It’s become more and more clear over the course of several years that there is a disconnect at the heart of Newcastle United. It’s nominally a football club but somewhere along the line there’s been a separation from what the aims of such a club should be. It’s plain now that the focus of the club isn’t on achieving sporting excellence. It’s not even on being the best it can be within the operating parameters publicly specified by the owners.
The world was told a long time ago that the club had to pay its own way, that there would be no capital outlay by those in control. With the amount of money pouring into Premier League clubs, that hardly necessitates hardship or austerity. If a large proportion of the spare cash available to the club was used to improve the staff both on the coaching and playing rosters, there is no reason why we shouldn’t expect the club’s fortunes to take a dramatic upturn. Players of good quality coming in to fill obvious gaps in the squad. Regular comfortable top-half finishes and challenges for European places, with a squad able to handle serious attempts to do well in the cups, all of this would be possible. I for one have no yearning for a sugar daddy in charge. If Newcastle did it right I’d be very happy with no capital outlay.
Anyone can see that particular pipe dream isn’t what’s happening. The club has a sub-standard head coach and his coaching staff have shown no sign of improving a single player in years. Never mind missing the odd piece in the jigsaw, the entire squad is one big gap. Rather than improvement year on year, if anything the playing situation gets worse. All the while profits are posted, and the club’s cash account fills and fills and fills. No attempt is made to use the money the club generates to improve its on-field performance. The focus is two-fold. Firstly, Newcastle United is a cash-cow for another business therefore spending must be cut as far as is possible without jeopardising the easy money that comes from participation in the Premier League. The people running the club are so incompetent it looks like they won’t even be able to pull that off this season, though there’s still a chance they may fluke survival yet. Secondly, the club is used as a means of raising the profile of the owner’s main business, via the medium of the free advertising he awards himself. As a tale of sporting endeavour, Chariots of Fire it ain’t.
The disconnect goes deeper than that though. John Carver, the head coach, is in the middle of overseeing the club’s worst run of form ever. His CV shows nothing which might explain why he was handed control at a Premier League club if you ignore his address. Right now it seems like his major draw for the club was that he didn’t have much of a bus journey to the training ground. He was the less talented assistant to someone who should have been sacked 4 times as Newcastle manager before he finally jumped ship and quit. Taking that into account it’s no surprise he’s incapable of solving the problems which were already evident when he took the job. If he had any ideas on how to do that surely he would have mentioned them at some point between rejoining the club in 2011 and now. Carver has been giving the impression of a man who’s ready to snap for some time, but no-one has been prepared to put him out of his misery so far. Now he’s begun to lash out, at both the fans and the players. Newcastle made a PR effort to defuse the trouble caused by his slanging match with fans around the dugout at the Swansea home game, but no amount of media massage is going to repair the damage of the public criticism of his own players after yet another defeat at Leicester last weekend. Maybe he was right to say some weren’t trying. Maybe he was right to single out players for cowardice in getting themselves sent off as an easy way out. But having said that, there is nothing more certain than that those players won’t be busting a gut for him from now on. Attacking your own players usually signifies the end game for any manager under duress, a last cry of public defiance when anything they do has ceased to make any difference. Generally they might as well go outside and roar at the weather for all the good it’ll do them. Carver even said himself the players might not be listening to him any more. He has lost his dressing room now, if it could be said that anyone on an 8-game losing streak hadn’t done that already.
A club then, who have become separated from what a club should be. A manager who has lost his connection with the players, unable to motivate or organise them. Finally, fans who traditionally are unwilling to act to alter their club and prepared to turn up virtually no matter what appear to have reached the point where all that changes. Protests, match boycotts, and season ticket cancellations feel like they’re gaining traction. People have had enough of being taken for granted, their opinions ignored, and antagonised by those who should be ensuring they are enthused. The first effective protest movement among Newcastle United fans in years has sprung up within weeks. With 3 games to play though, Newcastle are only 2 points away from the bottom 3. After only 2 home games of protest, now it seems we need to abandon our protests and pull together to save the club from relegation. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been told the owner can do anything he likes with the club. It’s his, and we don’t have a say what happens. Nothing we do can have an effect on the club anyway as they are reliant no longer on gate receipts but on the money coming in from TV rights. Well, the disconnect between club and fans means I no longer feel responsible for saving the club. Let the Sky millions roar the team home. Let the bulging cash account suck a goal into the Gallowgate net when it’s most needed. If the players need inspiration at a vital moment, let them look to Mike Ashley laughing uproariously as fans sing he should get out of their club. I’m out; let them sink or swim without me, for the near future at least.
