Sunday 23 July 2017

Hughton lacked authority

Disagreement over backroom staff sparked rift with Newcastle board. Photo: PA
Disagreement over backroom staff sparked rift with Newcastle board. Photo: PA

Jason Mellor

When, a little over six years ago, he sacked Bobby Robson, Freddy Shepherd admitted he felt like he'd just shot Bambi.

In parting company with such ruthless haste with another of football's good guys in Chris Hughton, Newcastle owner Mike Ashley has acted in a similar manner. Being the hard-headed businessman that he is, however, he is unlikely to share the same sentiment as his predecessor.

It's been too quiet for too long at St James' Park, but the relative serenity with which Hughton had guided the side to a comfortable mid-table standing this season following promotion in May was shattered yesterday when, just five days before he turns 52, the now departed manager received an unwanted early birthday present in the form of his P45.

Newcastle's players queued up to express their astonishment at developments.

Kevin Nolan, Sol Campbell, Danny Simpson and Jonas Gutierrez all admitted to being stunned by the decision, delivered yesterday in a meeting at St James' Park with Derek Llambias, the managing director.

We really shouldn't have been surprised. This is Newcastle United, after all.

"Nothing should really amaze you at Newcastle," said former Toon midfielder Rob Lee. "But this is one thing that does. It's a decision that will bewilder most Newcastle fans."

Strange then that Ashley should use Hughton's lack of experience as his major reason for ending the manager's 14-month tenure. This from a man who brought in Alan Shearer, then with zero managerial know-how, 18 months ago in an ill-fated six-game cameo which failed to keep Newcastle in the Premier League.

"It's not good news," was Shearer's immediate reaction upon hearing of Hughton's fate yesterday. It may have been stating the obvious, but it was an accurate reflection of the mood among Newcastle supporters.

As he searches for a sixth manager in his three-and-a-half-year reign, like many of the big calls during his time at the helm, the decision to part company with Hughton doesn't add up. But after the return of Kevin Keegan backfired spectacularly in 2008, Ashley has long since given up attempting to court popularity.

Only last week, Hughton had to fend off questions regarding the club's senior players enjoying a significant say in his team selection. Rather than experience, perhaps what the Newcastle board felt Hughton lacked was authority. Whatever his management style, though, it seemed to be pretty much working.

What's that about not needing to fix something if it isn't broken? Arsenal, Chelsea and Sunderland, members of the top seven beaten this season by Newcastle, could certainly attest to the north-east club's potency under Hughton.

The former Ireland international's reticence to take on Peter Beardsley -- who will be in temporary charge for the visit of Liverpool on Saturday, as a cut-price assistant following the departure of Colin Calderwood -- had increased tensions between manager and board.

Newcastle had gone five games without a victory, but a little perspective is required. Most supporters would have happily settled for 11th place going into December, a solid return to the big time after last season's Championship title success that went a long way to restoring battered pride on Tyneside.

An eclectic mix of the football community, from Sunderland chairman Niall Quinn to Jack Wilshere, the Arsenal midfielder who came close to joining Newcastle on loan last season, rounded on Ashley while expressing support for Hughton, who will walk into the next decent management job to come available, while he leaves Newcastle with a decent pay-off.

It was by no means all bad news for the affable former full-back, whose personal stock is at its zenith right now.

"Chris is genuine, honest, and as good as you could get," said Steve Bruce, providing further backing from Wearside. "He's a football person and all this saddens me."

The Sunderland manager unwittingly provided one of Hughton's high points, the 5-1 derby victory over their bitter local rivals a little over a month ago.

Even Rio Ferdinand felt compelled to chip in, via Twitter: "Chris Hughton sacked, is this an April fool? He steadied the ship, got them into the Premier League and they're sitting 11th.

"Loyalty in football gets spoken about a lot but how much do you see of it these days?"

After three separate spells in caretaker charge, Hughton took over full-time in October 2009 with the club on its knees. On a virtual pittance for such a high-profile club -- around £500,000 a year -- he led a revival which will forever cemented him in the affections of Newcastle supporters.

But significant sections of the club hierarchy never fully warmed to him, and were instead keen to give greater credit to the players for last season's silverware.

Speculation

Hughton started to fear the worst when, in the wake of frenzied speculation over his future sparked by indiscreet briefings from an influential club source, he received what was at best a lukewarm vote of confidence.

"Chris is our manager, and will remain our manager," the brief club statement released in October read.

Factually, it was correct, but on every other level it started the process which reached such an unsatisfactory culmination yesterday.

More telling was the board's refusal to open with immediate effect contract talks with the man who'd seemingly worked miracles, and whose deal was due to expire this summer.

"We were 100pc behind Chris," skipper Nolan insisted, accurately reflecting the sentiment in the dressing-room.

"I'd just like to take this chance to thank Chris for believing in us when nobody else did," Gutierrez said.

Lee added: "The decision was probably made a little while ago when his contract talks stalled. They've probably been thinking about this for a while and decided they wanted someone more experienced in, but Chris couldn't have done any more."

Had Sunderland not been dispatched in such memorable fashion, followed by victory at Arsenal, the end would no doubt have arrived sooner than it did.

Not even Ashley would have pulled the trigger in the wake of the finest victory over their local rivals in over a generation.

Maybe there is a shred of sentiment there, after all. (© Independent News Service)

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