Back when Alan Pardew was still basking in the afterglow of his fine first full season at St James’ Park, he held court with a few journalists on what he had learned from an eventful but ultimately unedifying spell at West Ham.
He was, he explained, a less confrontational manager these days. He posited the example of two players who were playing a training-ground game long after that day’s session had finished. With a big game 48 or so hours away the advice was clear: they needed to rest fatigued muscles so he asked them to come in, which they did reluctantly.
He overheard them criticising him on the way in but decided to let it pass. His point was that sometimes, with a big experience, you realise that there are bigger battles to win than reacting to every little slight.
It was an anecdote that sprung to mind in the wake of David Moyes’s messy downfall at Old Trafford. When news first broke of his imminent exit, The Guardian’s chief sports writer Daniel Taylor summed it up perfectly: “He fell short of every realistic target the club set him.”
But Moyes’s demise was bigger than just slipping out of the title race. Indeed he might have survived a season out of the financially lucrative Champions League but for one thing: by the bitter end he had completely lost the dressing room at Old Trafford.
We’re not talking one or two grumbles from disaffected senior players here, more like open mockery from inside a club where they were disparagingly calling him “Everton” by the end. By the end he had not only lost their respect but also their desire to play for him any more.
Faced with that evidence the Manchester United board were faced with a stark choice: remove the manager or back him to cleanse the squad of negative influences. The former cost £5m, the latter would have run into hundreds of millions. No surprise which one they went for.
On Tyneside, Pardew’s man-management skills have never been under greater scrutiny. A quick straw poll this week of a few people with knowledge of the United dressing room informed me that it is far from open rebellion at St James’ Park and that Moyes’ doomsday scenario was not unfolding at Newcastle.
Hatem Ben Arfa has made surprising interjections after two recent games, accusing Pardew while also saying that his job should not be safe. He is, however, a rogue and lone voice. Some of his team-mates lost patience with him a long time ago.
It would be wrong to say that all is rosy. There is a sense of drift and discontent within the United squad. Promises made before the season – that a good start would excite and engage the owner and lead to January signings – turned out to be no more than hot air and that has had an impact.
Selling their best player, Yohan Cabaye, who held very considerable sway in the dressing room, undermined Pardew and spelled out the club’s priorities.
They haven’t stopped playing for Pardew per se. But they have stopped playing for the club, and what is clear is that the days of Pardew taking his players to bars in Tenerife for mid-season breaks are well and truly over.
The Newcastle boss is clinging to the idea that an influx of new blood will inject fresh impetus.
He might feel that getting rid of Ben Arfa and one or two others that are no longer receptive to his message might help him turn acorner.
All the while he is being stalked by a bigger fear. Five straight defeats indicate that a rot has set in that needs to be stopped or struggle next season is guaranteed.
It is up to the owner to decide whether it makes more sense to remove one man or remodel an entire squad. Pardew, once again, is asking for Ashley to make a sizeable leap of faith for him.