You don’t need to tell me
I won’t kill myself, trying to stay in your life
I got no distance left to run”
Some years ago, after a season in which Newcastle had beaten their greatest rivals Sunderland 5-1, the best derby result of my lifetime, I rubbed my hands together with satisfaction at the prospect of the core of the team being sold. The great idea was to progress from mediocrity and become the kind of side which could rise up the table to challenge those in contention for European qualification. To do that Newcastle needed to ditch the workers, the battlers, the limited journeymen and fill the side with the technically gifted, players able to pass the ball and keep possession. These players were to come from cheaper markets and clever scouting would ensure that in addition to being better, they’d also be younger and cheaper than the then current crop.
For a time it worked. Kevin Nolan, Joey Barton and Jose Enrique followed Andy Carroll out of the door to be replaced by Yohan Cabaye, Demba Ba, Davide Santon and in the next window Papiss Cisse. The team finished 5th the next season and the plan seemed to have had the desired effect. The following summer only the disappointing Vurnon Anita arrived with Best and Forster the notable leavers. Alan Pardew’s game plan having been found out, the team struggled badly and in danger of relegation panic buys were made in January. Debuchy, Yanga-Mbiwa, Gouffran, Haidara and Sissoko came in with Ba deciding to chase the money with Chelsea. The season after Cabaye left in the winter with only Loic Remy in on loan to speak of in the summer. This season Janmaat and Perez have come in and been successes, Cabella showing the odd sign of life too recently.
Look at who’s come in over that time, who’s done well, and think of which of them are still here apart from the newly arrived. Even just since 2011, the successes have all left again and we are left with a squad who aren’t better than what went before, they’re just younger and cheaper. Add to that a cost-cutting strategy which has seen us not just lose quality but quantity too, and a few injuries and suspensions have left the club struggling for any options, never mind effective ones.
To compound the gloom, after Alan Pardew left we appointed a manager who was a failure in the lower leagues and at a lower standard in MLS. The appointment appeared to have been made mostly on the basis that as a local lad he wouldn’t have far to travel. So as our squad goes downhill they are led by someone at a disadvantage to most if not all of the coaching teams he comes up against.
Notwithstanding that, it’s the popularly asserted idea of our scouting miracle that I find most misleading. Yes, we make good buys on the cheap. And then when we do we sell them again with no lack of haste. Take them out of the equation and our recruitment looks very ordinary indeed.
We lost our 5th derby on the trot to Sunderland on Sunday 5th April 2015, their best ever run in these games. Over the time those games were played Sunderland were pretty much always a team in crisis, avoiding relegation only narrowly. While on this run of record-breaking victories against their greatest rivals they have sacked 2 managers in 2 years. They did worse when they were the highest-spending club in the country, the Bank of England Club. They did worse when they were at their peak, the Team of All Talents. Imagine the incompetence and mismanagement on our part to achieve that.
There’s only so long this can go on. That’s true in more than one way. Our team building isn’t a stable system, it’s not in equilibrium but on a downward trend. Eventually the team will deteriorate enough to go down, and maybe this time they won’t come back. But also eventually people will stop caring. They’ll stop being willing to be taken advantage of, to be expected to turn up no matter what. It’s happened before. Either end of the 1980s were a bleak time for fans and attendances suffered. As our relative glory days get ever further away and ever more obviously not returning, the ties from the good times will fade. I know we’ve all heard this before and it never happens, or it hasn’t yet anyway. This time people who have always kept on coming back might in the end just find they have no reason to any more.
I’m one of the oft-derided thousands who bought their first season ticket in the wake of Kevin Keegan’s arrival at the club in the early 1990s. I did it then because it was the only way to get into the match at the time. Before that I was quite happy turning up when it suited me, 7-10 times a season when there was something worth watching, less when there wasn’t or I had something better to do. Sometimes finances, or work, dictated me staying away more. I could go back to picking and choosing my games and there will be many just like me. Once I’ve made that step it’ll be the simplest thing in the world to just stop completely.
