8″We have proved we are comfortable in the top eight, and, one of eight clubs who are on the fringe of the four Champions League positions. Let’s cement ourselves in sixth. Let’s talk in March” – Alan Pardew, December 12, 2015.
As it was, Crystal Palace’s manager could have talked in January, February, March or any other month until now. Alan Pardew is a man for whom falls following pride are an inevitable part of professional life, simply because there is so much pride to go round. This is a manager who, during the good times, has the strut of a smooth car salesman who has just gained his best sale of the year.
Even by Pardew’s own standards, 2016 has been an impressive year of near-constant downward spiral following success. Only Norwich and Aston Villa can equal Palace’s tally for Premier League losses since the the turn of the year; both are in the Championship. Palace’s full league record since a 2-1 away win at Stoke on December 19th, 2015, one week after the above interview answer, reads as follows: Played 22, Won 2, Drew 7, Lost 13. It is almost nine months since they won away from home in the league.
“I don’t think we need to change too much about the side, so I don’t believe we need to get that involved in the transfer window,” was Pardew’s other bold statement in December 2015, a manager confident, if not quite boastful, that he had the aptitude to get the best out of a small squad.
Come August 2016, and those feelings had been turned on their head. Palace may have signed Andros Townsend, Steve Mandanda and James Tomkins this summer, but Pardew believed that far more was needed to make his squad competitive: “I’ll be looking to sign two forwards and also some other positions.” The sale of Yannick Bolasie to Everton only heightens that desire.
You can understand why Pardew is demanding further investment in his squad. Palace’s striker cupboard is worryingly bare, save for the blue food colouring and jar of Bisto granules represented by Connor Wickham’s miserable recent goal record. Negotiations for Christian Benteke continue, and he would vastly improve Palace’s short and long-term prospects. Are Palace’s hierarchy hesitant to more than double the club’s transfer record with Pardew in charge, because of their lack of faith in him taking the club forward? He already accounts for six of Palace’s top seven record transfer fees paid.
It would also be foolish to overlook Pardew’s own role in Palace’s demise. Wickham’s struggles up front are hardly assisted by the questionable tactic of playing the ball long to him, thus bypassing the wingers, Palace’s greatest hope of creativity. It leads to those wingers dropping deep to demand the ball, thus leaving said lone striker isolated and helpless. Wilfried Zaha typically has to beat two or three opponents before reaching the penalty area.
Even Saturday’s answer to this problem, Lee Chung-Yong in a No. 10 position, has a history with Pardew. The South Korean accused his manager of mistreating him during the latter stages of last season: “He made me train as a starter for the whole week and decided to leave me out on matchday as an injured player who had not trained all week recovered and felt OK on the day. That was absurd. He’s too hot tempered in matches, so he even forgets how many substitutes are left. He told me to warm up, then we used all three substitutes, so I sat on the bench again.”
Chung-Yong is not alone among Palace’s squad. Senior players are reportedly upset at the treatment of Mile Jedinak, first frozen out by Pardew before last week being stripped of the club captaincy. Jedinak has now moved to Aston Villa, leaving plenty of anger among supporters who remember the Australian’s service to the club. In a battle between Jedinak and Pardew, plenty would choose their departed captain.
The sale of striker Dwight Gayle was unusual too, given that Pardew himself publicly announced Gayle’s new contract before stating that he would also like to open talks over a new deal. By all accounts no contract had been signed by the striker, who promptly joined Newcastle in July. “To be honest I didn’t speak too much to him about it,” said Gayle when asked by the Newcastle Chronicle of Pardew’s reaction to the move.
Of more concern to Pardew than any transfer market activity is his now infamous ability to fall into a dire run of results, seemingly without warning. At West Ham, a run of five straight victories immediately preceded a seven-month period containing only four wins, a drought that eventually led to his sacking. At Charlton, a team in fifth and competing for a play-off place in March ended the season in 11th, and Pardew was sacked in the November with Charlton in the relegation zone. At Newcastle, Pardew oversaw a superb 2011/12 season, but also had runs of seven points from 13 games and six straight league defeats, scoring one goal in the process. It is as if Pardew is king of the sunshine, impressive when managing in fair weather but unable to find shelter when the rain pours. You suspect he might like that moniker.
Not only is this Selhurst Park rut the most pronounced of Pardew’s managerial career, it also threatens to undermine his future prospects. Having ‘earned’ a Premier League appointment after a League One sacking at Southampton, Pardew initially took full advantage of his fortune at Newcastle. Yet his constant cycle of rise and fall, from Pardiola to ‘Pardew Out’, is as perpetual as the seasons themselves. It’s hard to see how he pulls himself out of this rut.
At Palace, as at Newcastle and West Ham before them, the goodwill Alan Pardew accrued when the sun shone is in danger of running out during a winter of fan discontent. The whispers will grow in volume with each passing defeat. When you’ve seen this same story play out before, it’s an awful lot easier to guess where it’s going next.