Pardew stands defiant as play-offs offer another afternoon of torture

The hammers' manager is caught on the anvil of expectation but will not grow twisted, win or lose
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Alan Pardew knows exactly what he will say in the press conference after today's play-off final between the West Ham United side he manages and Preston North End. Win or lose, despite a place in the Premiership, a prize of around £20m and probably his own future being at stake - and that of West Ham itself - it will be said without "bitterness".

Alan Pardew knows exactly what he will say in the press conference after today's play-off final between the West Ham United side he manages and Preston North End. Win or lose, despite a place in the Premiership, a prize of around £20m and probably his own future being at stake - and that of West Ham itself - it will be said without "bitterness".

"If you can't live with it, can't live with the criticism, then don't do it," Pardew says with emphasis. "Don't be a manager. Don't get bitter and twisted about it. That's a big stain on the English game. I still see managers and coaches who are like that and I wonder why they cope. It restricts them."

He knows exactly how he copes. "I have got a tough exterior and that helps me deal with it," he says. "As a player I had a tough time at [Crystal] Palace and managed to win that collection of fans. They were not dissimilar [to West Ham]. London-based, aggressive, partisan. It's not something I enjoy, mind. It's just something that I have experienced before.

"I just try to stay with what I am about, show respect to people and be dignified in my responses. Hopefully, I can have a feeling that I've proved a few people wrong."

It has been hard. He talks about wanting to be a manager for the "next 20 years or so" before adding, only half in jest: "There have been times this year when I was hoping that it was all going to end pretty soon." At Easter he was closer to the sack than anyone ever can be and expect to survive. He survived.

"There's been such a barrage of criticism," Pardew says. "The main thing that I'm hoping is that this becomes a lesson to other managers and players." It's the kind of comment which, he admits himself, has seen him regarded as being "aloof or arrogant". "But I've just tried to stay positive. I get fans and their first line is ,'Oh, you had better win', rather than 'Good luck, I hope you win'. It's almost like a threat I get every time I speak to someone. So I just have to try and see through that and just understand that it's their passion."

That passion can be a scary thing and more than one former West Ham player, not least Chelsea's Frank Lampard, has referred to it disparagingly. The fans at Upton Park are, probably, the most demanding and unforgiving in the country. For Pardew that has been a constant threat as well as a spur since he took over two years ago following relegation from the Premiership and Glenn Roeder's messy sacking. He inherited a club in distress and it did not help that his own departure, from Reading, was not a clean break either.

"I took the job knowing there was a scenario in which I had to reduce the budget, get rid of my best players and still produce a team that was good enough to get out of the division," he says. "I felt at the time I could do that and I've done what I feel is a reasonably good job. I got to the play-off final and I'm there again. But ultimately the only way I can take the club forward to where I want to be and where I want to manage is to get promoted."

The roll-call of departures, just to reduce the debts from £44m to £33m, just to cope with the trauma of relegation, is maddening.

"The memory of those players is drilled into us every Saturday night on Match of the Day," Pardew says. "Jermain Defoe, Michael Carrick and Joe Cole. They are West Ham players and I wanted to manage them. I wanted them here. But ultimately, because of relegation, we couldn't keep them here. But it hurts."

As do the accusations over his stewardship. "We have tried to stay out of administration and been accused of mismanagement and that's been hard to stomach for me as we've managed relegation as best we can," Pardew says, contrasting his experience with the goodwill extended to a less responsible Leeds United.

Equally painful was the defeat in last year's play-off final, to Palace. Pardew could not bring himself to watch the tape again until this weekend and he hopes that a few of his players will want to "put that right.

"I feel there are three or four who played in that final who, looking back, will feel they can play a lot better," he says. He is equally forthright about the fans.

"I did feel last year, in that final, in the last 20 to 30 minutes, that they kind of gave up on us. And that spread to the players. I'm not blaming the fans, but it's important that they use that to make us strong."

Adversity has led to backlashes, outbursts and acrimony. "I have friends in the game who ring me up and can't believe the things that are said about me," Pardew says. "I have to play that down and say it doesn't bother me and I'm just getting on with my job and thanks for the call. I've had a lot of those calls this year, more than I would want. Everyone is in the job for a pat on the back and 'well done'. It's what we all go to work for. But I've not had a lot of that this year."

How quickly it could change. Victory today and "as a manager you understand the implications, win or lose. Most of those people are genuine fans. They are offering their services for low pay - people who work in merchandising, ticketing, stewards. They are the people I want to bring back. I want to get to the Premiership and say to them 'welcome back'."

Little wonder Pardew, now 44, says he is "driven" by a desire to improve. "All the time you are consumed by this job," he says. His only "release" is his wife and two young daughters - "there's nothing like children to de-stress you" - although they have had to be carefully shielded from the pressures this season.

Despite all this Pardew is optimistic. There is, he says, "a better feeling in my gut than I had last time"; he has prepared better, in a more low-key way (the "Moore than a football club" T-shirts have gone and the team only travelled to Cardiff yesterday). And, with young, burgeoning talents such as Mark Noble, Marlon Harewood, Nigel Reo-Coker, Anton Ferdinand and Elliott Ward to call on he feels "that these are players where our future lies".

If they fail, he says, he hopes to keep the team together and expects to win the division next year. If the team is broken up it would be "not impossible but very, very difficult" to make the step up.

"You manage and you play for days like the one we have coming up," Pardew says of today's final, brushing aside the concerns that he has suffered in the play-offs before. "My record in the last five years is that I took over a team that was second from bottom of the second division [Reading] and we got to the play-off final and got beat. And then we got promoted and went straight into the play-offs, which no one expected. So that was a tall order. And then last year I was there with West Ham. I don't feel a failure. It has been a positive, getting teams there against the odds."

After all, the play-offs provide his greatest memory as a player. "Everyone thinks it would be the FA Cup final [when Palace lost to Manchester United after a replay in 1990]," he says, "but the play-off win, when we beat Blackburn [the year before], that was probably my fondest memory in football. It was probably my best game. The Cup final was not a game I won." The former midfielder did score the winning goal in an epic 4-3 victory over Liverpool in the Villa Park semi-final.

A great student of the game, Pardew has just read the book on Jose Mourinho written by the Portuguese journalist Luis Lourenco. He was impressed.

"I really think he might drag us all to a new level," Pardew says. Tellingly, he then adds: "The one advantage he has, of course, is that he brings a Latin warmth to the players. It's very rare that you see an English coach embrace the players the way he does because it's so unfamiliar to us. I think if I got cuddled by someone who had just won the European Cup then I would be walking on water too."

Win today and it might be something he does anyway.