As the dust settles on 2011-12, chief sports writer Mark Douglas talks to manager of the year Alan Pardew about an incredible journey.
THE day after picking up the League Managers Association award, Alan Pardew finally got round to visiting the dentist.
After the pleasure, the pain, you might say. Or maybe an illustration that the Newcastle United boss had invested so much time in this remarkable season that he had neglected his bi-monthly routine.
“I’ve been able to catch up on a few things in the last few days. It’s a long season and you get caught up in it but it was an enjoyable one,” the Magpies boss told The Journal.
Back in August, it appeared that an overdue dental check up was the least of Pardew’s worries. A rocky pre-season trip to America aside, United were just about keeping their heads above water when Joey Barton threatened to refuse to play at Leeds after being overlooked for the captaincy and dead balls.
There then followed a Twitter tirade and the Newcastle hierarchy decided to fast-track a departure that they had long been in the offing. Supporters and pundits spied trouble. Pardew was disappointed to lose Barton – to say anything else would be incorrigible – but he noted that if the die was cast, he could using the changing composition of the club to his advantage.
The dressing room became a more egalitarian place and some of the energy expended on one high maintenance player was spread around the rest of the squad. Most importantly, Hatem Ben Arfa was given plenty of time and encouragement in a move that was to yield rewards later on. “We began well and that was important,” Pardew said. “We knew we were a good side with good players but there’s nothing like the confidence of winning. It convinces everyone – players, staff, supporters – that you might have something.”
United, of course, started very well indeed. Initial performances might have been a bit tentative in comparison to the attacking frenzy of later games but the defensive work that John Carver and Pardew had done over the summer – the drills, the tireless work – proved worth their weight in gold.
An early Tyne-Wear derby had the potential to make or break Newcastle’s season but the strong defensive work at the Stadium of Light gave United a platform. Pardew also outsmarted his Sunderland counterpart Steve Bruce, who later privately expressed anger to a pack of local journalists at the way the media had portrayed it as a tactical master class from his Tyneside rival.
But Pardew had proved himself an adept tactician, willing to make bold calls which usually came off. Efforts to sign a striker proved fruitless by the end of September and an angry manager took himself off to Switzerland to scout a player.
By the time he’d come back there seemed to be a new determination and Newcastle’s slow momentum began to accelerate. Their back four was brilliant at times and shut out QPR, Wigan and held out against Wolves.
That was all well and good but United’s evolution was equally as impressive. That strong defensive unit was shaken by the injury to Steven Taylor but Pardew and his coaching team switched emphasis and with the signing of Papiss Cissé, they became a dangerous attacking unit too. When Ben Arfa seemed to have learned his lessons and was brought in from the cold, Newcastle began sweeping all before them. Brilliant wins over Stoke, Swansea, West Brom and Liverpool prompted fear among the big four and finally earned United the respect of those plaudits who had derided them for “not playing anyone” when they went to November unbeaten.
Although the campaign ended with Newcastle just short of the top four position that, ultimately, wouldn’t have been enough for the Champions League there was an accolade or two for Pardew, who won the League Managers Association manager of the year award.
It was an opportunity for the Newcastle boss to give a huge nod to his predecessor. Chris Hughton used to have quite a warm relationship with Pardew but the latter noticed an understandable chilling in their relationship after he succeeded him.
It is a shame, because Hughton – as Pardew is only too happy to confirm – played his part in an incredible campaign.
“I did that because what Chris did was so, so important to this football club,” he told The Journal. “Getting them out of the Championship was not easy and I took over a team with a winning mentality. That was such a big part of what he did last season and this season too.
“It was a big support and I just wanted to say publicly that Chris had a very big role in that. Plus he’d just lost the play-off game so he’d probably had a tough week - I’ve been there and I know how tough that is.”
Having been acknowledged by his peers, Pardew knows next year will be tougher. He talks of “educating” the supporters and in an interview with a London-based newspaper that was published yesterday he made the startlingly frank admission that finishing fifth next year would be “impossible”.
He is braced for some tough negotiations with Mike Ashley and it is understood the owner is hardly overwhelmed by the financial rewards on offer for competing in the Europa League. The boardroom buzz is that it might end up costing United to compete in that competition.
So complicated times ahead perhaps. But if the season just passed has taught us anything, it is that Newcastle United now have leadership that can navigate them through that turbulence.