Halloween in the Potteries three years ago yielded one of Alan Pardew’s finest hours as Newcastle United manager. Striker Demba Ba tormented the Stoke defence that night, scoring a hat-trick to move the Toon Army up to third in the league, and with it extend the club’s unbeaten run to 13 matches, its longest top-flight sequence for more than 61 years.
The way in which Stoke were dismantled in their own intimidating manor gave the club impetus to defy expectations in the remaining two thirds of the season. Pardew led Newcastle to a fifth-placed finish, but the wave of optimism that swept Tyneside has gradually been eroded, not least by the sale of star players such as the Senegalese Ba.
A third defeat of the campaign on an autumnal evening at the Britannia, courtesy of a textbook Peter Crouch header on the quarter-hour mark, has left the club mired in the relegation zone, intensifying speculation that Pardew’s tumultuous reign has now wilted beyond repair.
“It leaves us in a position where we are in the bottom three. I have to fight and the team has to fight to turn this around,“ a defiant Pardew said after the match, as his side’s winless league start heads into October. “We’ll have some serious conversations [with owner Mike Ashley] before Saturday because he doesn’t want to lose and nor do I. I’ve never been in this situation before…it’s a bit unique…but I’m a professional manager, that’s what I do and that’s what I’ll continue to do.”
Three points from a possible 18 has done little to placate the growing disquiet among dissenting voices made palpable by petitions signed and a website dedicated to the extradition. SackPardew.com has arisen out of an annus horribilis for the club’s estranged manager, with little to appease the 1.3million Facebook followers and thousands who flock each fortnight to St James’ Park. Three home victories in the calendar year – two achieved in the final minute and the other to relegated Cardiff City – paints a sorry picture for a one-club city.
The spirited fight back against Hull preceded a topsy-turvy Capital One Cup victory at Crystal Palace, but if there was any sense of brewing optimism among the circa 2,000 fans who packed out the away enclosure at Selhurst Park, it was first tempered by news of holders Manchester City awaiting in the next round and then fully expunged 24 hours later across the capital outside a Soho pub.
Among the usual dregs of mid-week drinkers was Newcastle owner Ashley. In an act of old-school journalism, Independent Sport’s Vivek Chaudhary approached the large billionaire about Pardew’s future. Leaning against a wall, he answered it with throat-cutting gestures. The chance meeting at the Golden Lion now appears aptly named, as the leader of this pride now sets his sights on the most wearied zebra in the North East. The gaze of the former West Ham and Charlton Athletic manager as he trudged off for his media duties on Monday night resembled a fighter who has fallen behind the pack.
While the shortage of British chairmen in the Premier League makes the founder of Sports Direct a welcome anomaly in principle, his appetite to become ‘one of the lads’ when it suits has in fact alienated him, and left Geordies disillusioned by the soap opera that is now attached to their object of affection. The great irony of communicating to Chaudhary that defeat to Stoke would signal the end of Pardew’s tenure on Tyneside cannot have been lost on those Northern correspondents banished from reporting at home matches on the grounds they had destabilized the club with unfounded conjecture. Stating that Pardew would be ‘finished’ if he lost to Stoke in a public house should have been kept in-house.
The default statement last Friday that Ashley’s comments were ‘just banter’ only became further pellets of ire for irked detractors whose show of passion can only be voiced in the black and white of local newspapers and not in the striped shirts they unconditionally idolize.
Yet the need for everyone at a football club to pull in the same direction has never been so apparent. White vans and posters of farmed out Hatem Ben Arfa dressed as Che Guevara hardly form the ideal backdrop to bed in nine new faces brought to the club over the summer. Some fans have taken to forums to vent their anger at the current regime; others are now apathetic to the club’s future while Pardew and Ashley still hold positions of authority.
‘Pride, Passion and Belief’ are the three fundamental elements those who campaign for Pardew’s departure demand as a bare minimum from their team, but with the Tyne-Wear derby not until five days before Christmas, this could be a long winter for the success-starved residents of the Gallowgate End. The forthcoming international break after the side has faced Swansea City next weekend represents a chance for Ashley to act on his word by appointing a new Magpies manager worth crowing about.