Waltz right in, why don’t you?
I guess that was always the plan.
With a smile on your face saying you own the place,
“Don’t you know who I am?”
I know who you are alright
The opened door let in a chill
I’ll not make hay whatever you say
I don’t want your cheap thrill.
Once when sides were taken
yours was surely mine.
I never left, you fell out of step
and marched to another man’s time.
When I looked for a friend where were you?
There were times I was under attack.
When I needed a shield you were truly revealed
you never had my back.
So now you need me for something,
the tables are turned for a while.
Sure, I’ll help, but not you, someone else.
I’m turning my back on your smile.
So Deadline Day has come and gone again. The end of January tends to be a twitchy time for people of the footballing persuasion, wondering if their club will make a signing which will change their fortunes for the better, but also whether they’ll lose key performers. Will they sell to buy, speculate to accumulate, cash in or sit tight? For Newcastle fans it means something different to supporters of most other clubs. After seven years of Mike Ashley, we know that there isn’t going to be a sudden change of emphasis, a push to succeed. It’s a better than evens bet in fact that in some way our season will be abandoned, either by the loss of key players or a manager without replacement.
The deadline day I speak of isn’t February 2nd 2015, when our transfer window was less slammed shut than had its frame painted over. No, it’s January 31st, the annual last opportunity for the many with ten-year season tickets to cancel, this time for the 2015/16 season. Every year without fail come agonies of indecision as people aware they are being taken for a ride eventually decide they quite like talking to their friends and drinking beer while they are being taken advantage of. I know, I’m one of them. It’s interesting I think that as the seven years have gone by there has been less and less rumour released each time to persuade us to hang on. This year the club’s reported activities were almost completely without artifice. They publicly stated they wouldn’t be making a permanent head coach appointment before the summer. The only recruitment rumours involved a host of teenagers, many without a first-team appearance to their name. None of it designed to change the minds of potential recusants anyway. It’s almost as if they’ve realised they don’t have to bother peddling us bullshit about superstar signings that might happen just after our last opportunity to cancel our renewal. More than likely we’ll choose not to cancel for another year anyway.
The final day or two of the transfer window did provide some interest however. After the window shuts is a time to take stock. This time Newcastle had 6 loanees going out and no-one coming in. In terms of squad depth none have made much impact on the first team recently, though Davide Santon has been unavailable through injury for a fair period. Our defensive roster looks scarily thin but it would take a very unusual set of events to bring the absence of the loanees into play. Remie Streete is out of contract at the end of the season and is unlikely to return and Santon supposedly has a buy clause in his loan, but the loans should if anything help the other loanees come back to the club as better players. Barring Santon, the other five are all on loan at Glasgow Rangers of course. Playing under pressure there will hopefully bring them all on, just as Mehdi Abeid’s spell at Panathinaikos did last season, so the loans should benefit Newcastle in a playing sense. I expect them to benefit Rangers as well. Shane Ferguson, Vuckic and Bigirimana have all made appearances in the English Championship and Premier League and have enough pedigree to make an impact in the Scottish Championship. I’ve not seen Streete play but Mbabu is an athletic full back who might well play a part too.
Inevitably bearing in mind Mike Ashley’s interest in Rangers, the deal itself has come in for some scrutiny. I believe it tells us a lot about Ashley’s intentions for both clubs. Ashley has essentially moved assets from one part of his empire to another. That would be fine in most fields of business, he has to coin a phrase taken stock from one outlet and sent it to another. If Newcastle fans don’t like the money they pay into the club subsidising Ashley’s aspirations for another part of his business, this is only the most visible manifestation so far of something that’s been going on for ages when you consider the free advertising for and murky merchandising deal with Sports Direct. In football however there are concerns about the integrity of competition. It’d also be interesting to know if this multiple loan deal was part of the conditions of the financial loan provided by Ashley to Rangers a week or so ago. In sending fringe players to Rangers Ashley has been careful not to jeopardise the on-field ability of Newcastle, all the while greatly improving the chances of Rangers getting back into the SPL if not automatically then via the playoffs. The quicker they can get back there, the quicker they have an opportunity to qualify for European competition. So Ashley is making an effort to get Rangers back to success as soon as he can without affecting Newcastle’s ability to compete in their own league.
