EXPERIENCE was apparently what attracted Mike Ashley to his latest partner, but it was the nous of the terrace veterans which allowed Alan Pardew a honeymoon of sorts as Newcastle United manager.
Pardew keeps insisting he cannot win the PR battle, then triumphing in another skirmish. So the cynics might have rolled their eyes when the latest occupant of what is less a hot seat, more an electric chair, praised the fans for their part in his first victory. Actually, they were crucial to it.
At clubs like Liverpool, sackings are special events. At St James’ Park, they are pretty run of the mill. So too is disillusionment with Ashley, the club’s owner.
A season in the Championship taught Newcastle plenty but a key lesson for its supporters was in striking the balance between revolt and support. Ashley may be no nearer the exit than he was last week, but the team are three points higher up the Premier League.
With mutterings of revolution, the danger was the Gallowgate might play into Liverpool’s hands. When Kevin Keegan last flounced out of the club the matchday atmosphere more or less gift-wrapped three points, put them on a silver platter and handed them to a grateful Hull City. Without them, the Tigers would have been relegated, not the Magpies.
The angry mob who gathered pre-match to protest against the “Cockney Mafia” turned out to be little more than sopranos, the high pitch of the chants betraying the fact that the adults were holding fire until kick-off. Local Hero had not finished playing before the first anti-Ashley song but it did not distract the supporters from getting behind their team. So keen were they to push the players to victory, they almost forgot Ashley was in the stands in the second half, only properly resuming hostilities once the full-time whistle blew.
Early on, though, players and fans took time to find their feet.
Heavy touches undermined Newcastle, notably the one that stopped Andy Carroll making the most of Jonás Gutiérrez’s slide-rule pass. Perhaps it was just a sign of nerves because on the three-quarter mark Carroll displayed immaculate control, only for the winger to over-hit his cross.
Kevin Nolan’s 15th-minute goal, sweeping in Carroll’s knockdown from a precise Joey Barton free-kick, was Newcastle’s first shot of the match. Tim Krul had already had to make an important save, throwing his hands up to block a Sotiris Kyrgiakos header. But the player who would cause the Dutchman most discomfort was Sol Campbell.
Chris Hughton’s closest dressing room ally was fortunate Krul was switched on when he totally missed a routine long ball in the second minute. Unlike his team-mates, Campbell did not settle. The 36-year-old made a couple of decent recovering tackles but had Fernando Torres showed anything like his pre-2010 finishing, his lapses would have cost more than one goal.
It was terrible timing. As well as being Pardew’s first game, it was the last of Mike Williamson and Fabricio Coloccini’s suspensions. New signings can be made in 18 days.
The trouble with nervous centre-backs is they are highly contagious. Steven Taylor’s weak back-header caused panic Liverpool nearly capitalised on. Raúl Meireles’ shot hit David Ngog then José Enrique, manning the post.
It was only a temporary reprieve. Five minutes after the break Campbell allowed a through-ball to hit his back – not the first time he was guilty of turning his back on the play at a bad moment – and when Dirk Kuyt shot, Taylor took all power off it but unwittingly placed it beyond Krul.
Minutes later Campbell let Paul Konchesky’s quick free-kick over his head, leaving Krul to close down Torres’ shot. Ngog failed to get anything on a Kuyt cross.
The game was there for Liverpool’s taking, but they were incapable of grasping it. Those who watched them sweep aside Aston Villa and declared the Reds were getting back to their best missed the point. They are finding form at home. Anywhere else, they remain hopeless.
Those in black-and-white spotted the shifting balance of power and reacted. The fans cranked up the volume, the team’s leaders led.
Barton produced a brilliant cross on the run and Carroll, stooping, should have done better than to head over. Cheik Tioté might have been man of the match but Nolan, Barton and Carroll tipped the scoreline.
Nile Ranger replaced the ineffective Shola Ameobi and ought to have scored within minutes. He beat Martin Skrtel easily, but shot beyond the far post.
Having promised attractive football, Pardew hinted after the match his team had gone long too often, but it brought results. When Carroll, then Ranger, flicked on Krul’s goalkick, Barton placed it past the onrushing José Reina.
Liverpool seemed to have given in, judging by the way they stood off Carroll in added time, almost goading him to shoot if he fancied his chances from 25 yards. He did, and he scored.
It was a great start, but only a start. Newcastle’s fans are battle-hardened enough to know that too.