When Falcons head coach Alan Tait met with United counterpart Alan Pardew this week, the contrasting fortunes of the two Newcastle sporting clubs must have hit home. Mark Smith reports.
A BUZZING St James’ Park with more than 52,000 supporters had just seen their heroes humbling Premier League champions Manchester United 3-0 on a day Pardew and Tait broke bread.
A new sponsors’ logo adorned the front of the home shirts and Pardew – a Londoner at that – was being praised from all quarters for his canny stewardship of the black-and-white ship.
Eight stops along the Metro to Kingston Park must seem like a million light-years away for Alan Tait, whose Falcons team sit ten points adrift at the bottom of the Aviva Premiership, averaging a tenth of United’s home gate and with a big black space on the chest of their home kit.
It is a tale of two Alans, as Tait himself admits.
“Alan Pardew has built a fantastic outfit there, and when you look at the full stadium, their new sponsorship deal and all the rest of it then you could be forgiven for being a little bit jealous,” he said.
“I think jealousy is the wrong word, in fairness, because we want them to do really well and I am over the moon for Alan and his team.
“It is great for the city and they deserve their success, but I just wish we could have a slice of it at the moment.”
An impromptu chat between the two led to United offering the Falcons their indoor training base in preparation for this afternoon’s visit of Exeter Chiefs, with Pardew attending the rugby session and exchanging ideas.
“There are definitely things we can take from how Alan has handled the job at Newcastle United,” said Tait, who yesterday completed the signing of promising centre Tom Bedford from the second-tier Championship.
“He has gone out there and done the hard work in finding some real top bargains in the transfer market, and that was the way I was always brought up.
“My great rugby league coach Doug Laughton was the same in bringing in the likes of Martin Offiah, Jonathan Davies, Paul Moriarty and myself to Widnes as relative unknowns from rugby union, and he was a brilliant talent-spotter.
“Alan and his scouting team seem to be spot-on in that department. He has got bargains, but they have been the right quality and they have changed his team around. Similarly, I am trying to uncover some gems, and it is all aimed at improving the fortunes of the club.”
What Tait would give for the rugby equivalent of a Demba Ba, Yohan Cabaye or Cheick Tiote in the Falcons’ current predicament, as they stare relegation squarely in the face.
Just ten games remain of their league campaign, and with the gap between themselves and a top-flight lifeline already into double figures, popular perception has it that defeat this afternoon would be the final blow to their fading hopes of survival.
Mathematically, of course, that race has many miles left to run, but the new-found momentum gained by fellow strugglers Worcester is one of many factors conspiring against a 16th successive top-flight season for the perennial survivors.
The Warriors’ 6-0 win at London Wasps last week lifted them to third-bottom of the standings, although with Wasps sinking like a bag of bricks at the moment Newcastle could soon have new company in a race that nobody wants to win – the relegation one.
“Wasps are in a fair bit of trouble as well now,” said Tait, as his former British Lions team-mate Dai Young struggles to stem the tide currently threatening to wash away the once-mighty capital club.
Domestic and European champions within the past decade, the last two months of league action have not yielded a single victory.
“They do not seem to be clicking, and they are definitely under increasing pressure,” added Tait.
“It must be really frustrating for them. They cannot play the way they are used to in recent seasons because of the players they have lost, and the owner has the club up for sale.
“When you step back and look at the whole thing, of the two you think maybe there is more fight in Worcester than Wasps.
“Worcester have a strong defence which they can play on, and they do not worry about their attack too much as long as they can get into position to knock over a few penalties.
“It might well be Wasps that we target in terms of climbing the table, but as I keep saying the main thing for us is to just concentrate on our own results. We know how big the game against Exeter is, and it would be great to claw some points back.”
The Chiefs have slipped to eighth in the table after a flying start, and for all of their Sandy Park success they have traditionally found life outside of Devon much more of a struggle.
Tait said: “Exeter came up from the Championship a year-and-a-half ago where they won most of their games, and what that gives you – even from the league below the Premiership – is a winning attitude.
“They do not know when they are beat, and you will never take that quality away from them because they are such a difficult side to break down.
“I have got massive respect for them, and they have a real group of core players. It will be a huge battle today and it will go right to the end, but we want to move them about and look for the space.”