The clear implication is that he wishes to hold onto his interest in both clubs. The English Premier League TV deal provides seemingly ever-increasing riches year-on-year to a middling club like Newcastle which can’t be matched even by the most successful Scottish clubs. The untapped potential in Newcastle’s position is in Champions League prize money, and it’s likely to stay untapped. Once Rangers get back to that top division it will be a lot easier and take a lot less financial outlay to get them into the Champions League than it would Newcastle. It makes a lot of sense from Ashley’s point of view to keep Newcastle ticking over in mid table as an undemanding cash cow, and push for Rangers to reach the Champions League. That way he gets the big money from both major sources available, as well as the advertising exposure from Premier League and Champions League TV for his sporting goods business, with the minimum spending to achieve it. Far be it from me to suggest I know the mind of the man after all these years of incomprehensible decisions, but if he cocks a snook at the SFA and their attempts to restrict his control of Rangers, all the while upsetting Newcastle fans by making them essentially unable to play in Europe ever again thanks to UEFA rules forbidding owners having two clubs in the same competition then all the better from his point of view. Newcastle fans hoping Rangers’ pain might offer them a way out could well be disappointed.
Any new manager coming into Newcastle will have to deal with a host of problems from the off. Forging a working relationship with the club hierarchy. Learning how to deal with your best players being sold without replacement. An unbalanced squad which can only be updated if someone is sold first. Someone else deciding which new recruits come in. Low pay, high expectations, and pressure they won’t believe until they’ve felt it.
Yet that ignores the positives of the situation. There’s a real opportunity to turn around so much going wrong at the club. The unbalanced squad for instance. We look in dire need of at least one centre-half, possibly another with the news Steven Taylor is out for the season, and a striker who can hold the ball up. The summer signings really haven’t had the impact hoped for from them, though Colback has been a solid addition and Perez the surprise package to end them all. De Jong has been injured the whole season so far since 3 appearances early on, and Riviere and Cabella have looked lost when they’ve played. The latter two are relatively big-money signings with reasonably impressive records in France before they arrived here. Riviere looks to have physical presence which is exactly what we need, but he doesn’t look equipped to play as a lone striker. To make the most of him needs some tactical tweaking Alan Pardew was not prepared to do. A new boss might take a fresh look and see an answer not a problem. If De Jong, Perez, Cisse or anyone else can get near enough to him often enough maybe his fortunes and those of the team could change. Remy Cabella on the other hand has struggled with the physical nature of the Premier League while playing out wide and being required to track back. Neither has he looked particularly impressive with the ball at his feet, looking showy but unproductive so far. It’s not unknown for foreign players to get over that kind of start and find their feet in England though. Again, perhaps a change of tactics would help. To play him through the middle in an advanced role might help him concentrate on the attacking side of his game.
We really can’t lose with those two because in the end if either don’t come up to the mark our new manager will be able to generate significant transfer funds by selling them. I don’t know the terms of Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa’s loan deal but there’s a chance he could be persuaded to return by someone he has more confidence in than Alan Pardew. He’d be a much-needed body at centre-back, more importantly someone with pace at the heart of our defence. If he doesn’t fancy a return, again we get a good fee and a big drop in the wage bill. HBA, Jonas and Ryan Taylor are out of contract at the end of the season and the wages of at least one if not all will be back in the pot to be used for new signings. There is no need to sell anyone we don’t want to if we feel the need to sign new players, maybe not this January but in the summer certainly.
On the subject of our best players being sold, I’m not sure anyone’s been so impressive they’d attract big-money interest, nor that we’d be very inconvenienced if they did go. Who are we talking about anyway? Moussa Sissoko’s been a driving force for us and excellent on and off in recent months, but I don’t think he is irreplaceable in the way Cabaye was. Krul’s current long-term injury means he won’t go anywhere in the next 18 months until he’s proved his fitness. The idea of Cheick Tiote tempting a top European club has looked like a bad joke for years now. The only ones I’d be worried about losing right now would be Perez, Aarons and Janmaat. Perez and Aarons need to play more to attract enough of an offer to make us want to sell and Janmaat is a new signing who’s unlikely to leave anytime soon – though I hear Louis van Gaal, who managed him at the World Cup, is after a right-back at Manchester United so watch this space.
