All aboard!

by Kevin Christie

Ashley NewcastleSo, there we have it. Another pre-season nearly complete and an exciting new Premier League campaign quickly approaching… and I’m sorry to say that for the first time in my 20-odd years as a Newcastle fan, I couldn’t care less.

Last season was a harrowing experience which sucked the life out of me and left me feeling jaded and deflated. It says a lot that my defining memory of the 2012-13 season is jumping around my kitchen, screaming and punching the air triumphantly as Swansea put Wigan to the sword to deny the Latics the opportunity to leapfrog us and put themselves in the driving seat in the race for Premiership survival. I have absolutely no doubt that we would have been relegated had we slipped into the relegation places so close to the end of the season as confidence was at an all-time low and the allegations of a dressing room divide cranked the tension up to breaking point.

In the end, Pardew and his shell-shocked troops got just enough points on the board to stay up but it was through no fault of their own. Make no mistake about it, Newcastle’s Premier League status was secured by the shortcomings of others, rather than by virtue of their own performances.

‘Clear the air’ talks that took place between Ashley, Pardew and Llambias in the aftermath of the Arsenal defeat spawned rampant and ridiculous Twitter rumours that out-going Chelsea manager Rafa Benitez had been lined up to replace Pardew, whose luck had seemingly run out. Looking back now and in light of what has gone on since, I’m embarrassed to admit that for a brief couple of days, I thought it might actually happen. More fool me.

It’s difficult to know exactly what is going on in Mike Ashley’s head at times – sometimes it seems like he is on a one-man mission to make Newcastle United the laughing stock of the entire country and, if so, hats off to him because he’s doing a fantastic job. I’d like to think that there is a plan in place and that Ashley wants the best for the club but, then again, I’d also like to think that there’s a tooth fairy and that Santa Claus exists. However, I’m sorry to say that everything that has gone on at St James’ Park since the curtain came down on last season’s horror show means that I have lost all faith in everyone involved in the club at boardroom level. Frankly, all the talk of stability, sustainability and ‘5 year plans’ is laughable and I don’t for one second believe that there is any semblance of a plan in place to make Newcastle United genuine contenders once again.

It defies logic that Ashley, Llambias and Pardew can have sat in a room together, analysed why the season had gone so badly, asked themselves who could be brought in to arrest the decline and can have come up with the answer ‘Joe Kinnear’. People have been sectioned for less.

Kinnear’s arrival has, of course, resulted in Derek Llambias’s departure and despite being disliked by the majority of the fans, Llambias was doing a decent job. He got things done with minimum fuss and many of our incoming transfers since he took over from Chris Mort have been concluded both swiftly and in secrecy. It’s a far cry from the days when Fat Freddy would shout our targets from the rooftops and proclaim that the world and his wife wanted to come to Tyneside – if the wages were suitably astronomical. No, alongside Graham Carr and Lee Charnley, Llambias brought in many players that we had actually scouted, whose characters had been assessed and who, most importantly, were willing to come for a sensible price and for the right reasons.

Of course, nobody is mourning the loss of Llambias per se. Rather, we are scratching our heads wondering why Kinnear has returned. His brief is similar to that of his predecessor but Ashley somehow believes that the former Wimbledon boss is a more credible character within the world of football. Well, sorry, Mike but the only place where Kinnear would be a credible character is in The Flintstones and apart from the fact that he has already committed a number of embarrassing PR gaffes since returning, the main worry is that (as of August 1st) he has brought no senior players in to bolster a squad that is desperately in need of reinforcements.

Options are particularly limited up front and not one of our alleged targets has arrived yet. The names of Gignac, Gomis, Bent and Remy appear in the media on a daily basis (often courtesy of Alan Pardew himself) but Kinnear seems unable to get any of them ‘over the line’ as Pardew likes to say. While there is still time to rectify the situation, frustration is growing and it’s impossible to know who will arrive and just when it might be. Of course the season may well start with one or two new faces on board but they’ve missed the majority of our pre-season preparations and have lost out on valuable bedding-in time. Anyone who does arrive now will be thrown straight in at the deep end and left to fend for themselves in what are becoming increasingly choppy waters on Tyneside.

So, where does all that leave us? None the wiser really. The mistakes of last summer are being repeated and any possible upsurge in our fortunes seems more likely to come by accident rather than design.

Of course, a lot will depend on Ashley and Kinnear’s transfer strategy and their willingness to spend money but Pardew has work to do and he needs to get back to basics and work on Newcastle’s playing strategy and the team’s shape. 4-3-3, 4-5-1 or 4-4-2…it’s all immaterial if the only plan is to hoof the ball forward and force Cissé and Co. to feed off the scraps. While he likes to portray himself as a forward-thinking, offensive coach, Pardew’s tactical prowess amounts to little more than the prehistoric ‘hit and hope’ tactic of lumping it long and hoping for the best.

Irrespective of the shenanigans off the pitch, Pardew can keep fans onside by providing them with a more attractive brand of football. He and his coaching staff need to drill the players in a system that suits them and will allow them to flourish and to express themselves.

A more cohesive and entertaining approach is needed as apathy is setting in amongst the long-suffering faithful. Nobody is expecting trophies but a return to the drudgery and misery of last season will see fans baying for Pardew’s blood – regardless of what Joe Kinnear and Mike Ashley do to hinder or help him in the coming months.

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