A couple of weeks ago a taxi picked me up at Heathrow airport and my conversation with the driver, an elderly Chelsea fan, was something like this:
Driver: "Noocarsew are doing well ay? Bet you're not slagging Pardew now ay? Cockney mafia and that ay? None of you wanted 'im did you ay? Bet you aww feel darft now ay?"
Me: "You show me a person who from day one believed that Pardew was capable of this and I'll show you a liar."
He then went on to say that he was born in Blackpool but moved South as a kid so that's why he supports 'Chewsee'. He was also furious that Hodgson got the England job and not "Arry the choice of the people" but that hasn't really got anything to do with this blog!
I stand by the point I made to the driver and I'm the first to admit I got it completely wrong on Pardiola. Who honestly didn't?
A win ratio of 26% in season one after he arrived in December coupled with a cup exit to Stevenage and I was even less convinced.
Move forward 12 months and he has just delivered us one of the most enjoyable and memorable seasons in many a year. A season of wins over the established power houses, some absolutely world class goals, top class players and fine entertainment. His win ratio in the season that just ended was 51%
How? What did he do to instigate such a turn around in a club relegated only three years ago?
Firstly, he won the dressing room and then he remoulded it.
When he first got the job he went to then-Captain Kevin Nolan's house and got him onside. He knew that the sacking of the very popular Chris Hughton was very badly received in the dressing room and on the terraces. The terraces would take time to win over, but if he could get the players backing early on he knew that he could progress. Then there was Joey Barton. After the win over Liverpool in Pardew's first game, Barton couldn't wait to get on camera and quite rightly tell the nation that it was Hughton's team and that the 3 v 1 win was "for Chris". Yet within a matter of weeks Barton was openly admitting that he had taken to Pardew and that he liked him.
Hughton had implemented a fantastic team spirit. He took the morale around the club from the doldrums following relegation to a real buzz leading to the 6 v 0 win over Villa in our first game back in the Premier League. When Hughton was controversially sacked there was a real danger that morale would once again plummet but by winning over the senior players, Pardew managed to avoid that.
At the end of that first season Pardew risked further criticism from the fans by selling Kevin Nolan to West Ham. Nolan had been a massive (pun intended) player for us - Captain, scorer of vital goals and 4 in a season v sunderland. Shortly afterwards Joey Barton was told he could leave on a free in quite mysterious contractual circumstances. Many (including me) were very concerned about these departures - good players were coming in (Cabaye, Ba) but I believed that we needed more bodies, not some in and some out. Not to mention the fact that the two departing players had offered so much on the field in recent times. Again, I (we) were wrong. Pardew (with the help of Carr) brought in superior, lower cost players and still managed to maintain the incredible dressing room harmony whilst having greater control. Amazing job. Nolan went on to have a mediocre season in an under achieving West Ham side whilst Barton almost Captained richly-assembled QPR to relegation and will start next season with a 12 game ban.
On the field we were a totally different proposition to what we had been in recent years. A mixture of some free flowing football and the long ball game depending on where and when helped us to a couple of long unbeaten runs. Pardew mixed and matched tactics - it worked well, mostly. Sure, there were times that I scratched my head in confusion at his selection and tactics - not least Fulham away when we could all see that the high defensive line was killing us but he did not change it and we were hammered, or Spurs when he got it badly wrong. In the main, his tactics were excellent. Harry Redknapp has been the medias flavour of the month for years now. Pardew appears to be tactically superior to him. Redknapps main skill appears to be motivation, getting the most out of players and instinctively knowing when a player could shift position and have an impact. Pardew has also repeatedly demonstrated these traits (Ryan Taylor excelling at left back early in the season, the rise of Perchinho as a holding midfielder, Jonas' amazing performance as a supplementary full back away to Stoke to name but a few). Pardew has all of this and he is 14 years younger than good old Arry.
Another notable achievement this season was Pardew's exceptional handling of Hatem Ben Arfa. Coming back from his career threatening injury, Hatem looked a shadow of the player he had been. I'll confess to something here - I don't remember which game it was but I text a friend saying how poorly Hatem was performing and called him Hatem Ben Fumanca.....
Pardew man managed him, held him back, improved his on-field discipline and the outcome was spectacular. Ben Arfa became a vital player in the second half of the season. In January he won the 3rd round FA cup tie at home to Blackburn with a world class solo effort in injury time. His goal against Bolton was probably the best goal I've ever seen at St James' Park. Not just the goals - he was playing short, sharp passes more often and delivering vital crosses from either flank. He's now in the France squad for Euro 2012 - who would have predicted that this time last year?
What more can I say? Pardew has proven me wrong. I could carry on - the Cisse signing and impact just at the right time, 15 clean sheets with a very ordinary back 4, the emergence of Krul, the handling and improvement of Santon.... Excellent.
Alan Pardew has a long time left in the game. He is only the fourth manager to win both the Barclays and LMA Manager of the season awards in the same year.
In the long term he might bring some real good times to Newcastle. Maybe even a trophy. Whey, we can all dream! Now where's that passport?
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