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Brendan Rodgers and Alan Pardew, able partners in confounding the nay-sayers, lock horns at the Liberty Stadium
Brendan Rodgers once worked for Alan Pardew but on Friday in South Wales they meet as equals, not to mention rivals, for the Premier League’s manager of the year award.
“When I was at Reading, Brendan was my youth-team coach so I know him very, very well,” says Newcastle United’s manager. “He always had a clear vision of how the game should be played and he’s stuck to his principles. I admire him very much for that.”
If slick-passing Swansea City have confounded everyone who assumed the newly promoted side would return directly to the Championship, Newcastle’s enduring challenge for Europe has made a nonsense of a raft of doom-laden pre-season prophecies tipping Pardew’s players for relegation.
As a former non-league midfielder who joined the professional ranks, with Crystal Palace, relatively late, Pardew is acutely conscious of what he calls “the snobbery” of certain peers who dismiss the idea that unpolished diamonds lurk in the lower divisions.
Much as he was frustrated to see his team held 0-0 by Swansea on Tyneside in December, Pardew derived a certain, perverse, enjoyment from watching Leon Britton, a tactically articulate midfielder who has appeared in all four divisions for the Welsh club, shine. “Some of Swansea’s players deserve more credit than they’re getting,” says Newcastle’s manager. “Leon Britton, Scott Sinclair and Ashley Williams have all been absolutely outstanding.”
Like Pardew, Rodgers â€“ who would later attend football’s equivalent of Harvard by working under JosÃ© Mourinho at Chelsea before managing Watford and Reading â€“ is a demanding, mud-on-boots coach convinced that the devil is in the training-ground detail. “I like players to think,” he says. “I like their brains to be sore after every session.”
After making assorted pilgrimages to study coaching methods at Barcelona, he has modelled Swansea along boldly purist lines. “We’re on a wonderful journey and we believe we have to retain our identity in terms of our style and be a little bit different,” he says. Rodgers himself is certainly not your stereotypical British manager. After spending seven years taking three Spanish lessons a week, he is now fluent in the language and has turned his attentions to mastering Italian.
One day such linguistic skills may secure the 39-year-old a leading European post but, like Pardew, 11 years his senior, Rodgers has had to learn to disguise a sizeable ego.
Yet if, at times, the pair sometimes seemed a little too pleased with themselves, they could never be accused of neglecting to put in the hard yards. While sharing a technocrat’s ability to use statistical analysis as a basis for strategy, their powerful human touches have helped conjure exceptional dressing-room camaraderie.
“We have a unique spirit,” says Rodgers before identifying precisely the same qualities in his old mentor’s new habitat. “Alan’s forged a great team spirit at Newcastle,” he adds. “Alan’s doing a brilliant job at a club which allows him to fully use his talents and where he’s spent money very effectively.”
Considering that Pardew’s inspired signings have largely been foreign, often French-speaking, the strength of the locker-room morale may surprise some. In reality, an insistence that everyone at least attempts to converse in English has encouraged bonding while a series of themed events at the training ground have further broken down barriers.
This season Fabricio Coloccini and JonÃ¡s GutiÃ©rrez have enjoyed the food served during “Argentina Day”. Similarly, last, Friday Papiss CissÃ©, Demba Ba and Cheik TiotÃ© celebrated “Africa Day” by tucking into a lunch of curried goat.
Indeed the atmosphere is so good that even the moody Hatem Ben Arfa flashed Pardew a rare smile as his manager high-fived him following a splendid performance against Liverpool last Sunday. Notoriously “high-maintenance”, the France forward’s is thriving after recognising that the manager’s ability to “think left-field” productively extends to the tactical arena.
“We’ve got a tactical base but, from it, we can turn to a few different systems,” says Newcastle’s manager. “The players bind to anything we put in front of them which is fantastic and doesn’t happen often at football clubs.
“We’ve won our last three games in different ways. At home to Norwich we took the lead, then really sat and dogged it out a bit. At West Brom we opened up our wings, attacked on the break and could have maybe scored five. Against Liverpool we played more complete football.”
While victory would lift Rodgers’s side level on points with eighth-placed Liverpool, Pardew’s team hope to leapfrog Chelsea and go up to fifth. “Swansea play an open game,” says Newcastle’s manager. “They try to stretch the pitch but they give you chances. We’ve got to take those chances.”