Sport Soccer

Saturday 27 May 2017

'Fans always take to you if they like what they see on the pitch'

Brian Viner talks to Chris Hughton as he looks forward to a Premier League management baptism of fire tonight

The most interesting thing that Chris Hughton reveals about himself during the course of our interview comes right at the end, in a comment not to me but to the photographer who wants to snap him under the gigantic photograph, on the wall opposite his desk, of Bobby Robson.

"Can you make sure I look like a football manager, not like ... a model," says Hughton, and at first I think idly that chance would be a fine thing, on the basis that the 51-year-old Newcastle United manager, while a perfectly nice-looking fellow, is not exactly catwalk material.

It is only when we are leaving the club's training ground at Darsley Park, that the significance of Hughton's anxiety strikes me.

He worked under three Newcastle managers -- Kevin Keegan, Joe Kinnear and Alan Shearer, two of them Gallowgate gods -- before landing the job on a permanent basis himself, but of course its permanence is only at the whim of owner Mike Ashley, who is nobody's idea of a safe pair of hands. So maybe it is no wonder that Hughton, brilliantly as he did in guiding Newcastle to the Championship title, remains just a little insecure about looking the part as a new Premier League campaign begins.

Then there is that photograph of another Gallowgate god, far bigger than life-size, and hung, Hughton tells me proudly, at his own request.

The Toon Army would approve of such a picture of Bobby Robson. But I can't help wondering whether Harry Redknapp works under a vast picture of Bill Nicholson.

Does a 10ft Bill Shankly gaze down at Roy Hodgson's desk? Does David Moyes toil in the shadow of Howard Kendall?

In short, what kind of manager wants an image of one of the most illustrious of his predecessors to loom quite so large in his office?

A manager sure of his place in the scheme of things, or a manager eager, arguably over-eager, to show that he has embraced the spirit of the club?

Either way, when Hughton shakes Alex Ferguson's hand at Old Trafford this evening, we must hope that his thoughts are not straying to the Sky cameramen, wondering whether they are making him look like a top-class football manager in his natural habitat, or a decent coach labouring out of his comfort zone.

Whatever, with tonight's challenge in mind, I ask him whether he smiled or flinched when the fixture list came out, and he saw that Newcastle's first game back in the big time was Manchester United away.

"Ironically, it's the same (opening) fixture we had two years ago," he says. "We were able to get a very good draw on that occasion, which is a very good result at Old Trafford at whatever time of the season. I was quite keen to get a home fixture the first game of the season. That's what you want, having just been promoted. But yeah, I must admit I had a little bit of a smile."

Looking beyond tonight, I tell him that I recently spent half an hour or so discussing Newcastle's prospects this season with one of the club's most devoted fans, cricketer Steve Harmison, and that Harmison couldn't see where the 50 or so goals are going to come from that his beloved Magpies will probably need to stay up.

"Well, it's about getting points," Hughton says, equably. "And there are different ways of getting points. Whether you're offensively good, capable of scoring enough goals to win enough games, or resilient enough not to lose too many.

"We were a strong team in the Championship and, although there were things we got away with that we won't get away with this season, what we did have, and still have, is a lot of leaders on the pitch.

"We were able to go to tough places and grind out results playing different types of games. We were able to mix it with the Sheffield Uniteds, the Prestons, the Crystal Palaces, but also show enough quality to go on and win the game."

Which is all very well, but the Bramall Lanes, the Deepdales, the Selhurst Parks, are not to be confused with the Old Traffords, the Stamford Bridges, the, erm, Emirates.

"Yeah, and I'm realistic enough to know that getting points from Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United, is going to be tough. There is a group of teams we need to get our points from. But I take heart from what Birmingham and Wolves (two of the promoted teams) were able to do last season, without making major changes to their squads."

Merely staying up should be enough to satisfy Harmison and his fellow supporters this season, but it won't do forever, not for a club of Newcastle's stature.

"It is everything I thought it would be," says Hughton, referring to his perception of the club when he first uprooted from the south-east. He had been assistant to Martin Jol at Tottenham Hotspur, the club where he spent 13 years as a player, and later did three stints as caretaker manager.

leading

At Newcastle he was also caretaker three times before Ashley gave him the job permanently, so again, it's little wonder that he wants to look as though he belongs on the big stage, leading man in his own right at last after so many goes as understudy.

