10.06.12

Newcastle decides to give stability a try.

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During the Premier League era of English soccer, Newcastle United has often carried a well-earned reputation as a hub for drama.

In 1995 the club’s manager, Kevin Keegan, stood on the steps of St. James Park to answer to fans for the club’s decision to sell its star striker to Manchester United. Moving forward a decade, a fist fight between two teammates during a game earned each a red card. And that was all before the numerous protests by fans against the club’s current ownership.

So it always seemed fitting that the film “Goal” was set in Newcastle: while the club has produced its share of striking legends, it has also created the kind of spectacles that even some Hollywood scriptwriters would deem unbelievable. Even as recently as December 2010, after returning from a brief stay in England’s second tier, the Newcastle owner and sports clothing store tycoon Mike Ashley took the decision to fire the much admired manager Chris Hughton and replace him with a man who had recently been let go by a club in the third division — all with seemingly little rhyme or reason.

Just under two years on, however, and the winds of change are blowing through the streets of Newcastle. In June, the club offered an eight-year contract to its chief scout, Graham Carr — the man behind the acquisition of such talents as Yohan Cabaye, Papiss Cisse, and Hatem Ben Arfa. While in theory an impressive example of commitment, the decision to sign Carr to a long-term deal was hardly momentous; he had arrived at Newcastle with a stellar soccer resumé, counting Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur among his previous employers. The same could not be said of Hughton’s replacement as manager, Alan Pardew.

So there was a level of surprise last week at the announcement that Pardew had signed a similar eight-year contract. The offer had even been extended to his back room staff, signaling a potential period of solidity on Tyneside.

In an official statement, the Newcastle managing director Derek Llambias cited both Alex Ferguson and Arsène Wenger as proof that continuity often leads to success. The decision was met with some caution, but ultimately the rationale was understandable. The deal allowed Newcastle a huge piece of leverage should a team try to pry Pardew away, but it also could spare him — and the club — from talk that he is on the hot seat should the team enter a rough patch or underperform.

Pardew was possibly one of the few managers who understood and worked well in the imposed system at Newcastle. Instead of demanding money for new players (which he knew he would not get), he worked hard with the squad he was given. A defender in his playing days, he spent hours on the training pitch teaching his defenders how to operate as a unit, working on their positioning. By naming a settled back five, consistency was achieved — and it yielded results quickly: Newcastle remained unbeaten in the Premier League until late November, when the Magpies visited Manchester City.

With the obvious exception of securing a fifth-place finish last spring, Pardew’s biggest accomplishment was winning over the fans who had been far from convinced of his ability when he arrived. Newcastle fans are often stereotyped as expectant, but their reasoning for being underwhelmed at Pardew’s arrival seemed justified: he had only recently been let go by a team in the third tier amid reports of locker room unrest.

Now well bonded with the club’s supporters, Pardew recently rejected claims that they harbor unrealistic expectations. “The only time I hear the word ‘expectations’ from Newcastle fans is from journalists from the Midlands and London,” Pardew said. “But up north, they know.”

Meanwhile, Ashley’s surprise announcements are starting to receive a move positive response. Many still hold contempt for Ashley’s decision to sell the naming rights to St. James Park, especially since his company, Sports Direct, was the first to benefit from the branding opportunity. (Some local pubs promised free beer to any journalist who stuck with the original name in their copy.) But an expected announcement soon on a new shirt sponsor, who may also take the stadium rights, could give the club room to maneuver.

Far from finished, and still with a significant level of debt to erase, Newcastle has not completely recovered from the mistakes of the past, but it is learning. A significant overhaul of the club’s academy structure, as well as a keen eye towards recruiting talented youngsters like Gael Bigirimana, means that the club is beginning to head in the right direction.

Pardew, at least, seems comfortable in his black and white skin. At a recent dinner with supporters, he was personable and humorous. Still in shock at the length of his new contract, Pardew conceded that if he is to see it out he will need to bring success and also end a domestic trophy drought of 43 years.

That is something few would have predicted when Newcastle was relegated a little over three years ago.