The real positive for anyone coming in is something Alan Pardew either didn’t realise he had in August or just disregarded; the youngsters breaking into the first team. Aarons, Abeid, Ameobi and Perez have all made a real difference to the side when they’ve played though Perez is the only one who’s really played a lot. There is more to come from them all. Adam Armstrong has a real chance too.
I don’t think the point of the high expectations at the club even needs to be addressed seriously. Just the sense of progression over time would be success compared to the stagnation of the last few years. Playing without fear would make such a difference to the side and indirectly to the fanbase. It would be a lot easier than it might seem at first too. Looking at Alan Pardew’s time here, whoever is the new person in charge will know they are virtually unsackable. If Mike Ashley has shown himself to be anything, it’s slow to pull the trigger. A bare minimum of staying clear of relegation worries will guarantee safety from the sack. The kind of manager we need to be after, someone who wants to make their mark on a club, who sees the need for a long-term project to achieve what they want to, will see that as the biggest positive of all.
The ultimate kick in the teeth: Newcastle lose a home derby while chasing the victory, to a winner scored in the last minute of normal time when their local rivals broke up the pitch and caught them with a sucker punch. That makes it sound like a stroke of bad luck which of course isn’t the whole story.
This was a game which initially followed a pattern we’re so familiar with. After a bright start in which the players looked enthusiastic and sharp, the team slowly settled back into a passive mode of play which allowed the opposition the ball. Our midfield sat on the toes of their own back four which meant they didn’t really have any opportunity to get a toehold in the game, either through closing down Sunderland’s midfield or by working the ball forward when we had possession. That possession was inevitably short-lived then. Our lone striker again was hopelessly isolated though the increasingly impressive Ayoze Perez made an infinitely better fist of it than anyone else has this season. After the opening quarter of an hour the game stayed like this until the hour mark.
Gouffran was replaced by Adam Armstrong then, and for about 15 minutes we played a 4-4-2. Two strikers! Playing up front! TOGETHER! I don’t want to go all tactics bore on you at this point, but this was our best spell of the game. Sammy Ameobi began to show he had the beating of Sunderland’s right back, we pushed on, and looked the more likely of the two sides to win the game. Our best chances came in this short period, both Armstrong and Perez managing to shoot straight at the keeper with only him to beat. I’d say it was the most aggressive substitution Pardew had made in a good couple of years, but it would be outstripped mere minutes later.
With 15 to go Cheick Tiote came off to be replaced by Papiss Cisse. From then on I have no idea what formation we were trying to play or who was stationed where. For Kevin Keegan it would have been a gamble. For someone as conservative as Pardew it struck me as a brainstorm, a breakdown in his thinking. At one point, with everyone else pushed forward already, Steven Taylor ran with the ball into midfield leaving Colo one-on-one with Fletcher. I’m not sure if that move breaking down led to their goal, but they certainly broke dangerously and outnumbered us at the back a couple of times before they managed to actually score. There had been warning signs, certainly. It might have come off in our favour as well I suppose. Those are the breaks.
So why did he do it? A major criticism of him has been that he has no Plan B. We sit back, attempt to frustrate and try to nick one. If it doesn’t happen we take the point. But today caution was thrown to the gale-force wind. You will perhaps also be aware of the concept of ‘Pardewing’ someone. This is the idea that whatever good there is in a player who arrives at the club, it will be removed by Pardew. Whatever spark or flair they had and briefly displayed on arrival would disappear within weeks. They would apparently forget themselves what their own strengths were. The thing is, if Pardew was ever good at anything it was sticking to his plan no matter what. It was caution in the face of all temptation to take a team on. And he threw that away today. I think he listened to the criticism, starting to build again so soon after a run he probably felt would buy him some time as it had before. He listened, and decided he was better than people thought he was, that he could do what they said he couldn’t. He was wrong about that today though, he forgot what it was he did, and it didn’t pay off. He effectively Pardewed himself.
