Wednesday, January 02, 2008

The Unfortunate Torpor Of Newcastle United

It was the strangest thing, but Salomon Kalou's clearly offside goal was so far offside that it kept Sam Allardyce in a job for the next few days or so. The press had been predicting for the last few days that defeat at Stamford Bridge would probably cost Allardyce his job, but Kalou's goal was so far offside that the press focussed on that for a few days, allowing him to postpone his date with the hangman's noose for a few more days. Unless anything enormously disastrous happens tonight against Manchester City, he'll probably still there for this weekend's FA Cup match against Stoke, and it's difficult (even considering their recent form) to see them losing that match. I'd be surprised it Allardyce goes before the end of the season. He's too stubborn to go voluntarily and, if the details of his financial package are correct, he might be too expensive to sack.

I'm not, as you may be aware, a fan of Allardyce by any stretch of the imagination. I think that the much of the praise that he won at Bolton was overstated. His Bolton team was utterly joyless to watch and, whilst I understand that small clubs will always go down the route of making themselves difficult to beat, there will always be a low boiling point in the Premier League - a boiling point at which supporters expect entertainment. Twenty years ago, Wimbledon had perfected their party piece of hitting it long and hard, playing a physical game and scaring the hell out of "better" opponents. Their supporters didn't much like it, but it got them into the top division of English football for more than a decade. These days, though, in an era of £40 match tickets and the constant hubris about the Premier League being "The Biggest And Best League In The World", it might not be enough on its own. For Sam Allardyce, the line between success and failure is a very thin one, and there is no room for error when you're at a big club and not playing exciting, attacking football. Newcastle's supporters may have a long tradition of having been "entertained" (although there is, I think a considerable amount of myth to this - Keegan's 1996 team that blew the Premier League notwithstanding, I don't think that Newcastle United have consistently played "better football" than anyone else in the country over the last forty years or so), but in the realpolitik of the modern game, realising your limitations and maximising them early on can be one of the keys to building success over a period of time.

The problem is that time is the one thing that no Premier League manager has. Unlike further down the ladder, every Premier League match counts. There's no room for error. Newcastle haven't actually been that bad this season (they're eleventh at the time of writing, above such luminaries as Tottenham Hotspur and Middlesbrough), but we already know that Allardyce won't get the two or three years that he needs to lay down his authority at St James Park and set the seal on the way that he wants things to be done. He's costing them millions and millions of pounds, and they won't tolerate two more seasons in mid-table. Fortunately, though, some of the madder elements of the Newcastle support already have a replacement for him already lined up. Alan Shearer.

It's campaigns like this which lead me to the inevitable conclusion that some football supporters deserve anything they get. Shearer is, at the time of writing, taking his coaching badges, but anyone that saw his witless half-time performance on the BBC team during the England vs Croatia match (when his contribution to the attack on McClaren's tactics seemed to be limited to complaining that the players didn't have enough - you've guessed it - "passion") will already know that, however bad Allardyce turns out to be, Shearer will be twenty times worse. Also, Shearer, who has made it more than clear that he wants the Newcastle job, hasn't made any effort to get any coaching experience over the last couple of years. So, replacing Allardyce would be ridiculously expensive and Newcastle fans would be getting someone with no managerial experience that has already demonstrated only that he has the tactical acumen of a water biscuit.

In the harsh glare of the modern football world, even the likes of Newcastle United are now light years away from the top four, and the fact of the matter is that the best that Newcastle can recently hope for in the next three to five years would be to emulate Bolton, Everton or Spurs. Regular UEFA Cup football might not sound like the most exciting thing in the world, but it must be better than whatever the vast majority of the alternatives are. Common sense, though, doesn't often intrude into the rampant egotism and unrealistic pipe dreams of the Premier League - a world in which a club with weekly 52,000 sell-out crowds and an estimated 1,000,000 supporters needs a multi-millionaire in order to secure a regular place in the top ten.


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