Closing the door on decadence
A lack of expectation on Tyneside could be Chris Hughton's best asset this season, writes Paul Hayward
C hris Hughton was not sure he should award the sacred No 9 shirt to Andy Carroll, the 21-year-old local lad who idolised Alan Shearer from his old vantage point on the Gallowgate End. "Some would say it's a bit of a burden around here," the Newcastle United manager says of a garment that would outshine Joseph's coat on the back of a Geordie striker.
Last week at the club's training ground, impish boys were shouting autograph demands to Sol Campbell through a fence and banter was flowing.
Hughton's players were filing in to be filmed for the Sky build-up package that shows Premier League footballers walking towards the camera and then folding their arms NFL-style. The first time we will see these clips is tomorrow night at Old Trafford for the rebirth-by-fire against Manchester United.
At the heart of all this titillation is a leader commonly thought to be a good back-up act until an early apprenticeship as a lift engineer helped him return Newcastle to the Premier League at the first attempt. 'Good coach, not manager material' is an accusation commonly thrown around the English game.
In most European countries there is not the same brutal dichotomy between the trades. Hughton, a veteran of the tracksuit role whose only real experience of first-team management had been in caretaker brown, now finds himself locking antlers with Alex Ferguson as Newcastle close the door on decadence.
There are no Patrick Kluiverts on Tyneside any more. A marquee signing these days is the 36-year-old Campbell. The newly chastened and realistic Newcastle approach their return to the elite as a tight fighting force backed up by fans who are too relieved to be out of the Championship to demand a return to the old circus ethos and £90,000-a-week bonanzas for players who tumble into the vortex of Tyneside's social life.
This is where the No 9 shirt comes in. A jersey synonymous with Jackie Milburn and Shearer retains its symbolism, but no longer carries quite the old itch of expectation. Carroll, who is due in court in October to answer an assault charge, is the local fan-turned-idol at the start of a long road rather than the returning hero Shearer or the expensive Obafemi Martins.
Can Newcastle do realism, or will the Rip Van Winkle of sleeping giants succumb to grandstand pressure for stratospheric progress as soon as the first goal goes in?
Behind Hughton's measured answers can be found a universe of knowledge from his 14 years at Tottenham and two and a half insanely eventful seasons at St James' Park. He speaks as one who saw the door spinning in the night and knew the only answer was to look away, to strip it back to the single-mindedness that has shaped his work since he excelled as a full-back for Spurs and became the first black player to represent the Republic of Ireland while also developing an interest in left-wing politics and the anti-apartheid movement.
To say Hughton is a new manager is a category error because he has assisted a baffling array of actual managers. "As a coach you're able to have better relationships with the players because you're not picking the team," he says, finding the bullseye. Coach: everyone's friend. Manager: enemy, often, to all but the first XI.
When we start discussing his apprenticeship at Spurs we both spot the comedy in having to adapt to so much turmoil, which shifted to another level again as Mike Ashley kept putting Newcastle on and off the market, Dennis Wise worked the angles, Kevin Keegan stomped out, Joe Kinnear succumbed to fresh heart trouble, Alan Shearer was offered eight games to fend off relegation and Hughton himself stood ready with the fire extinguisher.
"In the time I've been here I've seen a fair amount, but what kept me in better stead was the years I had at Spurs," he begins. "I was used to working around difficult situations. The one I worked closest with was Martin Jol, during my last three years at the club. With others there would have been three of us: manager, assistant manager and first-team coach, but in those last three years it was effectively Martin and me, and we were able to have, by Spurs' standards, a successful time.
"Before that Ossie Ardiles brought me back to the club, then Gerry Francis came. At that stage I was still working with the reserves. I learned a lot from Gerry. He was very structured in his team, very organised. I then worked with Christian Gross. He brought a real coaching ethic to the club. Then there was Glenn Hoddle: very tactical, very busy mind. George Graham, David Pleat on two occasions, then Jacques Santini and Martin Jol. So yes, it was a case of adapting round all that."
When Shearer returned to the TV sofa after the club's plunge, Hughton wore the manager's kit almost by default and accepts he was auditioning for his own job in the early weeks of the Championship campaign. "That would be a fair assumption. In the early stage I felt I was still the caretaker manager, and that at any stage somebody else would be given the job. But we got some momentum and there seemed to be a feelgood factor returning to the club. We kept off the front pages for a period. There was a stabilising, and at that point I felt I had a real good chance that they wouldn't bring someone in."
