The season of good will and cheer is always the season of the sack and the managerial changes we are seeing in the Premier League should come as no surprise. However Alan Pardew’s decision to leave Newcastle for Crystal Palace has raised many an eyebrow. The argument, much touted on twitter and the airwaves, is why move from a great club to one whose ambition can be never higher than to hope for a sustainable place in the Premier League? And even this, given Palace’s current position, must seem like fantasy.
However such speculation shows that discussion of managerial changes in football is driven by unrealistic fan expectations leading to a lot of misleading publicity when, in essence, a manager changes clubs for most of the same reasons we change jobs, money of course but also getting back to ones roots or doing a job which is likely to be more manageable and, therefore, more satisfying.
So take for instance all the talk about Newcastle being a great club. The word missed out here is “was” (if the definition of ‘great’ is consistently winning trophies). To expect Newcastle to be a great club again in the very near future you will have to also assume that steam trains will come back into regular use – not just for tourist rides – and ship building will once again be a major industry on Tyneside. I doubt if either is likely.
Newcastle fans will say all that they need is to get shot of Mike Ashley, get a Roman Abramovich or a Sheikh Mansour, and the Geordies will return to where they have always belonged. The fact is that these high rollers came at a particular moment in football history. UEFA’s Financial Fair Play rules makes such largesse a near impossibility and there is the London factor. When Newcastle was a big club this country was not as centralised in London as it is now. Apart from Manchester the great regional cities that formed such a distinctive part of Victorian Britain have declined to such an extent that it is difficult to see how they can regain anything like their former status. Football, however much the fans of a club may think otherwise, cannot be immune to wider changes in society. Current economics now dictate that a London club will have more potential than a club in any other city in this country.
All the more so, as Steve Parrish, co-chairman of Crystal Palace, points out, because contrary to what is often believed television income has reduced the gap between small and big clubs. He told me: “In the Premier League TV money is very equitable, it’s the most equitable League in the world. Everybody raves about the Bundesliga. You get three and half times the TV money if you win the Bundesliga compared to the bottom side. Manchester City got one and a half times what the bottom club got last year. In the Spanish leagues and Italian leagues the gap between top and bottom is massively different.”
Parrish then gives the example of Everton, a great historic club, arguably even greater than Newcastle. “Everton probably have about 10 or 11 million more non-TV income than us, that’s it. So it’s not like the old days where their gate money was a significant differentiator in the ability to spend and the ability to compete. It’s not anymore. So this is why you’re seeing this division is very flat at the bottom. Right up to almost eighth, ninth, it’s very flat.”
Parish who recalls, “As a seven year old in the 70s at my first match, I watched Palace beat Chelsea 2-0” says: “There’s absolutely no reason why Palace can’t cement itself as a Europa League challenging club. The Champions League is really difficult for any club outside the top four or five. You might get the odd wild card. The next level down – right down to ninth – it’s very flat now.”
And this is where Newcastle and Palace are different. For Newcastle fans coming eighth or ninth will never be good enough. They want to be competing for the title, which they haven’t won since 1926-27 when ships were still being built on the Tyne. And they want to be in the Champions League. But for Palace fans a place in the top ten would be enough. And while this is hard to imagine in their current position it is not an impossible dream. In contrast Newcastle’s aspirations are currently unrealistic.
And this is what explains why Alan Pardew has decided to move. A London boy, he was born in Wimbledon, he has always maintained a home in the south and loves and identifies with the capital. He is also unusual in managers in having worked in the real world outside of football. When I met him two years ago, after he had done the rare double of becoming both the Barclay’s and the League Managers’ Association’s manager of the season, ahead of Roberto Mancini who had taken Manchester City to their first title since 1968, I was struck by his pride in his upbringing. This was not something he felt should be hidden but broadcast. I had read in Wikipedia that he had been a taxi driver. “No, I was never a taxi cab driver. That Wikipedia is written by idiots! I was a glazier, in my father’s company. My brother still works for the glazing company.” Then he recalled that his brother had been working on the Shard which, as he said, “ironically overlooked the hall where I got my trophy. He was up the Shard that night, working on the night shift because they’re trying to finish it. My background which is different has shaped my outlook. I see a lot of snobbery in professional football but I wasn’t willing to accept it.”
By that Pardew explains “snobbery in the fact that ‘we’re professionals and these non-league players, they’re this and that. Why are we signing a nonleague player?'” Pardew’s point is in professional clubs with academies the feeling is they have the best young players. “What about little Johnny who plays for that Sunday morning team, I don’t know, the Old Brompton 11. Is he no good?’ The answer [from professional coaches] is, ‘Oh, he’s not been through the system’. But that doesn’t mean he’s no good!’. So you have that kind of snobbery about professional football. I’ve always been anti that.”
Pardew himself was playing for non-League Yeovil Town when then Palace chairman Ron Noades and manager Steve Coppell spotted him and brought him to Palace. His links with the club have always been strong and a few months ago when Noades died he attended his funeral. This background has meant he has also always worked out how to assess a new job. So while Newcastle fans were against him replacing the much loved Chris Hughton as manager, as Pardew jokes less than 5 per cent of the fans wanted him and many never really accepted him, when he took the job his first concern was not the fans. “I knew that the first few months were going to be difficult. But, if you’re going to walk into a manager’s job, you’ve got to take away the fan element of it. You have to say: ‘Are you going to be able to win the dressing room?'”
For that he needed the trust of Kevin Nolan. “Kevin was a powerful captain and I made sure of his loyalty. Before I even met him at the training ground, I went to his house and said, ‘Look, I know there’s probably a lot of disappointment that I’m the manager but I am. I want to work with you and I need your help.’ Being the great guy that he is, he offered me that.” And at the end of the 2012 season when, as West Ham won promotion to the Premiership, Pardew was at the playoff at Wembley cheering Nolan on.
Whether Palace fans will have something to cheer come the end of the season remains to be seen. It is possible that like fans of other clubs, despite Pardew’s association with Palace, not everyone will warm to him. Pardew has not always had a good press not helped by some of his own actions like the head butting incident. He claims he has learnt lessons and paid his dues. What, however, should not be misunderstood is that Pardew’s reason for returning are driven by his desire to reconnect with his roots, a common enough reason to change jobs, and a realisation that in Palace he will find a niche in football which at Newcastle, and partly because of the currently unrealistic expectations of the fans and city, he never could. These could be powerful motivating factors as he tries to save Palace.
Mihir Bose was the first sports editor of the BBC. He has worked for various media outlets and launched the Inside Sport column for the Daily Telegraph. Now a freelance journalist he has written 29 books. The Spirit of the Game, published by Constable and Robinson, is now available in paperback. Follow Mihir on Twitter @mihirbose