Wednesday 22 March 2017

Football's Cartoon Army goes off the wall and off the wagon

Dion Fanning

They just couldn't keep going. Newcastle had been doing so well but now we've got our old club back. Last week the club of vaudeville, the club of Boumsong & Bramble, of Freddy Shepherd and now of Mike Ashley, returned.

Ashley may be despised by the Newcastle United fans with good reason, but for those who have grown fond of the club's capacity for comic self-destruction, last week he acted with good authority.

Chris Hughton was a force for good, a sane voice. But Newcastle United, or at least the men who have run it, have a louder inner voice. It despises this sanity. It demands risk and adrenaline. It wants to shatter the peace.

In its time, this fantasy was in keeping with the supporters' view. "Expect Anything," Kevin Keegan said on one of his many turns as Newcastle manager. He said it with that impossible hope that was his trademark. These days "Expect Anything" is an iron bar smashing down on the heads of Newcastle supporters.

All they have left from the days when Keegan allowed them to dream is the unpredictability. Now it is the unpredictability of the dictator. They fear anything, they no longer expect it.

Hughton seemed to be fixing this. They may not have been consistent but they had won at Arsenal, beaten Aston Villa 6-0 and destroyed Sunderland. He was allowing Newcastle to walk with its head high. But all that good living will only take you so far. Newcastle had other plans, Mike Ashley had other plans.

Fittingly, Freddy Shepherd came along to back Ashley's judgement. Freddy pointed out that, hell, Chris Hughton was a nice guy but nice guys don't win anything. He forgot one thing: no guys win anything at Newcastle United.

Hughton even had the look of an addiction counsellor. He seemed aware that every word he said could cause a disproportionate reaction so he said very little. He brought calm. He allowed senior players like Kevin Nolan influence, an action which suggested it was time to develop some maturity. Maybe time even to take some responsibility.

It was no coincidence that, in this environment, men like Joey Barton, who are prepared to change, developed. Hughton said very little when there was an hysterical reaction to Barton's punch into the chest of Morten Gamst Pedersen. Hughton understood the difference between perspective and projection.

He brought that strange thing: peace, and it was never going to last.

It was inevitable they would go this way. Deep down, they didn't believe those who told them they were doing so well. They missed the adrenaline and the fact that there was no shame didn't compensate. So they just said, "Fuck it" and decided to tie one on. A binge would solve everything.

The defeat to West Brom provided the context. The itch had to be scratched. Now Newcastle are back on a jag.

Ashley was following in Shepherd's tradition. Shepherd talks about the time he sacked Bobby Robson and says it was like shooting Bambi. He makes it sound like a cruel but necessary act but it was only necessary if you think employing Graeme Souness was a good idea.

So Shepherd rolled out to support a pal. He is the guy sitting at the bar bereft when his friend gives up the drink. Last Monday, Newcastle said to hell with all this goodness, all this clear-eyed nonsense and gimme that bottle. Shepherd was there waiting.

For a moment, when Martin Jol walked out of Ajax simultaneously, it seemed that Newcastle had planned. It was ruthless but it made sense. Jol wasn't interested. Sources said he had too much respect for Chris Hughton. And probably not enough for Mike Ashley.

They wanted a more experienced manager than Hughton and instead they ended up with Alan Pardew. Pardew might have achieved slightly more than Hughton, but he hasn't done as much as he likes to believe he has.

Memories and drinks don't mix too well and by the end of the week, Newcastle again was full of remorse. They had a new manager but this time it would all be different.

This time change was going to come. Newcastle was never going to do anything crazy again. They were the alcoholic swearing he would never drink again.

How do we know they're going to change? Well, there's a five-and-a-half-year contract for kick-off. Who does something like that if they aren't serious about doing things differently. They had made the meaningless grand gesture, determined that you should forget that they had made plenty of meaningless grand gestures before. Their mouth keeps writing cheques their butt can't cash.

Ashley has let it be known that he will be sticking with Alan Pardew through "thick and thin". In places where they talk sense about this type of addictive behaviour, they'd tell you not to start anticipating some future crisis or wondering how you will handle some potential event on an imagined horizon. Help me make it through the night, baby!

Pardew managed to look sheepish on Thursday as he searched for reasons to explain why he had this job at this time. Everybody else understood. Freddy Shepherd understood.

Geniuses do what they must, so do the self-destructive. Newcastle are fundamentally unreformed. They see no problem with the big gesture, the sweeping statement even though they have done these things before and now they expect different results. Some would call that insanity.

Alan Pardew is said to have developed a friendship with the Newcastle director Derek Llambias in a casino. These relationships have strong foundations. Newcastle United just got married at the Elvis Chapel in Vegas.

dfanning@independent.ie

Sunday Independent

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