I feel a bit churlish, criticizing Pardew for going gung-ho after two years of saying “We need to move the whole team 20 yards up the pitch” at half-time. But when he’s wrong he’s wrong, in whichever direction. A 3rd party who hadn’t really been paying attention might think he couldn’t possibly win on those terms. Attack or Defend, neither is good enough, they might say. That’s not it at all though. Is this team so poor they can’t engage in a normal game of football, track, tackle, move and pass? I think they’re perfectly capable of taking other teams on. The difference is in the definitions used. Pardew seems to think there is only a binary choice between dogged sponge-like defence and suicidal attack, nothing between. To my mind, taking a side on just entails engaging in the cut and thrust of a game, of not being scared to try. There’s an inferiority complex inherent in Pardew’s approach. He doesn’t think our defence is good enough to be solid without our midfield on top of them to clog up the routes for passes through them. He doesn’t think our midfield is good enough man-for-man to dominate opposition. Maybe he’s right in some of that sometimes, but the answer is to improve the team if so, not condemn them to keep on covering up their inadequacies.
The resignation of Emily Thornberry as Shadow Attorney General in response to the storm of outrage following her tweeting a picture of a house, some flags, and a van while on the campaign trail in Rochester and Strood has been widely held up as a sign of Labour being in chaos. Labour may be split on whether she should have lost her job, but the papers are universal in their condemnation of her – and Labour’s – contempt for the working classes. Or should I say the papers and the Tories are universal in their condemnation. Thornberry is the MP for Islington which as we all know is the epicentre of metropolitan
In contrast to the reported sneering, her only caption is “Image from #Rochester”. Which it unquestionably is. In fact, there is so little information in her words it is effectively a blank canvas, which the whole nation has been able to project their own prejudices onto. The sneering hasn’t come from Thornberry but from everyone else. To accuse her of sneering is to believe there’s something there to sneer at. The flags, the van; the common subtext is that this is someone beneath contempt. Maybe the owner of that van is contemptible but it’s hard to tell just by looking at the picture and she didn’t say so.
So now Labour is in chaos apparently. This only 1 day after the Tories lost a safe seat and the Lib Dems lost their deposit. But our media know which is the story they wish to concentrate on. In today’s Telegraph David Cameron put the boot in unchallenged:
“Emily Thornberry is one of Ed Miliband’s closest allies and aides.
“Effectively what this means is that Ed Miliband’s Labour Party sneers at people who work hard, who are patriotic and love their country. I think that’s completely appalling.”
Let’s just look at the logic behind this and extrapolate it to Mr Cameron’s own party. Forget for a moment that Miliband got Thornberry to resign. It would be reasonable knowing that to think sneering at people who work hard is the last thing Labour approve of. Anyway, by this logic, we could say the entirety of Mr Cameron’s Tory Party is fully behind any of their crackpot utterances which are later disowned. For instance, we could say the Tories all sneer at disabled people and don’t think they are worth paying minimum wage. Though actually, seeing as Lord Freud didn’t get sacked for his faux pas they probably do all think that.
Why then did Ed Miliband demand Ms Thornberry’s resignation? I can’t help thinking it’s for putting her head above the parapet. Miliband and Labour know they will be lambasted at every opportunity and the last thing they needed during a by-election was someone giving the papers some material they could use to criticise.
Following on from this was a sub-furore when Ed Miliband was asked what he thought when he saw something like Ms Thornberry’s tweet depicted. As part of a longer conversation in which he bemoaned that Ms Thornberry had been disrespectful, he answered in contrast that he felt respect. Pass The Sickbag! How bizarre, they cheeped. He really could not win. What did they expect him to say, “why do those vans all have Ferrari engines in them”? If you are going to trash someone no matter whether they say either of two opposing statements then you aren’t reporting or commenting any more, you’re doing the work of their opponents and by the way subverting the political process while you’re on. No one can make an informed decision if their information is skewed.
As if to prove my point the BBC’s Nick Robinson piped up, saying Labour had:
“given the Tory press an alternative narrative…the most extraordinary self-inflicted wound I have seen an opposition party inflict on themselves in many, many years.”
before merrily hammering away on that alternative narrative himself, and in due course inflict some extraordinarily unfair wounding.
