All things considered, it has not been a great week for Alan Pardew.
On Sunday, his Newcastle United side was so comprehensively undone by Liverpool, which scored six goals without reply at St James' Park just a couple of weeks after the 3-0 home defeat to Sunderland that was supposed to be the season's nadir, that he again had to swat away questions about his job security.
Rumors about a rift in the squad, between a sizable French-speaking contingent and the rest, have caused unnecessary grief. And Saturday's trip to Upton Park is as ripe with further potential horror as it is with the possibility of that extra-special fist-pumping elation that comes with putting one over one's former employers.
No, he's not having a terrific time of it. It does not seem like that along ago that everybody was having a good old chuckle at the Newcastle manager's new nickname, Alain de Pardew, coined in response to the increasing number of players being signed to the club from the French leagues. Having brought in Mathieu Debuchy, Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, Yoan Gouffran and Moussa Sissoko (as well as Swiss defender Kevin Mbabu), Newcastle enjoyed a post-transfer window bounce, winning four in a six-match stretch that included a thoroughly entertaining 3-2 win over Chelsea. Haw-he-haw, Alain de Pardew, ho ho ho! But a run of one win in the last six matches, during which United has scored three and conceded 16, has stopped the laughter.
While a significant portion of fans are questioning Pardew's tactical know-how, or lack of it -- as well as wondering about the wisdom of the famously long (eight-year) contracts given to the coaching staff last fall -- the principle focus of the press has been the impact of those Francophone imports.
Since signing Cheick Tiote from FC Twente in the summer of 2010, Newcastle has added more than another dozen French speakers (though Demba Ba has since moved on to Chelsea), a pattern that has proven impossible to ignore as commentators seek some explanation for the struggles of a team that at this stage last season was 25 points better off and battling for a top-four place.
"Alan Pardew really likes the French mentality," Ba told radio station RMC in February, but it is precisely this that has come under question. Highlighting the visible exhaustion of some players and silly mistakes from others during that trouncing by Liverpool, the Guardian wrote: "These problems are exacerbated by the presence of five January imports from France's Ligue 1 who, while technically accomplished, look to have suddenly been hit by extreme culture shock."
Sky Sports pundit and former Manchester United player Gary Neville suggested that the makeup of the team now threatened to "rip the heart out" of the club. There have also been suggestions in a number of newspapers that the young French players simply lack the motivation or the stomach for the fight.
"I just find that accusation insulting," Pardew said, ahead of Saturday's match against West Ham United, where former Newcastle manager Sam Allardyce has professed himself to be pleasantly surprised by how well his side has performed this season. With three games to go, the Hammers are in 10th place. Former Newcastle striker Andy Carroll, on loan from Liverpool, is playing well enough to have England staff watching him once again.
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"If you think because some of our players are from a foreign country that they're not bothered, it's just ridiculous," Pardew went on. Landing on the club's website on Friday, you find a large advertisement for "French player t-shirts," chief among them one featuring Hatem Ben Arfa, recently linked with Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and Paris Saint-Germain and unhappy about it, too.
The club's message is clear. "It's unfair on a group of young players from France who've done everything they can to settle in here. They are quite hurt by it. Of course they are bothered."
The suggestion that the French speakers had formed a dominant clique to cause tensions in the squad prompted statements this week insisting that there were no such problems. "We have a strong bond and we want the best for our club, our manager and our wonderful fans," said Papiss Cisse. "There is no divide in the team."
Though he did say that the need for interpreters can make his job a bit more difficult, for Pardew the bigger issue is that circumstances have forced him to throw players in sooner and for longer than he would have wanted to. "Massadio Haïdara, for instance, wasn't expected to play at all this year," he said. After just a season and a half in Ligue 1 with Nancy, the 20-year-old Haïdara began his loan spell with Europa League trips to Metalist and Anzhi, a not insignificant shift in pressure. As Gaël Bigirimana (the 19-year-old signed from Coventry last summer) put it: "Sometimes I've suffocated."
"Between us, we lack experience," Pardew said. "Heavy defeats break your spirit and that's happened to a few of my players."
Newcastle has found all sorts of ways to lose this season, but the emphatic nature of some of the most recent defeats makes for a toxic combination with the coming of the end of the season. Pardew's side is five points clear of Wigan Athletic in that final relegation spot, but there are three games remaining, and Wigan has a knack for using them wisely. Newcastle does not want to see what happens to its young players if that gap gets too tight.
Tiote has said that the players need to come out fighting against West Ham -- as a show of strength in the face of such scrutiny as well as to secure some valuable points.
"At the moment, it's not just about talent," he said, "we need to fight for our lives."
His manager, though, would prefer the players keep their heads: "I don't need my team to play angry on Saturday. You can't just get carried away and think that this is a fight. It's not a boxing match, it's a game of football. You need to have a calm head and you need to play."
Pardew will be glad to welcome back Fabricio Coloccini, the cool-headed club captain who has been missing since injuring his back at the end of February, for Saturday's game. He is a class above Newcastle's other center backs, and with Carroll the opposition, he is needed. Newcastle wins 31.6 percent of matches with Coloccini in the side compared to 25 percent without, and though stats only give a partial picture, the fact that Newcastle scores twice as many goals when Coloccini leads the backline suggests his leadership and composure on the ball gives the side fresh impetus. And how they need it.
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