Humble Hughton's downfall all in the game


SOCCER:Newcastle’s famous supporters had no chance to bid their old manager farewell and they are dumfounded by Pardew’s appointment, writes MICHAEL WALKER

‘PEOPLE ASK me if I have any bitterness towards the club but the fact that I’d been there so long and I knew some time I would go, it means you’re half-prepared. But there’s a lot of people I never got the opportunity to see before I left.”

Chris Hughton said that in a portakabin at the Newcastle training ground in March 2008, a few months after being invited by Kevin Keegan to join the coaching staff at St James’ Park. Hughton spoke to The Irish Times about his arrival in the North-east after 33 years at Tottenham, man and boy.

The interview coincided with Newcastle going to White Hart Lane. Hughton explained he had never been in the away dressing room before at Tottenham. This would a first. He envisaged it being “surreal”.

Hughton also talked about the night he and Martin Jol were removed from Spurs by the hierarchy and replaced with Juande Ramos and Gus Poyet. That was the previous October at the end of a European game against Getafe. The widespread feeling that Jol and Hughton had been treated brutally stemmed from stories of Ramos’s arrival having been in the papers and from the fact that both men did not see the end coming that particular night.

So Chris Hughton knew all about the public pain of professional football before this week. More significantly he also knew the machinations of football clubs, he knew we in the media and the public in general see mainly what is placed on the stage in front of the curtains. He knew that 90 per cent of what really goes on is backstage. He outlasted enough managers at Tottenham to know that.

Other things he knew were that the men who have seized Newcastle United and run it like a private club control all the power and have their own thoughts on football, finance and Newcastle. Hughton saw Keegan compromised and constructively dismissed, as a tribunal confirmed, he saw Alan Shearer appointed too late and then left dangling when it proved to be so.

If Hughton objected to the treatment of either man, he didn’t shout about it from Tyneside’s rooftops. All part of the game.

Hughton inherited what remained and if we take a deep breath for a moment, stand our concept of logic on its head and think as perhaps Mike Ashley might think, then we may have some idea of why Hughton will be watching Newcastle-Liverpool on TV tonight.

According to Ashley, Newcastle had the fifth-highest wage bill in the Premier League when he arrived. As a businessman, presumably he thought that should mean they should finish fifth as a minimum requirement. And as a ruthless, ambitious businessman, Ashley probably thought Newcastle should be punching above their weight in wages.

Due to no little interference from himself, of course, Newcastle didn’t. In two seasons at St James’ Park, Ashley oversaw the biggest relegation since Leeds United.

What will have caused him extra stress was that the wage bill remained enormous. Even after Shay Given, Obafemi Martins, Sebastien Bassong, Mark Viduka, Habib Beye and Michael Owen departed – bringing in a haul in transfer fees – Ashley’s Newcastle still had a bloated wage bill.

And now they were in the Championship playing Scunthorpe, whose turnover would represent a tuck shop at St James’.

Using Ashley’s rationale, Newcastle would win the Championship by miles because they had the biggest wage bill in their new division, by miles.

There were times when you saw teams turn up at St James’ and they’d clearly be thinking this was their cup final, just not in a competitive sense. Visiting players would be taking pictures of each other on the pitch before their warm-up. They thought they would lose and they did. They’d played at St James’ though.

Ashley doubtless fumed about having to watch the likes of Peterborough United. He will have thought his wealthy, experienced squad should stroll to promotion.

As that gradually developed he may have shared the opinion that emerged from the dressingroom occasionally that it was self-governing.

Given Newcastle’s resources and the timidity of some of the opposition, you can hear Ashley saying ‘any muppet manager could beat this lot’.

Is that what he thought of Chris Hughton? Did he think that with the squad at Newcastle’s disposal, anyone could have organised victories against such opponents? Apparently Ashley did.

Judging by some of the opinion carefully leaking out of St James’ in the past few days, Ashley viewed Hughton as a coach, not a manager, even on recent days such as when Newcastle won at Arsenal.

Cheick Tiote, signed from FC Twente in the summer, played very well that day. After the game Hughton talked about Tiote being his signing, of how the defensive midfielder had first come onto his radar a couple of years ago.

One of the other leaks from St James’ this week said Tiote was bought above Hughton’s head.

A divergence of opinion like this falls into that 90 per cent category that we don’t see. You just don’t know if it counts, or how much it counts.

Here’s the difficult-logic bit: what happens if the leak is correct? What if Ashley is also correct to think that Newcastle would have won the Championship with anyone in the dugout, that it was down to the players more than what Hughton did?

What if he is correct to think that Hughton’s dressingroom popularity stemmed from a lack of confrontation?

What if he is correct to think that after no wins in their last five games and with a hazardous run coming up, Hughton was not the man to protect Newcastle’s Premier League status? What if Newcastle had lost to Liverpool tonight under Hughton? What then?

Scratch beneath the surface on Tyneside and the respect for Hughton the man, and there is some recognition, if not agreement, with this train of thought. But it ignores too much, such as Newcastle 5 Sunderland 1.

The trouble for the arrogant ownership is there is no agreement with Alan Pardew replacing Hughton. That has dumbfounded and angered a city.

The trouble with the notion of self-governing teams is when they stop hammering happy-to-be-here clubs like Scunthorpe and Peterborough and start losing at home to flinty outfits like Blackburn Rovers and Stoke City. Then, it seems, the man in the dugout matters more.

And the trouble for Newcastle’s famous support is they had come to like the soft-spoken, ego-free stability that Hughton represented.

And like Hughton and Jol that night at White Hart Lane, they hadn’t seen this coming, not this week. There was no time for farewell.