It becomes clearer every day that our system, our media are rigged. How could anyone look at political events since Thursday morning and conclude that tweet is the main story? They have made it so against all logic and will continue to do Labour down at every opportunity and indeed even when there isn’t one. The political media have become an apparatus of right-wing propaganda. Or is it just that I have only now noticed?
A story for When Saturday Comes magazine from way back in October 2011 on Joey Barton’s underhanded social media-driven PR campaign
Three games, three wins. And everything’s alright now, isn’t it? Or so we’re told by our friends in the national press, whose calls of “WE TOLD YOU SO” on Alan Pardew have been building steadily since the Leicester game and reached a crowing crescendo following Wednesday night’s brilliantly unexpected win over Man City in the League Cup. Pardew has been vindicated they say, and those who called for his head should apologise – perhaps for the temerity of caring about their team and having an opinion. I’d take more notice of those making such hay at the expense of Newcastle’s fickle fans if these recent wins had actually changed their opinion. But they all felt the same even when we were capitulating every week. Is it us who refuse to see the evidence in front of our faces or them? If our fans truly were fickle by the way, the best way to prove it would be to sing Alan Pardew’s praises right now.
“Where’s the ‘Pardew Out’ brigade now?” everyone completely unconnected with the club is seemingly obliged to ask at the moment. The thing is, we’re still there. Sitting in the stands watching his team, no, our team. Not everyone feels that way of course, but a sizeable number do and it’ll take more than just a few good results to change our opinion. Are we supposed to forget the years of poor performances, months at a stretch without ideas or inspiration, unable to change a losing formula? In between those months, we’ve had runs of good results before of course. The last one was a year ago, during November & December 2013, when Chelsea, Spurs & Man Utd were all beaten. Before that was 3 wins from 4 immediately following January 2013 panic buys. The time before that was a 6-game winning streak in March/April 2012 which almost fired us to the Champions League, also the last time Pardew achieved anything of note. That is a minimum of 9 months of bleak ineptitude between each episode of stringing 3 or 4 wins together. Forgive us for suspecting that just as in each of those 9 month periods Pardew hasn’t been able to change his losing formula, just as in each good run he hasn’t been able to maintain whatever it was that produced it, again this time he won’t be able to and very soon we will be back to the results and performances of the first seven games of the season.
So how is it that recent results have changed so markedly? To give him some credit, his subs have been largely successful in this most recent run of good form, most obviously against Spurs. The Man City result was influenced by the enthusiasm of fringe players given a chance to show what they could do, and he deserves praise for getting his team selection so right there. Our problem in 2014 has been that Pardew is inflexible, unwilling to change his preferred way of playing. As fans have spent so long bemoaning, there is no Plan B. He can only set up a team to contain the opposition and strike on the break. Against the vast majority of Premier League teams this is unsuccessful, especially at St James’ Park, as they are quite happy to sit back themselves and we are unwilling or unable to push for a breakthrough. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day however. There are teams that his outlook is suited to playing against and they tend to be the better teams in the division who attack Newcastle and give opportunities to attack them in turn without really having to probe and create. It is no coincidence that Newcastle’s better results occur when they have markedly less possession than the opposition, and they look at their most impotent when they are allowed a lot of possession by teams that retreat into their own half upon losing the ball. Neither is it coincidence that Newcastle’s better results are frequently when they play good teams which push on but who for whatever reason don’t quite fire on the day.
I don’t mean to imply Pardew doesn’t deserve credit when we win games. He picks the side, does the team talks, and takes the flak when it goes wrong as it has done more often than not in his time here. So well done when we win a couple of games. If Newcastle can keep it up til the end of the season then, and only then, can Pardew’s defenders truthfully say he’s fought back against his critics.
Plans for the pre-general Election 2015 leadership TV debates have just been made public and much has been made of the fact that Nigel Farage, leader of UKIP, has been included in the proposals to take part in one of them. The traditional 3 main parties plus UKIP would be the only ones involved under the plans. With only 1 MP, and such a recent one that Douglas Carswell had not had time to be sworn in before the news broke, why was UKIP to be included ahead of the Green party who have had an MP since 2010? For that matter, it’s also worth wondering why they would be included in the debates ahead of any of the 9 parties with representation in the House of Commons who have been overlooked.
