Two months ago, when, on the same September afternoon that John Terry was handed a four-match ban for racial abuse, Newcastle United’s manager and coaching staff were handed a lengthy new contracts, opinions were immediately polarised over the wisdom or otherwise of Mike Ashley’s latest high-profile decision.
A manager putting ink to a new deal after an exceptional season would normally spark minimal fuss, but in the microclimate of hysteria that is the football world, an eight-year contract, regardless of who you are, is almost unheard of. Was Ashley’s move a shrewd one which finally injected an air of stability into a too-often tumultuous club while maximising the market value of an innovative manager on the rise, or a wildly rash gesture of overcommitment in response to a single satisfactory season?
The debate is an intriguing one, but essentially rests on the perception of Mr Pardew himself - which in turn largely rests on how his side are performing. If Newcastle are flying high, as they were for much of last campaign, then you have continuity, a long-term plan (or at least the appearance of one), and have made it as difficult as possible for your patriarch to fall victim to big-club poaching. If the team’s form is in the doldrums, though, then you are stuck with the clown who has taken you there – and who is unlikely to feel under any pressure to fight for his job, as he’s rather difficult (read: expensive) to sack.
It’s a discussion that has since died down, but, with the Magpies sitting in 14th at this not-quite-insignificant stage of the season, is in serious danger of rearing its head again.
The Tynesiders have now tasted defeat in four consecutive league games – a run that, when it last occurred, precipitated the appointment of Joe Kinnear – and such form is illustrative of their on-pitch problems, if not yet any off-field ones. The Senegalese pair of Papiss Cisse and Demba Ba, who initially promised a fine strike partnership, now appear incapable of escaping a pattern of one-in-form, one-painfully-out-of-form – an equation that that has now gone on too long and contains too much talent to be mere bad luck. Their brightest spark, Hatem Ben Arfa, is yet to graduate from a gifted technician to a consistently game-changing playmaker – and at 25, it’s not a title beyond his talents. Whether the problem is a motivational or tactical one, it’s one that needs to be addressed.
Yohan Cabaye, meanwhile, is yet to demonstrate last season’s elegant probing in this campaign (and his once-definite title of the division’s best-looking Frenchman is now under threat from Olivier Giroud), while the likes of Sylvain Marveaux and Gabriel Obertan now seem destined never to shed their labels of mediocre bit-parters. At the back, Fabricio Coloccini is the lone difference between a very good defence and a very average one.
It is no shame for a side to rely on its best players – name me one that doesn’t – but the dependence on the peak form and fitness of at least three quarters of the Krul-Coloccini-Cabaye-Ba/Cisse spine is not the healthiest state of affairs for a club with genuine top-six ambitions, and recent pedigree.
Last week, Newcastle could only manage a 1-1 draw against Portuguese side Maritimo, despite largely dominating proceedings and their opposition presenting almost zero goalscoring threat. If the sign of a good side is winning when playing well, then surely the sign of a less good one is an inability to turn superiority into a result.
Pardew, having taken his side to a quite incredible fifth-place finish last term, has hit an inevitable rocky spell, and now faces perhaps his biggest challenge so far at St James’s Park. Reversing the fortunes of an underperforming side around, many would argue, is a far greater task than maintaining a team’s good form.
All of this is not to say that Newcastle’s recent dip suddenly renders September’s contract-generosity a terrible decision – just as last season’s excellence did not necessarily deem it a brilliant one. What is certain, though, is that Pardew will be expected to earn his keep, with his almost unprecedented level of job security providing an easy vehicle for accusations of complacency or loss of interest in the wake of disappointing results.
Designed to alleviate pressure on the manager at a club’s whose bosses have too often been subjected to an excess of it, Mike Ashley’s contract ploy could just as easily end up having the opposite effect.
As usual (at most clubs, at least) on-pitch matters will dictate the overriding mood in the stands. This week, Pardew took his side to the Britannia, and they turned a 1-0 lead into a 2-1 defeat. A question for Mr Ashley: At what point does a blip in form become a worrying loss of it?
Alex Hess is a freelance writer that has contributed to football365. You can find him on twitter here.