days prior to his side’s trip to Selhurst Park describing the energy and edge of their preparatory training sessions and speaking of the honesty which had helped to shape them.
No matter: Crystal Palace 5 Newcastle United 1. It was worse than the performance against Leicester – and worse still because this was a thrashing orchestrated by Alan Pardew, who is approaching the year anniversary of his departure from St James’ Park.
But if this defeat was a practical inevitability, then so is the rather tired line that has accompanied it: this was Pardew’s revenge for the treatment he experience in the North-East and a humbling reminder to Geordies everywhere that the grass is not necessarily greener on the other side.
Only that’s not really true, is it? Whether caused by the alluring draw of an easy narrative or just by an overly-vague understanding of what Pardew’s time at Newcastle was actually like, it’s a highly revisionist take on what was a fairly awful situation.
Pardew had some success in his previous job. The fifth-place finish in 2011/12 was a sizeable achievement for which he was rightly honoured with the Manager of the Year awards from the Premier League and the League Managers’ association. However, the two-and-a-half years which followed were amongst the most miserable in the club’s recent history and they flirted with relegation in each of the next three seasons.
There are caveats and Mike Ashley is the biggest asterisk in English football. Pardew’s resources were rationed throughout that thirty months and the sales of Demba Ba and Yohan Cabaye – and the failure to reinvest sensibly year-on-year – unquestionably put a ceiling on his performance. But to describe Pardew as an innocent bystander to that malaise would be highly reductive: he may not have had both hands on the wheel, but he was still in the cockpit during the nosedive.
Pardew’s reign was largely miserable. The football was formulaic and uninventive, the team endured long, barren spells of form during which the supporters were fed an almost weekly diet of rich humiliation and, all the while, the ownership were shrugging and sneering in the boardroom. Pardew was the public face of a loathsome regime. If those supporters aimed a disproportionate amount of their frustration at him personally, then it was because they were supposed to – that was they dynamic, that was the role he agreed to play.
At the same time, however, he was antagonistic. His long-ball tendencies, his touchline behaviour, and his regenerating supply of excuses made him naturally unpopular and his inability to correct the inevitable, annual slumps in form accentuated the surrounding negatives. The depiction of him as a managerial hero, raging valiantly against his restricting circumstances, is hugely generous.
In November 2015 and for most of the previous ten months, Crystal Palace have been playing very well and Alan Pardew has done a good job in south-west London. Maybe he’s more suited to the playing squad at Selhurst Park? Maybe those dynamic wingers and the resilient defence that he inherited are more complementary to his management style? Maybe there’s something in the water?
Regardless, it’s important to recognise that Pardew is performing at a far higher level at Palace than he did in those two years at Newcastle and that the movement against him on Tyneside wasn’t animated by phantom grievance. Those fans probably understood that he was a symptom of what their club had become rather than a cause, but they also endured far more underperformance from him than most managers are typically allowed to get away with.
Newcastle were frequently bad under Pardew – really, really bad. Not just tactically simple, but listless, lazy and limp. They lost 4-0 at home to Tim Sherwood’s Tottenham, were beaten 3-0 by Everton at St James’ Park and 4-0 away to Southampton, and Pardew oversaw the worst Tyne-Weir derby record of any Newcastle manager in over 100 years. They conceded six without reply to Liverpool, seven away to Arsenal, and lost to Fulham, Reading and Wigan. It wasn’t a bad dream, it happened – and because it did, the fans were understandably angry. Pardew seemed to survive irrespective of the team’s form and his deficiencies often appeared to be silently tolerated, as if the actual football had become of secondary concern.
Given everything we know about Newcastle United as an enterprise and given what we remember about that team under Alan Pardew, how can anyone question those supporters’ desire for something better? They haven’t got what they wanted and Pardew’s departure has made no difference to their plight, but why were they wrong to want more than he was providing? Yes, Mike Ashley is and always has been the real enemy, but Pardew was a similarly righteous, more realistic target for their ire. He was something they could do something about and a part of the regime which could be changed; there isn’t a fanbase in the country who wouldn’t have behaved in exactly the same way.