It’s fairly transparent why the broadcasters would want things the way they’ve suggested; a TV debate between 13 parties would be in danger of being unwatchable. Never let it be said that our broadcasters are looking for a fair and balanced series of debates which allow all parties to get their point across. Like all our news media they are already pursuing the particular narrative which they perceive will be the big story of the coming election, the rise of UKIP as a major political force. They’ve been doing it for some time now. They cover it because it interests them, it gives them something to talk about, to fill up the endless hours of coverage. But because they keep covering the story it becomes ever more likely to come true. Without the seemingly endless and up to now disproportionate coverage of UKIP and Nigel Farage, would they have made the inroads they have done already? The advantage they’ve gained is perhaps more clearly seen if we put it the other way round: it’s impossible for a party to have electoral success on a large scale without similarly widespread exposure on national TV. Such has the boost been to UKIP’s electoral prospects that they are being spoken of as a genuine 4th major party, and that they have broken the 3-party system which has been our political landscape since the birth of the Labour Party in the early years of the last century.
The shrinking popularity and disillusionment with Labour, Tories and Lib Dems mean that our 3-party system and in particular our First-Past-The-Post electoral voting system are appearing more and more outdated and unrepresentative and in that context representation in TV debates seems very small beer. I’d argue that rather than simply moving to a 4-party system we are now in an age of genuine multi-party politics, but that isn’t reflected by our electoral system. Again, it’s clear why traditional parties would wish to maintain the current system. It sustains them, and holds back possible competition. Because of FPTP, Labour have been able to move away from the concerns of their traditional support base without losing seats. Enough people will vote for them in their heartlands no matter what that for over a decade they’ve felt able to allow the centre of national political debate to shift to the right, to the chagrin of many who feel deserted by Labour’s refusal to oppose what has therefore become the political consensus. Despite the calls of “Red Ed” and Labour undoubtedly attempting to appeal more to their core recently, the number of Blairites still influencing the party mean it’s unlikely to go further. Most of the people left behind by this have no-one electable to the left of Labour who they can vote for as things stand; in 99% of constituencies a vote for a non-Labour party of the left will not result in them winning a seat, and that vote is effectively pointless. Indeed, for some time the Lib Dem electoral strategy has been that “Party A cannot win here; Only the Lib Dems can stop Party B in this constituency”, the identities of parties A & B of course being switchable according to the realities on the ground. The abhorrence of tactical voting seems to have been lost in all this. The idea that people feel forced to vote for someone they don’t support merely to prevent someone else winning who they think is even worse should be anathema to anyone who believes in popular representation. Why can’t my vote for a party in Newcastle be pooled with that of a fellow-supporter on the South coast, both of us safe in the knowledge that our votes will not be wasted?
The Lib Dems appear to be about to pass on their status as the national party of tactical voters to UKIP anyway. Despite their manifest failures in government, the Lib Dems at least attempt to position themselves between Labour and Conservatives and so by default are a lesser evil than the other of the 3 to supporters stranded in an unwinnable seat for their party of choice. UKIP by contrast set themselves to the right of the Tories. I just can’t see Labour supporters voting en masse for UKIP in marginals ( though some will of course), especially when they have already stated they’ll support a minority Tory government in return for concessions.
It’s a staple of political strategy that 35% or so of the vote would be sufficient for Labour to gain an overall majority, not much more than that for the Tories to do the same. Could it be that if tactical voting no longer took place, not only would the vote of the 3rd party be reduced, but that of Labour & Conservatives as well? People who were disillusioned with the traditional party of left or right would no longer feel the need to vote for them rather than risk the other winning. Minor parties could be expected to hold the major party of their side of the debate to account in coalition government. Unlike the Lib Dems (who may be wiped from the political scene next time) they’d be sharing power with a dominant partner whose broad programme wasn’t too far from their own. It’s a vision of fragmentation, yes, but one of political engagement too, where people vote for parties they agree with and gain outcomes they approve of. It can only be achieved by ditching our electoral system. The self-interest inherent in the major parties wishing to maintain the status quo means they cannot be left to decide on what will happen. The only acceptable ongoing process would be for an independent body to decide on options for changes to the electoral system, and then put it to the nation. Maybe they can debate that on TV.