by Richard Brook
“If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you…
…you’ll be a man my son!”
Above are the great words of Rudyard Kipling in his famous poem, If. Those who have seen the film Mike Bassett: England Manager will know that keeping your head can, on occasion, lead you becoming a mason, if you run out of space. The antics in the Newcastle United technical area, on Saturday, were those of someone who could do with heeding Kipling’s wisdom. It was also a showcase for behaviour that would provided a good laugh had it been portrayed by Ricky Tomlinson, as Bassett – instead of playing out for real during a professional football match.
With the media attention the incident has received over the weekend it seems wasteful to devote too many words to the bare bones of the incident. In summary, as Newcastle were leading 3-1 at Hull City’s KC Stadium, the ball went out for a throw to the home side. The ball went into the Newcastle technical area. Hull midfielder, David Meyler went to retrieve the ball and with no evident intention brushed past, Newcastle manager, Alan Pardew. Apparently incensed by the faintest of collisions, Pardew’s response was headbutt Meyler in the face. It was an extraordinary error of judgment on Pardew’s part, and one that ought to have seen him lose his job as manager of Newcastle United.
Pardew remains in situ – and the club say they have drawn a line under the matter. Newcastle have deemed the incident “unacceptable”, issued a warning and fined their manager £100,000 over the incident. Pardew himself displayed remorse and offered little in the way of an excuse:
“It was a heat of the moment thing – I massively regret it. I think I am going to sit down now because that’s two or three incidents I’ve been involved in. I didn’t mean to do anything aggressive but I moved my head and that’s enough.”
The problem is there was not actually that much heat in the moment. Pardew’s team were in control of the game and the last decision was a throw in. It was not even a particularly contestable throw in. Added to that Meyler’s contact on Pardew was not dissimilar to being the last person off a busy commuter train with a platform of people eager to board. The moment would be better described an innocuous.
Pardew has tried to play down the incident: “I have moved my head forward. I have tried to push him away with my head. I don’t think it was a headbutt.”
The dictionary definition of a headbutt is “An aggressive and forceful thrust with the top of the head into the face or body of another person.”
As Pardew himself alludes to this is far from the first time he has become embroiled in less than desirable situations on the touchline. Earlier this season pitch-side microphones picked up a vulgar, tirade of abusive language aimed at Manchester City manager, Manuel Pellegrini. Going further back Pardew has earned himself a two game ban for pushing an assistant referee and a £10,000 fine for an altercation with Arsene Wenger during a 2006 match, while Pardew was manager of West Ham.
If we were talking about a player rather than a manager, while headbutting an opponent would not be any more excusable, Newcastle’s position on the matter would be. Gone are the days when players are sacked for dragging a club’s name through the mud. They are simply too valuable a commodity, in monetary terms, and in terms of their ability and the successes they can bring to a football club. As soon as Eric Cantona remained a Manchester United player, after aiming his famous kung fu kick at a spectator, the boundaries of what a club would tolerate from their stars was redefined. I always found it fascinating that Sir Alex Ferguson, the man who absolved Cantona, went to claim that Luis Suarez should never play for Liverpool again, over a missed handshake during the Uruguayan’s race row with Patrice Evra. Indeed not only did Liverpool stand by their player through this but also when he bit, Chelsea defender, Branislav Ivanovic during a match last season.
For players abhorrent acts are no longer enough to end their time at a club but for a manager they should be. A football manager is the voice of a football club, interviewed before and after every game. A manager’s face, voice and values become synonymous – to the watching world – with a football club during his tenure. The manager is a club’s moral compass dictating how a team will set up to play, including how physically the side will compete with their opponents.
More importantly, within this role, the manager is the person to enforce club discipline. How can Pardew look a Newcastle player in the eye, were he to have to discipline someone for violent behaviour going forward? Will the players even still afford him the authority to do so when they will always have an easy answer of Pardew’s own making? To fulfil this side of the manager’s role, an inch of moral high ground is required. Unfortunately for him, Pardew may well have lost that inch on Saturday.
Beyond this, were these the actions of someone who thinks clearly on the touchline? It is a trite understatement to say that football management is a high pressure job. Under such pressure, a manager is expected to function lucidly, regardless of the score or any other factor, to make constant judgment calls for the benefit of the team. Whatever is going on in the match, the manager needs to be able to, almost objectively, assess the need for substitutions and tactical decisions amongst other crucial decisions. The manager requires a certain clarity of thought to make these calls, and to time the correctly. Alan Pardew’s decision to headbutt David Meyler points to a decision that seems far from clear-headed rather one taken in clouds of red mist.
For a person to headbutt another person is an intolerable act of violence, whatever their profession. For a top football manager who seeks to maintain the respect of his players and the reputation of someone able to make good and instant decisions under pressure, it is professional suicide. Pardew made an absolutely terrible snap decision, and in doing so he behaved in a manner he would not tolerate from a player, and undermined the hard work of his players who, let us not forget, won the game 4-1.
For a manager, such actions are not merely ill-judged and morally incorrect; they call the individual’s decision making in to question. Can a man paid purely to make pressurised decisions be permitted to lose his head in such a disgraceful way? For me the answer is no and Alan Pardew is a lucky man to still be manager at Newcastle United.