Alan Pardew has spent a fair amount of his time recently boxing clever, so it felt somewhat appropriate he unveiled the footballing equivalent of Muhammad Ali’s famous “rope-a-dope” strategy to down heavyweight contenders Chelsea and record one of his biggest wins as Newcastle manager.
The greatest? Perhaps, given the strained circumstances of the last seven days, it might not be all that far off.
This was significant for Pardew, who has been wrestling with Newcastle’s maddening inconsistency with varied results for the first two months of the season.
Having been blessed with more attacking options since the signing of knock-out specialist Loic Remy he has turned into more of a gambler this season, but his team don’t always have the necessary resolve to put his best-laid plans into action.
At Sunderland last week, it was a failure of nerve rather than any great flaw in Pardew’s plan which cost the team. On Saturday it was both as United responded to the mighty challenge posed by Chelsea with enough verve and vigour to give Tyneside its most uplifting afternoon since these two teams met back in February.
For not only did this represent three valuable points banked but it also felt like a triumph of tactics, strategy and substance. Even though he credited this win, with a touch of unbecoming hubris, to Mike Ashley after the game this was undoubtedly Pardew’s day.
United enjoyed just 39% of the possession and for 45 first half minutes, played well within themselves. Blue surges from deep were commonplace as Newcastle sat very deep, happy to contain without showing much intent.
A more impatient crowd might have grown restless but it felt like St James’ Park fully understood what was playing out in front of them. The home side were drawing some of the sting out of a Chelsea side whch, whatever the calibre of their gold-plated manager, are distinctly vulnerable. As it turned out, by the break the visitors were all punched out. Just like Ali, Newcastle are pretty effective counter-punchers.
Whatever charge you might level at this Gallic-infused team – and there were suspicions about their strength of character after they surrendered a winning position against Sunderland – they are not lacking for footballing intelligence.
A moment of significance arrived early in the second half when Cheick Tiote, who had filled the midfield anchor role with the same gusto which he has summoned over recent weeks, was replaced by Vurnon Anita.
Tiote’s form has been good enough to keep Anita out of the team over the last few weeks but the former Ajax man continues to make a compelling case for his inclusion. He is a quiet, deferential man off-the-pitch but his size is no reflection on the towering contribution he is capable of making to this Newcastle side.
On Saturday he added balance and craft to Newcastle’s midfield - as well as a wonderfully-creative moment in the last minute to tee up Remy’s smashing second goal. Never mind the benched Hatem Ben Arfa, we are fast approaching the point where Anita’s case for inclusion will be the more pressing among discerning black and white disciples.
Reeling back off the ropes after their first half filleting, Newcastle landed a knockout blow at a crucial time. To be fair there was a head of steam building long before the 68th minute opener but United needed to capitalise on their growing influence and Yoan Gouffran’s headed goal was the fillip that the team needed.
Chelsea had two swings of their own – and credit to Mike Williamson and Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa for standing firm – but it was Newcastle who had the final say through Remy. The striker’s aim was true but it came after a luscious piece of skill by Anita to carve open the Chelsea defence.
On a grey, miserable day United provided a ray of light. It doesn’t lance the questions about the club’s overall direction or the disconnect many feel with the Magpies but it provides further proof they have assembled a good squad capable of great things – if only they can marry their virtues with consistency.
Pardew returned to the theme of balance afterwards, suggesting it is external forces that undermine his attempts to build.
He said: “It’s a big win, but that’s the problem with the media up here.
“We have beaten Chelsea and that’s it, but let’s not get carried away and say we are going to be in Europe and we’ll be great, or it will be a disaster if we had lost three on the spot. I honestly don’t see that.
“I think it is very important that we keep, and this city in particular, keeps its feet on the ground at all times. Of the six managers in this region we have lost five of them.
“I it sometimes goes mad up here and we have to keep it together. Sometimes we don’t help ourselves.”
Sometimes – like on Saturday – they do.