Friday 19 January 2018

Commitment anxiety sees lads about Toon lapse into old ways

Dion Fanning

There are lots of valid reasons for Newcastle United's slump this season. They overachieved last year. This led to raised expectations, while the Europa League has drained energy and contributed to injuries. There have been criticisms of Newcastle's failure to bring in players in the transfer market and the one major signing Vurnon Anita hasn't impressed.

All these points make sense and, put together, could have contributed to Newcastle's slump. Yet there was another event this season, another moment that jumped out as a decisive event. In the nine games since Alan Pardew signed his eight-year contract, Newcastle have won once.

Clubs like to think they have a strong identity and outsiders always believe any identity is overstated and a sign of a club's delusion. Few could dispute that there is a great energy driving Newcastle United, an energy greater than anything as simple as injuries or the insufficient recovery time when a club plays Thursday and Sunday throughout the season.

It may simply be coincidence that results have been poor since Pardew announced that he would still be at the club in 2020.

Newcastle had won two of their five games in the league before Pardew signed the contract and nine games later they are wondering how it has all gone wrong.

Last season, they were a progressive club, providing an unlikely vision. Football had been taken over by the analytical guys and Newcastle weren't those guys. People thought they knew Newcastle and even though Mike Ashley wasn't one of them, he wasn't a number-cruncher either. He was still trying to fit in on Tyneside with his pint-downing, replica-shirt-wearing eagerness.

All of a sudden, Newcastle were crunching numbers better than anyone. It was a startling transformation, as if Brian Cowen had appeared carrying a yoga mat, studying Sanskrit while talking about harnessing the energy of his chakras.

Yet it worked. Newcastle signed players other clubs were unsure of and they were praised for their scouting network. Now they sign Anita, using the same principles, and they are criticised.

There would be those who would argue that Newcastle went against their own nature by giving an eight-year deal to Pardew. There are those who would welcome anything that hints at stability in an unstable business. There was a logic to the deal in terms of this new Newcastle United, the prudent club that thinks before it acts and crunches the numbers, while all the time encouraging stability. The contract reflected the wise club that Newcastle had become.

But they may have overlooked what can only be called the emotional identity of the club. Like the Irish and other tragic peoples, the Geordie nation exists in a state of flux, moving at all times between a feeling of great excitement which is always tempered by an equally overwhelming feeling of tremendous anxiety. Again, like all troubled peoples, they understand what balance is – they swing by it once or twice a day.

The eight-year deal had echoes of the finest traditions of the club, the big gesture that ends up crippling everyone with its grandiosity.

When Pardew signed the new contract, I wrote that the club had the same sensibility as the alcoholic. The alcoholic may think he is doing everyone a favour when he announces he'll never drink again but the enormity of this promise and even the goodwill that his statement brings with it can become a tremendous burden.

He will think he is promoting stability by swearing off when, in fact, he is causing a psychic shift somewhere within himself. In fact, the more people tell him how well he's doing – "I hear you're never going to touch the stuff again, fair play" – the more he is twitching. He is burdened by this massive statement of good intent which was designed to promote stability and encourage long-term planning.

Last year, few expected much of Newcastle. They had hit rock bottom under Mike Ashley in the Joe Kinnear days but the process was a long one. Free from expectation, they thrived.

This season has been different. There were great expectations. They were now a role model, the club others wanted to be. This was all fine once they took things slowly and kept it simple. Then they acknowledged the club they once were with the grandiose gesture.

It might not be Jim White welcoming thousands to St James' Park to greet Michael Owen but it was something.

In those days, gestures were all they had but in those days they lived for the summer and knew no better. They were men on one tremendous jag and anything was possible. They had the fun, then they had the fun and consequences and, by the time Kinnear rolled into town, it was just consequences, terrible, terrible consequences.

Slowly they rebuilt their lives from that terrible time. They looked well, acted differently and then along came the new proposal, promising stability. They felt good too so they went for it. But the eight-year deal said something. It said: this is it. This is what you have to look forward to today, tomorrow and for the rest of your life – or until 2020 which was pretty much the same thing.

Suddenly the old ways, the wildness and the crazy days didn't seem so wild and crazy. After all, who really got harmed? Were Bramble and Boumsong really that bad?

At least, there was a bit of life with the record signings as they marched up the hill to welcome him or watched on tv as Graeme Souness headed out to the airport to put Emre Belozoglu in a cab.

Now all they had was the promise of stability and a manager who would be there forever – or until 2020.

The guys with the numbers know why Newcastle aren't performing this season. The stats will tell them why they conceded two goals in ten minutes against Stoke on Wednesday. All the theories make sense.

Yet the numbers take no account of the spirit of a club which can't be shown on an iPad, just as the spirit of a man can't be analysed on a computer screen. Something stirred on that September day when Alan Pardew signed an eight-year contract. Newcastle's identity is the most important thing of all.

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