Alan Pardew is pure, ridiculous box office
Newcastle’s manager appears, for the moment, to have turned things round at the club. In doing so, he’s revealed himself to be the Premier League’s most compelling managerial personality.
Saturday lunchtime, and the most compelling manager in the Premier League is strutting his stuff on the St James’ Park touchline. Not José Mourinho — the Special One, like his team, is unusually subdued. Some waving, some pointing, the occasional rueful smile. A broken unbeaten run, and a bizarre conspiracy theory about ball boys: that’s not our smouldering José at his best.
No, the most compelling manager in the Premier League is patrolling in front of the opposite dugout. Alan Pardew, whose Newcastle side have just beaten Chelsea, guides a team who have now won six of their last eight games and clambered from the bottom of the table to seventh, passing Liverpool, Tottenham and Everton on the way. This is not because Newcastle were bad and are now good, though their silver-haired tactical maven can take at least some of the credit for that. The usual reaction to a hideous run of form is to batten down the hatches, to seek solidity and stubbornness and resilience. By contrast, Pardew — though injuries have perhaps guided his hand — have embraced the chaotic, the youthful, and the quick.
Ayoze Perez (21) made his first start of the season against Tottenham at the end of October; Sammy Ameobi (22) came on at half-time and scored the winner seconds later. Both have since become fixtures in the first team. After an assured performance against Manchester City in the League Cup, Mehdi Abeid made the jump to the Premier League against Liverpool and belied his 22 years, while Rolando Aarons, a mere stripling of 19 years, has also made a few promising cameos. With a rejuvenated Fabricio Coloccini and the flourishing Jack Colback providing a platform, it turns out the kids are alright.
But that doesn’t make Pardew compelling; he’s that however things are going. That comes from the man himself, from his presence. From his celebrations: almost the right gestures in almost the right places, but all slightly stiff. Like they don’t come naturally. Like they’re product of long hours in front of the mirror, working angles, refining facial expressions, occasionally consulting a well-thumbed copy of Public Expressions of Joy for Dummies.
It comes from the things he says, his intriguing composition of words that forces the listener to be drawn in. This resurgence, for example: “You can only do that if the training-ground spirit is great and you have a fantastic togetherness and a love for each other. It’s about love — it’s about love and putting cover on each other.” Or, on goalkeeper Rob Elliot’s impending child, “Fortunately, the good news is that there seems to be a bit of a lull in the pregnancy, so we’re not on tenterhooks.” Or, on the signing of Remy Cabella, “A lot of work has gone into his signing and I’d like to pay tribute to my staff, in particular Graham, myself …”
Even his table manners, at least according to club photographer Steve Bacon:
When the gaffer sat down with his backroom team, deciding on his order, he asked fitness coach Tony Strudwick what he was getting – and told him he’d take it if it looked good. When the meals arrived, Pards said to Tony, ‘Yours looks better, I’m having that,’ and swapped plates. I told him you can’t just take someone else’s dinner. Pards retorted, ‘When you’re the king, you can do anything’.
In short, it’s not Pardew’s results that make him compelling, he simply is. When Newcastle are going well, he cocks around the walk with all the swagger and confidence of a provincial estate agent who has just sealed another deal and, in the process, moved into pole position for the Employee of the Month award. It will be his third consecutive such triumph. When they’re going badly he’s that same estate agent, only the certificate and bottle of blended whisky has gone to somebody else and he’s entirely at a loss to explain why or how. He knows, however, that it wasn’t his fault.
There is something appallingly captivating about men like Pardew and the way they exist in the world. (At least from safe, neutral distance; God only knows how Newcastle fans cope.) Real life manifestations of the vainglorious pillock archetype that underpins so many of Britain’s most enduring comic creations, most notably Alan Partridge. Not evil, not malicious, not bad in any real sense, but just so overwhelmingly oblivious, so solipsistically swirled up in their own sense of self that it’s hard not to gape, open-mouthed, as they open their mouths and words fall out. “It’s credit to the owner and also credit to me because I’ve had to dig in a few times.”
That’s a man congratulating himself on not having let the fact that he was doing his job badly, get in the way of his continuing to do the job badly. Plenty of managers draw deep from the well of self-belief — it’s almost a requirement, the job being what it is — but few do so with such relentless thirst. Few, too, can match him when it comes to making excuses; slip-ups have, in the past, been blamed on everything from an over-excited home crowd to the Notting Hill Carnival. Some managers make excuses because they have to. Pardew makes them because, you sense, that he genuinely believes them to be the case. They must be! How could they not be?
Ultimately, Pardew is the Premier League’s most compelling manager because he is the Premier League’s most appropriate manager: he might well be the Premier League in human form. Unquestionably the greatest, because the question simply never occurs. An ego lined, inside and out, entirely with Teflon. And, however, you slice it, extraordinarily good television.