Manager cannot afford to underestimate bombastic director of football who is shrewd and ambitious
Joe Kinnear was struggling to hold back the tears and no one in the room knew quite what to do. "It's a tragedy," said Newcastle United's then manager before explaining that his only son, Elliot, had been diagnosed with terminal cancer.
Four-and-a-half years on, and two since Elliot's death at the age of 40, Kinnear is back at St James' Park as director of football. Widely portrayed as a human hand grenade on a mission to oust the manager, Alan Pardew, his appointment appears a whim of Newcastle's owner Mike Ashley. Following close in its wake has been the sudden resignation of Derek Llambias, the club's managing director.
While the 66-year-old's capacity to create confusion and court chaos should not be underestimated, Kinnear can also be seen as a vulnerable figure raging against the dying of the light as he strives to reclaim a place in a football firmament which had all but forgotten him.
When Kinnear left Newcastle in February 2009 after being rushed into hospital for major heart surgery he begged Ashley to hold the manager's job open until his recovery. Doctors swiftly overruled that notion and, when a subsequent brush with septicaemia left Kinnear again in hospital and seriously ill, enforced retirement beckoned.
Fast forward 18 months and the one-time Tottenham Hotspur full-back and Wimbledon manager has instead not only returned to fitness but regained sufficient swagger to have been dubbed "Domestos" by Newcastle's stunned staff. Ashley, who is understood to have recruited Kinnear against all available advice, has apparently asked his old north London drinking pal to "clean up" a club which skirmished with relegation last season following a fifth-place finish in Pardew's first full campaign.
Like bleach, the new director of football threatens to prove a corrosive agent. Alan Shearer was far from alone in feeling that Newcastle, the world's 10th–best supported club, had been reduced to "a joke" by a cringe-inducing radio interview Kinnear gave on Monday night.
Among the selected highlights were a series of boasts – that he was "more intelligent" than Newcastle supporters and is constantly on the phone to Arsène Wenger – along with a litany of falsehoods and mashing of player's names. Kinnear, wrongly, claimed credit for the signing of Tim Krul before renaming Yohan Cabaye "Yohan Kebab".
Amusing to some, such pronouncements prompted pronounced unease in the north-east. How on earth was Kinnear suited to a post that demands discretion, meticulous attention to detail and accurate, crystal clear, communication? It was impossible to ignore the sense of seething resentment and festering anger in a man apparently unable to accept that the days when he helped Wimbledon enjoy seven successive Premier League seasons are long gone.
Numerous sixtysomething managers, Wenger included, emphasise that age is no barrier to modernity but Kinnear's infamous 2008 rant at reporters – when he swore 52 times in six minutes – betrayed a character stuck in a time-warp.
His claim last Sunday – when he announced his new post 48 hours before Newcastle confirmed it – that "Geordies just want Geordies in charge" was not only inaccurate but exhibited appalling ignorance of a region which, as Pardew has learned, is much more cosmopolitan than many southerners imagine.
In normal circumstances Pardew v Kinnear would be no contest. Fifteen years younger, sharp and streetwise, Newcastle's manager should be running rings round him but the elephant in the room is Ashley. For whatever reason – revenge on Pardew for possessing the audacity to criticise his stewardship of the club after a poor season, self-destructive impulses or plain boredom – Newcastle's autocratic owner has installed Kinnear as his eyes and ears and the manager must tread carefully.
Behind all the bombast Kinnear possesses a certain warmth and shrewdness that appeals to some players. "Kebab-gate" reportedly offended Cabaye but his team-mate Steven Taylor says he likes Kinnear and enjoyed working with him. This, after all, is a man sufficiently resourceful to have coped with life as a coach in India, Nepal, Malaysia and the United Arab Emirates.
A strong start to the season ahead seems imperative for Pardew. Particularly considering Kinnear's words of June 2012. "I would consider a director of football role," he mused. "But I would do that for one reason … to get back into management. If the manager got the old tin tack I'd tell them I'd take over."
Emotionally fragile Kinnear may be but Pardew cannot afford to underestimate him.