Pardew enters The Valley of despair with cautious hope of ending Pavlovian habits

Casualty of the Premiership relegation dogfight returns to the fray after licking some raw wounds. By Mike Rowbottom

And so it came to pass that the manager sacked just two matches after receiving the full support of his new chairman at West Ham took over from the manager who, a week ago, had been assured by his own chairman at Charlton Athletic that he would be in charge until the end of the season. Enter Alan Pardew; exit Les Reed. That's the way it goes in the Premiership these days.

The irony of this latest reshuffle is that it involves two clubs who have previously prided themselves on their old-fashioned values. West Ham, who dispensed with Pardew's services a fortnight ago, have a long tradition of sticking with their managers. And their latest incumbent, Alan Curbishley, was in charge of Charlton for 15 years before voluntarily ending his stay at the end of last season. By his own admission, Pardew experienced a tingle in his tummy when he walked into Charlton's training ground in SE9 yesterday morning to oversee his first session with a group of players who will go into today's home match against Fulham urgently requiring to halt the freefall that has left them almost out of touch at the wrong end of the table. He insisted he had not expected the call which came on Sunday night.

Having sacked Curbishley's successor, Iain Dowie, after just 12 games because the prospect of getting relegated a season before picking up the Premiership clubs' newly negotiated overseas TV bonus of £35m was too much for them to bear, the Charlton board strengthened still further its resemblance to a Pavlovian dog by removing Reed after just eight games in charge, a run that ended with dismal displays against Wycombe Wanderers in the Carling Cup and then at Middlesbrough in the League.

Sitting next to the chief executive, Peter Varney, one of the directors who had spoken up so stirringly for Reed, Pardew took the opportunity to emphasise the challenge he has taken on. Once, that is, he had ensured the withdrawal of photographers whose flickering storm of attention was preventing him concentrating. The last two malingerers were sent scurrying towards the door with a steely stare that reminded all concerned that this generally genial character has a side to him that should never be overlooked. "Our League position obviously is worrying," he said. "It's a tight call. We are going to have to win almost half our remaining games this season, and that's a tough call. The odds are probably stacked against us."

So there it was. Major task. Odds against. And who better, on past experience, to get the club back up again next season? But as Pardew sensed Varney becoming ever so slightly frozen beside him, he provided the required words. "But if I didn't think we could make it," he added, "I wouldn't be sitting here. I don't think there's a lot of money about, but I've always worked well with not a great deal of money before."

For Pardew, who is likely to get only £5m to play with when the transfer window opens next week, the overall position facing Charlton is not novel, given that he has spent most of this season contemplating West Ham's own slide into the relegation fray.

But there will be a more useful sense of familiarity for a man who played for Charlton under Curbishley in the early Nineties. The training ground in Sparrows Lane SE9 - faintly ramshackle, backed with densely packed semi-detached houses - is effectively a south London version of the one in Ilford where he has laboured these past three years. It was there that Pardew himself trained, and displayed a sharp tongue that was noted by his then colleague Garry Nelson in the latter's admirably frank account of Charlton's 1994-95 season, Left Foot Forward.

"Alan's humour has real bite and he shoots really straight," Nelson wrote. "There aren't too many who escape being its target once they've laid themselves open to a corrective put-down." That reputation, already forming in the days when Charlton's players used to meet for training at the Beehive pub just two minutes away from the pitches, ought to leave a number of conspicuously underperforming Charlton players feeling uneasy. But Pardew insisted that criticism was not justified - for now.

"The players haven't disappointed me, have they?" he said. "Because they haven't played under me. I can't judge them until they do. They have got a clean slate with me. That's what happens when you have a new manager. But I'm now the third manager here this season, and I will be letting them know that we don't want to have any more."

If the players have a few weeks', or days' grace, the same could not be said of Varney, whose face displayed the trepidation of a man who knew he was about to be asked to defend the indefensible. His response to the inevitable question of how the views of the Charlton board had managed to shift so completely in such a short space of time was, ultimately, the only one possible. Effectively, he rolled on his back and begged pardon.

"Les has a great affection for the club, and we have a great affection for him," Varney ventured. "What I said to you last week was an honest position at the time. But we had a discussion on Sunday and decided that something had to change. Les was just as anxious as anyone else that something had to change. It had to do with the way we lost the last two games. That's why we've gone back on what we said. I don't like to do that because we are not that type of club."

Asked if the change would have been made even if Pardew had not been available, Varney said: "I think things would have changed following the discussion we had. But it was obviously a huge bonus that there was someone of Alan's calibre available."

Pardew admits he is still "aggrieved" at the way in which he left West Ham. "It was too early," he said, adding that he did not think they were in danger of relegation. "My focus for Charlton is not to catch West Ham, I assure you of that. I think they will do what Newcastle have done and win four or five to be well clear of it. And I hope so."