When I played under Alan Pardew at West Ham, he had a few little pre-season tricks intended to motivate his squad.
Pre-season is always a strange time to be a footballer – you get used to seeing team-mates come and go but you never quite know what to expect in those first months. You have fought alongside these guys for nine months but they’re gone by July, and suddenly you’re given a whole new group of players to get to know, some of whom are trying to do you out of your place in the team.
It’s unsettling for some, but I always loved the challenge of seeing someone come into the club who played in my position. My attitude was always: “You will have to rip this shirt off my back – I’m not going to give it to you easily”.
In my close season under Alan, there had been a few changes and I remember coming back to all these signs up on the wall. They said things like “Raise the bar” and there were little motivational slogans that were intended to focus our minds and repeat what the philosophy was for that season.
It might sound a bit cheesy but I got the point he was making – he wanted us to react to the new players by raising our own levels. The idea was that everyone would feed off the competition for places from these new players.
Another trick he pulled was to call us all into a team meeting two weeks before the season started. We were in the Championship and needed points to get promoted quickly, and he started running through the first five games of the season.
“We’ve got Leicester first game of the season,” he said, looking us in the eye. “Who thinks we’re going to win that game?”
Obviously all of the lads said we would. Then it was Reading, Wigan, Crewe and so on. He was testing us, because if one of the lads had said anything other than a win there would have been question marks about his state of mind going into those games. But, of course, some games are tougher than others, and by the end of the meeting we had worked out we should get 12 points from our first five games if we backed up what we’d said.
I don’t know how much it worked really, but it did get you thinking about what you needed to do. We got 10 in the end but we went up at the end of the season, so I suppose there was some merit in it.
Alan was upbeat before that West Ham season even though he knew the pressure was on him to deliver. He’s in exactly the same situation at Newcastle because he has been given the signings and he has the sort of squad that offers him no excuses if his team are struggling towards the bottom of the league.
I like the look of Newcastle’s business. They’ve signed some good players with pace and there’s a nice mix in there too, but the nature of shopping in those value markets is that they have taken a few gambles.
I don’t think we’re talking players that will blow anyone away when they look at them on paper, but if the manager plays it right he can turn Newcastle into a really good side capable of scoring a few goals and making a bit of an impact next year.
And the bonus is that the new players will raise the level of the rest of them – so you might finally see Gabriel Obertan and Hatem Ben Arfa showing their potential. The downside for Alan is that the pressure is on him. His team shouldn’t struggle this year and, having said last season that he felt untouchable at times, I think things have shifted a little bit now for him. If the team are struggling after ten games and Newcastle are in the bottom six I honestly think he will be under intolerable pressure.
I know other people think he’s not got that long but I’ll give him double figures. He’s got ten games to prove that the team have moved on.
Alan will know that as well. He’s not stupid, he knows the game and he will understand that getting good players like Siem De Jong, Jack Colback and Remy Cabella means he has to deliver now. Lose those opening games and Newcastle supporters won’t be forgiving. I doubt that the board will be this time either.
To be honest I’m just glad that Newcastle’s supporters finally have some signings to talk about and to watch next season. They should be excited about that – and it’s about time. It was such a gloomy end to last season that you couldn’t really see where the positive news was going to come from.
I’m not sure you can just forget what happened last season, but this gives them a chance to start all over again. Newcastle are one of the biggest clubs in the country and should start every season looking at top eight as a minimum. Hopefully the new signings and the new season have prompted everyone to “raise the bar”, as Alan would say.