Alan Pardew seen as "yes" man
23 February ~ It's a strange feeling to be mired in mediocrity and yet still within three places of Manchester United, but that's just the position in which Newcastle United find themselves going into today's game with Aston Villa. Despite a promising start that raised hopes of a return to European competition, 2014 so far has seen just one win against an injury-hit West Ham, an insipid 0-0 draw at strugglers Norwich and six (mostly heavy) defeats, including a third-round FA Cup exit at the hands of Cardiff and an embarrassing 3-0 loss in the Tyne-Wear derby.
The reaction has been to blame manager Alan Pardew. Despite the loss of Yohan Cabaye to Paris Saint-Germain in January, a move that didn't cause the decline but makes it harder to arrest, Pardew still has a tremendously talented squad at his disposal; or, at least, a squad that once appeared that way but has regressed under his management.
Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, a man who had captained Montpellier to a French title by the age of 23, is benched in favour of the hapless Steven Taylor. Davide Santon, once dubbed "the new Maldini, Zanetti or Facchetti" by José Mourinho, currently resembles the old Alessandro Pistone. Vurnon Anita and Papiss Cissé have been criminally misused, both victims of Pardew's direct style; Sylvain Marveaux has been forced to train with the Under-18s, though Gabriel Obertan still makes matchday squads; and despite having managed Hatem Ben Arfa for three years, Pardew still struggles to get the best out of Cabaye's natural successor.
The question is, if not Pardew, then who? Mediocrity is a byproduct of Mike Ashley's ownership. Content to run the club as a business, investing the bare minimum and recouping money through player sales and (reportedly free) Sports Direct advertising, it follows that Ashley has no trouble with mid-table finishes. Though fans might feel that Newcastle could do no worse than to appoint a new manager, the problem originates "upstairs", in the boardroom.
It just so happens that in Pardew, Ashley has found a "yes" man. He doesn't seem to care for cup competitions and just as well, for they have no place in Ashley's plans. It's the same with the Europa League, longed for by fans but dismissed out of hand in almost every press conference. Increasingly, however, this won't do, especially for those faced with Sunderland-supporting workmates not shy in gloating about their upcoming Wembley visit.
Fans are organising, supporters' groups striving to turn apathy at another aimless season into something more concrete. And though the club are clamping down on dissent from fans and local media, such moves meet with limited success. Win or lose against Villa, the underlying problems aren't going away—and nor will the fans' disquiet. Kieran Dodds