Illustration by Sam Taylor
Alan Pardew can be a bit of a prick. Which is often hilarious but also inconvenient at times, given that he's the manager of a club that could do with some help in maintaining a dignified public face. In the past, he has shoved other managers. He has shoved linesmen. He has gone on Match of the Day and described a tackle as a "rape". Earlier this season, TV cameras caught him calling Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini a “fucking old cunt” on the touchline. (In fairness, he is quite old.) And, on Saturday, Pardew – now firmly established as the "bad uncle" of English football – added to his rap sheet when he wobbled his head in the direction of Hull City midfielder David Meyler. Those watching deemed Pardew's twitch to be a headbutt. And now he's fucked.
Robbie Savage condemned the Newcastle manager’s behaviour, calling for a ten-game stadium ban. Graeme Souness described Pardew’s position as “untenable”. Even Alan Shearer, a man who once did his best to decapitate Neil Lennon, said that Newcastle could be forced to sack him. The only person left to jump to his defence was Joey Barton. The fact that none of these men are saints helped transform Saturday night into a modern-day morality tale for football. Yet Pardew remained defiant.
“I don’t think it was a headbutt,” he said after the game. “It wasn’t a motion that was quick.” Which begs the question: If it wasn’t a headbutt, then what was it? Maybe he was just trying to push Meyler away with his head, like a billy goat. Maybe he was trying to nuzzle him, like a submissive lover. Perhaps he was the victim of a severe, involuntarily muscular twitch. Or maybe Pardew was just trying to prove his credentials as the manager of the Premier League's first WWE outpost.
Over the last few weeks, rumours have built linking wrestling mogul Vince McMahon with a takeover of the club. McMahon already owns the biggest soap opera in sports entertainment and now he’s looking for the same thing in a Premier League team. And if there were one club to be bought as an outpost for the theatre and fuckwittery of WWE, it would be Newcastle United. The club is pantomime as it is, as demonstrated once again this weekend.
The Premier League’s most volatile manager in charge of the Premier League’s most volatile club, owned by a man who has staged his own death twice on television. It all makes perfect sense.
If life at Newcastle – with its semi-regular sex scandals, its noise and its sense at all times of being a place ruled by outrage – is basically Jeremy Kyle acted out by footballers, then WWE wrestling is The Jerry Springer Show acted out by porn stars. Brothers bury each other alive, DNA tests are taken to prove bloodlines, newcomers are unmasked as long lost fathers and owner Vince McMahon takes the place of Springer. The storylines are written with the complexity of a knock-knock joke, but what works for daytime American TV also works for WWE, now valued at a staggering $1.25 billion.
As far as we know, no one from Newcastle's "Cockney mafia" has ever buried anyone alive, but apparently McMahon wants to use the club to generate more interest in WWE in the UK and is even planning to use St James’ Park to host wrestling events. That makes sense, too – tops off, hand-written signs aloft; Geordies should be able to switch between football and wrestling pretty easily. And really, there’s not that much difference between punching a horse and slamming a steel chair over the head of a 350-pound guy in a leotard.
Newcastle fans are a unique breed. They’re not really like any other supporters in English football. Their club is awash with cynicism – under owner Mike Ashley, St James’ has become one giant 3D billboard for his company, Sports Direct. At times recently the club has seemed to exist purely to provide a stepping stone to the Champions League for players who know they'll never get there with Newcastle. But for 90 minutes all that is put aside by the Geordie faithful, who revert to an almost childlike state in times of strife, and there’s something admirable about that. Ask anyone at a WWE event and they’ll tell you they don’t care whether the contest is rigged or not. Roland Barthes, a prominent French thinker, once said of wrestling that the primary ethos of the spectacle is: “What matters is not what it thinks but what it sees.”
Well, it’s kind of the same for Newcastle fans. Just like WWE fans, they know that a central pillar of lies and illusion holds up what they’re watching, but it doesn’t matter to them. The same could be said for Pardew – the kind of man who has "Club Foot" in his head even as he's walking down the street on the way to buy a pastry. In the theatre of delusion that is Newcastle United, Pardew is free to shove and to butt to his heart's content, a hard man in his own mind.
Well, not quite "free"; there is of course the £100k fine and the touchline ban to worry about. But even if McMahon is the bad guy for Newcastle fans, you suspect that they would get some kind of intellectual pleasure from seeing the moral mechanism function so perfectly. Look at the way Ashley’s ownership of the club has largely failed to impact attendance at St James’. Geordies are suckers for a narrative, even if it’s one they end up loathing.