Newcastle's Championship record was won 30, drew 12, lost four. Sounds grand, now, and faintly predictable, given the 52,000-capacity of St James' Park, but to be on the bus to Old Trafford tomorrow Hughton had to exploit the wisdom and tenacity of his senior pros to prevent a psychological bail-out by a squad inhibited by random foreign signings (for example Xisco) and Ashley's coffee-smelling reluctance to carry on immolating his wealth.
The four diehards were Steve Harper, Alan Smith, Nicky Butt and Kevin Nolan. "They were the core, but we also had experienced players from other countries: [Fabricio] Coloccini and [Jonas] Gutierrez, who were big personalities in that group, possibly not as vocal, but certainly in their presence.
"It was important we got off to a good start because we were conscious that eyes were on us. Newcastle playing in a division below was a big deal and a big deal for all the teams we would be playing against. It wasn't a question of convincing the players, because after the start we had they realised the best chance they had of playing back in the Premier League -- as individuals -- was to get Newcastle back up there."
There was no masterplan, except to alter the sense that Newcastle was a place players went to cash in at the expense of bar-coded fanatics. "No, it had to be very reactive, because if I looked at the issues last summer the big one was the ownership of the club," Hughton says.
The squeamishness of potential buyers has placed Ashley in arguably his most advantageous position since he bought the club without realising the extent of its debts. Hughton, though, denies that there is a £25,000-a-week wage ceiling for recruits. "No it's not set in stone, but it's a realisation of where the club is at the moment. The club have looked to bring the salaries down. It's something they had to do.
"The general feel I get from supporters is that they know where we are. Expectation levels have been dampened, which is unusual up here. Yes, that does help. It helps that the fans know it's going to be a tough season."
So unity and spirit are the new Geordie calling cards. But there have been reinforcements: "Sol is the bigger of the signings, in terms of his profile. What he brings to us is a strength and an experience and certainly a knowledge. James Perch is a fairly adaptable player who we were aware of at Nottingham Forest for a while. He gives us flexibility. He can play predominantly in the full-back positions, which is what I've mainly brought him for, but we used him at centre-half in pre-season and he can also play in the centre of midfield. He's a good age and we feel there's still some development in him. Dan Gosling [from Everton] is one we see very much for the future."
No discussion about Newcastle's squad strength can exclude the one-man crime wave that is Joey Barton, who has twice broken a foot in his three years since arriving from Manchester City for £5.7m and has spent time at Her Majesty's pleasure for an assault in Liverpool city centre.
Here Hughton sticks to the football: "Joey's ability has never been doubted here. In my first season here under Kevin [Keegan], when he played in that diamond, he excelled as a performer and a passer of the ball. Of course we know the problem with Joey is him giving us time on the football pitch, and that's restricted his progress. If he's able to keep fit I can see him playing a big part in the team this year."
Hopes are high, too, for Wayne Routledge, an underachieving winger revived by Hughton and for Jose Enrique, another who displayed culture shock in his first spell in the Premier League. Carroll, who was also involved in a training ground altercation that allegedly left his team-mate Steven Taylor with a broken jaw, was last season's top scorer and best exemplifies the Newcastle tradition of headline-spinning chaos.
"He's a player of potential. He still has work to do on his game. He's far away from being the finished article," Hughton says. "But what he is is a 6ft-plus English centre-forward who has a prowess in the air and in some ways is very much a throwback. He'll have ups and downs this season but what he does have in his locker is a desire to learn and a desire to play in every game. He's not a player who has fear in his game. It seemed logical to give him the No 9 shirt, which hadn't been used at all last season. Obafemi Martins was the last. Did the fact that he's a local lad come into it? Yes it did. Did his form last season come into it? Yes. The fact that he wanted the shirt didn't mean I was automatically going to give it to him."
Hughton is so toughened by exposure to football's hire-and-fire mentality that he seems not to mind being the bookmakers' favourite to be the Premier League's first managerial casualty: "I'm a relatively young-in-the-job manager and I can understand those who might feel the club deserve a manager of greater experience."
But his office is no Alamo. He says: "Survival is not a word we like to use here around here."
Manchester Utd v Newcastle Utd,
Sky Sports 1, 8.0 tomorrow