I have heard that it was the then-director of football Dennis Wise who first approached him to become first-team coach at Newcastle, but Hughton insists it was manager Kevin Keegan, whether because it was indeed Keegan, or because he wishes not to be tainted by association with Wise, a man still reviled by the Geordie faithful, I don't know.

"I had a call from Kevin asking me if I was interested to be part of the coaching staff," he says firmly. Following Keegan's departure, and again after Kinnear had his heart attack, and once more when Shearer decided not to extend his managerial career, Hughton took temporary charge.

So how ambitious was he as caretaker (which, incidentally, has always struck me as the most unfortunate of words for a temporary football manager, evoking overalls, mops and buckets)? Did he yearn, on each occasion, to see his own name permanently fixed to the door?

"The period I had at the start of last season, when I took the team through pre-season, that was the only period in a caretaker role when I genuinely felt that if I did well enough I had a good opportunity to keep the job. Before then I felt very much that it was just a caretaker role. Have I been ambitious for management? Yes I have, but it has never been the most important thing for me. My priority has always been to do the best possible job in whatever role I'm in."

Hughton smiles. He is widely, and rightly, regarded as one of football's genuine nice guys, but I fancy I see a slight wince when I mention this. After all, niceness is not one of the main qualities a chairman wants in his manager; on which subject, how does he get on with Ashley?

"We have a good relationship. We don't see Mike down here every day, but he does make the effort to get here when he can." Which is how often? "Last season about once a week, to see myself but also to see the players."

As for those players, how easy does a man as nice as Hughton find it to lay down the law? Hell, even Graeme Souness found it hard to enforce discipline at Newcastle.

"Well, every manager has to take his personality into the job that he does, but irrespective of that personality you have to be aggressive when you need to be.

"Everybody does it in a different way. The most important thing is that you can make tough decisions, discipline people when you need to, but also create a spirit to get the ultimate thing you're aiming for, which is winning enough games."

And does he still feel, last season's success notwithstanding, that he needs to win over the fans?

"The answer to that is yes, but not because I'm not local, or because I have no playing affiliation with the club. The supporters will always take to you if they like what they see on the football pitch." And what will that be this season?

Hughton tells me he watched the World Cup with great interest, admiring the way the Spanish keep the ball, but how do you do that without world-class players in your team?

"Well, you have to go into each game in this division playing the type of football that is going to get you something, whether a win or a draw. If that means compromising a little bit on the way you would like to play, that's what you have to do."

His mentor, he adds, was Keith Burkinshaw, Spurs manager from 1976 to 1984 who, in what would be standard practice now but caused a sensation back then, imported Argentines Ossie Ardiles and Ricky Villa following the 1978 World Cup.

"I wasn't in the first team then, but it had a big influence on everybody at the club. And the way those two played meant that the team had to play a certain way. They had wonderful offensive qualities."

The word 'offensive' has two meanings, I muse, which brings me to the tricky issue of racism in football. Hughton is the only black or mixed-race manager in the Premier League, with no immediate prospect of any others entering the fray. Does this trouble him?

"Well, you certainly don't see anywhere near the quota off the football pitch that you see on it, although when I speak to the FA, I can see that strides are being made to encourage young coaches from ethnic minorities.

"In the past there have been barriers (stopping black men becoming managers), even to the degree of what we've seen on the terraces (by which I presume he means overt racism in the boardrooms).

"But there has been a vast improvement in social problems regarding the colour of a person's skin. The black players today don't have the difficulties that black lads had in the past."

That he had? "Yes." At certain grounds in particular? "Yes." Which ones? "I wouldn't like to say."

This is entirely characteristic of Hughton, waiving the opportunity to name and shame those clubs that harboured the worst of the racists in his playing days.

Nor, when I ask him what the man on the wall behind him meant to him, is he willing to elaborate on the recollection that in every conversation with Bobby Robson he learnt something.

Such as? "Oh, just things about the team, or man-management."

He is a frustrating fellow to interview, the exact opposite of Robson, in fact. But by all accounts the great man admired him, and that's good enough for me.

Whether he will be good enough for the Premier League, only the next 38 games will tell. (© Independent News Service)

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