"Pssst, pssst. Take it easy lads. We want to lose this one so we can focus on the league and then re-qualify next year to then focus on the le...."
Newcastle have been consistently outfought in recent weeks, particularly against Brighton and Reading, and have been so lacklustre – for example in the goalless draw against Norwich – that pundits like poor Phil Thompson, covering the game for Soccer Saturday, was essentially on suicide watch by half time. However, one of their number who at least seems to have the stomach for a fight is Alan Pardew.
Managers face a multitude of challenges every week but surely chief among them is the interrogation and speculation that follows each of their team’s performances; win, lose or draw. While ironically being the only thing they don’t have any direct control over, standard practice in professional football has almost always dictated that the buck for performance stops with the man facing down the assembled journalists circa 5.15 on a Saturday.
Otherwise, times have changed. The unpredictability of Premier League results has long put paid to the theory that certain clubs are too big or too good to avoid relegation and Pardew is all-too aware that bigger battles lie ahead. His new and unprecedented eight-year contract, in this new age of wanton hiring and firing, was intended to promote stability. However, it must already feel compromised by Newcastle’s dreadful recent run, whatever the reasons behind it.
The incredulity at the Magpies’ fifth-place finish in the Premier League last season was replaced earlier this campaign with similar disbelief that such a contract was put on Pardew’s table at all. It was no surprise in the slightest that Pardew accepted it – and the pursuit of longevity and consistency is admirable – but the likelihood is it will be undone (though not necessarily soon) by precisely the kind of predicament affecting all those just off the top of the rich list who naturally have to balance progress – and success – with survival.
So what is Pardew supposed to do? Did he think that by finishing fifth Newcastle had laid the groundwork for consistently troubling the Champions League places? Without then signing any players? Or had so much of the budget been used up on that fantastical fifth place that there was nothing left in the coffers to furnish further progress? There is an all-too familiar narrative surrounding those that overstretch themselves aiming for the promised land and end up woefully short. Newcastle are not in that cycle yet, but they are in another, more common one – which, though it rewards responsibility and stability, is considerably more difficult to escape. And considerably less exciting.
It is the gravity of this cycle that sucks a handful of top flight managers into its orbit, season on season. For the likes of Newcastle, Everton, West Brom, Stoke, and with recent additions Liverpool (who are a way off their 2008 vintage in terms of putting together title challenges) and Swansea (now surely too good to be mere relegation dodgers), the cycle is thus: try and finish as high as possible in the Premier League. Qualify for the Europa League as a result. Spend the next season fielding under-strength sides in cup competitions that could feasibly be won, only to finish in the Europa League places. Repeat.
Why ignore the Europa League altogether when you could really generate some good atmosphere and the fabled ‘proper European nights’ – i.e. kicking technically more adept foreigners around St. James’s – if you get to the latter stages? Playing a weakened team in Europe’s second competition to keep your players fresh for the league is surely pointless when the only competition you’re really likely to qualify for is… that’s right, the Europa League again?
In essence, the Pardews of the world are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Can you imagine UEFA reacting to teams fielding scratch sides in the qualifying rounds as the Premier League has in the past; with a fine? Though the fact they don’t possibly shows that they value the competition even less highly that its participants, which is a bit dreadful, really, but then is precisely what we’ve come to expect from the European governing body.
It seems a constant battle for Pardew et al between the perceived lack of ambition (i.e. not trying to reach the top four, although this is probably down to that ‘cash thing’ too) and staggering arrogance (actually thinking that you can and treating cup competitions as if you will).
Precarious, then, is the position of the manager stymied to this cycle. Let’s call it Pardew’s Dilemma.
Overachievement, if that’s what we can call Newcastle’s fifth place finish last season, is a scenario we’ve seen many times before, particularly in fans’ reactions to it. Managers must be wary of overachievement, as evidenced by Neil Warnock’s, Mick McCarthy’s and especially Chris Hughton’s unceremonious departures from the clubs they had served with distinction in recent years. In the case of the former, the manager took a side battling relegation to League 1 to the Premier League within a season and a half. No one could doubt that this represents stellar success. In tandem with such success, however, comes the looming spectre of expectation.
Warnock became a victim of his own success and the unrealistic weight of anticipation from his superiors behind the scenes. One cannot help but think that if QPR had narrowly missed out in the play-off final instead of gaining promotion, Warnock would have kept his job to challenge for the Championship title once again. In this case, expectation was detrimental for Warnock, but was it realistic? Don’t think so. And it was also the case at Blackburn.
Steve Kean endured a torrid time. As soon as Venky’s flapped into town with eyes on signing up all the best players from the 2005-6 season (Ronaldinho, Beckham et al), the writing was on the wall. They want ‘a big name’ in the managerial hot seat, which, for a man with the name Kean, is far from ideal. But what is a big name? Martin O’Neill? Yeah that’s a big name. And look at how brilliantly he’s done at Sunderland. Mark Hughes? Hmm, yeah I suppose. Would those ‘big names’ sate the average fan?
So, as we’re digressing, who exactly did Blackburn want and with the squad they had and the funds available to them, did they really expect to be doing anything other than fighting relegation? Expectations based on the heady days of European football in the mid ‘00s would suggest so. In which case, expectations are out of kilter with reality. In 2009/10, Blackburn came 10th and got to a League Cup semi final. If this isn’t good enough then there is a problem because that is Blackburn’s level. That is EXCEEDING your level.
Apart from the Manchester clubs, Chelsea, Arsenal and currently Spurs, everyone else is scrapping to either merely stay in the league or else win a place in a cup competition that no-one actually seems to want to be in. Imagine that. Fielding a load of reserves in the FA Cup because you want to stay in the league. And this isn’t just those hovering around the relegation places. It’s a staggeringly defensive mind-set that seems to have afflicted everyone from about 10th place down. Half the Premier League. Existing to exist is surely no existence at all.
While Pardew’s problems, admittedly, have sprung from terrible injury luck (though some say the loss of their star striker will have an impact, but let’s just say last time Newcastle sold their centre forward it didn’t work out too badly for them), life in the Premier League was likely to work out for him this way anyway. Survival of the most pragmatic it is, then.
Is it worth taking a stand then? Play a full strength team in Europe and go hell-for-leather against Maritimo if you can. You’ll get a point at West Ham regardless. And, to trot out another old cliché, maybe a cup run will be a springboard for something better in the league. The lads can play for their places. You’re going to break the top four if this run continues! You’re going to win everything! Best rest everyone for that game away at Dnipro. Don’t want to drop points at Villa.
And so it continues, with Pardew in purgatory.