Lee Charnley’s opening gambit as Newcastle United’s managing director weighed in at 1,413 words – and only three of them related directly to Alan Pardew.
Monday evening’s unexpectedly lengthy correspondence from the boardroom was a statement alright, but not a statement of intent. The most repeated word in the missive was “continue”, which makes it crystal clear that this is intended to be evolution rather than revolution.
And here comes the tricky part: Newcastle’s promise to make slow, incremental gains neglects the pressing issue of what to do with a problem like Pardew.
You would think that after a period of unprecedented pressure on the manager, a thorough investigation of his fitness to lead the football club would be under way. At any reasonably ambitious football club that would already be happening, and incorporating everything from his playing style, his willingness and suitability to work with the players that United’s transfer strategy will bring his way and his media profile.
At Newcastle, the manager’s role has changed; subtly shifting from a leadership role to one that requires two things: presenting an unquestioning public face and ensuring that the club remains on board the Premier League gravy train.
The style of football, the philosophy and the ability to squeeze improvements from decent players are no longer such important considerations. If they were, the last three months would surely fatally undermine him.
This season success or failure seems to be defined solely by ticking the top ten box and fulfilling a pretty unambitious pre-season target of a top-half finish. Pardew has done that, so he will be given the green light to continue into a hugely important summer for the club.
There are other factors crowding United’s league position – the collapse of United’s morale and confidence suggests a growing schism between manager and a squad that he has been unable to motivate in the last three games. These are real, meaty issues.
They are also, in the short-term, far more important than many of the other things mentioned by Charnley in the document posted on the club’s website yesterday tea-time.
Publicly at least, United counsel that supporters should not expect the club to deviate from the Ashley blueprint that has been applied for the last few years. There will be no massive investments, players will come from the same sources that have been tapped in recent years.
It is also very bizarre and idiosyncratic. In Ashley’s philosophy improvements will have to come from within, from staff overperforming and getting the very best out of the resources made available.
The manager is surely key to that: good players encouraged to get better not only help the team on the field but also make a trading profit. How many could Pardew realistically claim to have improved this season? Too many, like Tim Krul, Davide Santon, Papiss Cisse and Moussa Sissoko, have either reached a plateau or gone backwards.
So why is he not under greater scrutiny? How Pardew – publicly at least – became so bulletproof is the great question of the last year or so. A new MD probably helps his cause. Charnley comes into the role cloaked in preconceptions: that is unavoidable for someone who has been at the club for 15 years and has become known as the great survivor.
On the plus side, the club’s new managing director is trusted by key figures within the club. It is not just Ashley who sees him as a safe pair of hands and that is absolutely pivotal given the mistrust of Joe Kinnear, who was undermined from the day he walked into St James’ Park.
Charnley is a well-known figure in Premier League circles, a trusted administrator who knows how football works. Without Kinnear blurring the power lines at Newcastle, he has proved capable of closing deals in France, Holland, Germany and England.
The hope will be that he will be unhindered by the complication of director of football this summer and Newcastle’s dysfunctional transfer strategy will correct itself. He has Ashley’s ear and his trust: the 36-year-old can use it.
But he must assert himself in this new role, which is going to be difficult given the tight grip that Ashley holds over the companies he owns.
A report in the business section of this weekend’s Sunday Times was instructive. It dealt with Ashley’s remarkable maneouverings around House of Fraser and the way he had been given a bloody nose over a bonus scheme that would have seen him collect some £73million for Sports Direct’s excellent performance last year.
It was a surprising and embarrassing turn of events and the piece quoted an unnamed ‘top 10 investor’ discussing Ashley’s appointment of Keith Hellawell as chairman of Sports Direct. Although he used to work in the police force he is viewed as a “corporate lightweight” by some in the city.
“The investor said there is a debate among shareholders over whether Hellawell was strong enough to stand up to Ashley. ‘A good chairman would have said this will look bad,” it read.
Therein lies the rub for Charnley. What were his reflections when Kinnear was appointed? Derek Llambias objected and left his job. Graham Carr expressed reservations and had to be talked out of quitting twice. It was apparent within a few hours it was the wrong call that had a profound effect on the season but Ashley went unchecked.
Similarly he will need to become more visible. Famously reticent to talk publicly or be quoted, he will have no choice from here on in. He is an executive and with that comes opportunity but also risk: he must embrace that. It is a big challenge but also a huge opportunity.
Most of all, the quiet man needs to turn up the volume to break through the cynicism and scepticism that has seeped into the black and white blood stream. It might not feel like it, but this is a new era.