LAST season, as the calls for Alan Pardew’s head increased in both volume and vitriol, it was hard not to feel a degree of sympathy for the embattled Newcastle United boss.
Yes, he brought some of his problems on himself, most notably in the wake of March’s barely-believable head-butt on Hull City midfielder David Meyler, but for all that Newcastle’s form nosedived on his watch in the second half of the season, Pardew could justifiably claim that he was managing with one hand tied behind his back.
As if the loss of Yohan Cabaye in January was not bad enough, the failure to replace the Frenchman in the mid-season transfer window, which followed a trend that had been established by Mike Ashley’s refusal to make a single permanent signing the previous summer, meant Pardew was presiding over a squad with glaring deficiencies.
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Would another manager have improved on Newcastle’s tenth-placed finish last season? Possibly. But given the circumstances in which Pardew was operating, surely not by much.
Fast forward two months, however, and none of that applies any more. The failings that existed last season have been addressed; the 18 months without a permanent addition forgotten amid a flurry of what will be six signings in the space of little more than a fortnight once Daryl Janmaat’s arrival from Feyenoord is finally confirmed.
When it comes to Pardew’s position in charge of Newcastle, there are no more excuses, no more mitigating factors to explain away underachievement.
Next season will tell us exactly what type of manager the 52-year-old is. Is he, as his supporters – and there are a still a few of them around – would maintain, the astute man manager and tactician who guided Newcastle to a fifth-place finish in 2012 and was crowned Manager of the Year as a result?
Or is he, as those who were calling for his head towards the end of last season would insist, a figure who fails to improve the players under his control and whose tactical selections often result in key players playing out of position?
Time will tell, and knowing how football supporters usually operate, it will not take long for the verdict to be delivered.
It was noticeable that when Newcastle kicked off their pre-season programme at Oldham on Tuesday night, the anti-Pardew chants that had spilled out of the away enclosures in the final weeks of last season were absent. Start next season badly, though, and it will not take long for them to return.
Pardew will begin the new campaign on trial, certainly in the eyes of the supporters, but also when it comes to Ashley, who has lived up to his pledge to spend meaningful money to improve a squad that was still able to scramble its way into the top half of the table last season.
Some will claim that the funds recouped from the sale of Cabaye and Mathieu Debuchy have merely been reinvested and that Ashley has not actually spent any of his own money this summer, but that is a somewhat disingenuous argument when Newcastle are making a large profit on players thanks to their astute recruitment in the past.
If you keep on making a profit on players, and then reinvest that profit into the purchase of more players in the future, your club should improve and grow as a result.
The main imponderable is whether the manager can mould those players into a successful team in the time in which he has them together, and that once again thrusts Pardew’s role firmly into the spotlight.
Ashley’s preferred recruitment model prioritises overseas players with the scope for considerable improvement, but whereas Pardew could previously claim to have been presented with signings boasting potential rather than experience, this summer’s recruits include some key players at an advanced stage of their career.
Siem de Jong has skippered Ajax and won four Dutch Eredivisie titles, Janmaat boasts 21 full Holland caps and was a key part of an international squad that recently finished third at the World Cup finals, Jack Colback has made more than 100 Premier League appearances for Sunderland, and Remy Cabella has been at the top of Newcastle’s wanted list for almost a year now, with more than 100 French top-flight appearances under his belt.
Ayoze Perez and Emmanuel Riviere might be more typical of ‘Graham Carr-type’ signings, and it could be argued that with Loic Remy, Shola Ameobi and Luuk de Jong having departed since the end of last season, Newcastle still need another centre-forward to bring their attacking options to an optimum level.
Even without that – and there is a strong suspicion that another striker will be recruited before the transfer window closes at the end of last month – the Magpies’ new-look squad is already considerably stronger than the one that finished last season.
Having constantly promised that improvements would be made, Pardew must be satisfied that his faith has been justified. Now, though, he must prove he is capable of fully exploiting the opportunity that has been presented to him.
That doesn’t mean a top-five finish, although the experiences of two seasons ago prove what is possible if a new side can be gelled quickly and momentum can be generated by a strong start, and it doesn’t even necessarily mean a return to Europe, such is the strength of competition at the top end of the Premier League table from the likes of Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham, not to mention both Manchester clubs and Chelsea.
But it does mean a vast improvement on the second half of last season, with much greater solidity in defence and midfield, and a much more exciting outlook in attack, where de Jong and Cabella should provide the creativity that was so chronically lacking in the absence of Cabaye.
A decent cup run would also be appreciated – although how it would go down internally remains a moot point – with Newcastle’s squad surely capable of fighting successfully on two fronts in the latter stages of the campaign.
Last season, Pardew could justifiably claim he didn’t have the tools at his disposal to achieve anything. After the events of the last couple of weeks, however, he no longer has anywhere to hide.
CHAMPS OF THE WEEK
They might not have been at their flamboyant best as they won the World Cup final, but it was impossible to deny that Germany were the best side on display in Brazil. Strong from front to back, Joachim Low’s team were worthy winners, with their semi-final dismantling of Brazil representing one of the great World Cup victories.
CHUMPS OF THE WEEK
FIFA’s TECHNICAL COMMITTEE
How on earth did some of FIFA’s best footballing brains come up with Lionel Messi as the winner of the Golden Ball for the best player at the World Cup finals? The Argentinian went missing in the knockout phase, and Manuel Neuer, Javier Mascherano, James Rodriguez or Thomas Muller would all have been worthier winners of the award.
PERFORMANCE OF THE WEEK
JAMES ANDERSON’S BATTING vs INDIA
It’s not too long ago that James Anderson was rightly regarded as a cricketing rabbit, with his batting deficiencies almost too long to list. His 81 in the first Test at Trent Bridge – which formed part of a world-record 11th-wicket partnership with Joe Root – was therefore a sensational knock, full of grit, determination and no little skill.
CHARITY BET OF THE WEEK
After a lengthy drought, it’s two wins from two after Slade Power (3-1) powered home to win the July Cup sprint at Newmarket. Hopefully, we’ll complete the hat-trick this weekend, so follow @scottwilsonecho on Twitter to discover tomorrow’s tip. Running total: +£42.30