Saturday 29 April 2017

Hughton refuses to genuflect before Newcastle's false gods

Dion Fanning

T hings were quiet at Newcastle United for a while. Perhaps too quiet. This is a club whose image is built on notions of grandiosity and an inflated sense of self-worth. This is a club owned by Mike Ashley.

But this is a club now managed by Chris Hughton. The will to live has been known to drain rapidly from journalists when they sit down for a Chris Hughton press conference.

I have seen members of the press corps get into physical fights if they feel the exclusivity of their quotes with a footballer has been compromised (at the 2006 World Cup, an English Sunday journalist kicked a Mexican reporter who was inching within recording distance of Michael Carrick's mouth). This is not the prevailing mood when Chris Hughton speaks. A Chris Hughton press conference is like a Brotherhood of Man concert. All you can feel is love and sharing, and generosity and despair.

Hughton is a very intelligent man but he has developed his natural reluctance to say anything interesting into a philosophy at Newcastle United. To do this at a club where ambition was measured in bold statements, and success was judged by the crowds at the unveiling of a summer signing, was a masterstroke.

Hughton made Newcastle boring. He has succeeded so far because, apart from his intelligence, he is humble and prepared to let others take the credit.

Many wondered about the wisdom of allowing senior players the authority Hughton granted them when they become a semi-official committee but it worked.

It seems he is not the only one to recognise their authority. Kevin Nolan was treated like football's answer to Peter McVerry when a court placed Andy Carroll in his pastoral care two weeks ago. Carroll is a talented footballer who has the ability to provide the kind of news Newcastle used to enjoy making as well as scoring the goals they need.

When the time comes for a sacking, it will be Hughton who goes, not the players whom he recognised. But Hughton knows that is how football works. He counted them out at White Hart Lane for long enough while he stood by a new man in the dug-out every week.

He has dealt with problems pragmatically. He has been thoughtful, restrained and measured. He has been everything nobody expected a Newcastle manager could be.

And the fans have respected him for it. They had many Messiahs at Newcastle and they had the first, second and third coming of Kevin Keegan so they needed a break.

Hughton could not provide the messianic zeal. He may have understood before the fans that they did not need this either. But this is a different Newcastle story. This is not about the delusion of the supporters but, again, about the failure of Ashley as an owner.

Ashley, the publicity-shy, replica-shirt-wearing, pint-in-one-sinking owner, still needs a return on his investment.

Ashley was once described as "Britain's answer to Howard Hughes" which means he must be doing a lot of hand-washing after he does his man-of- the- people act. He is no Howard Hughes and, even by the standards of businessmen getting involved in football, his decision to buy Newcastle United was a bad one.

Newcastle play Sunderland at lunchtime today and Hughton has spent the week dealing with questions about his future. "My understanding is that I am the manager of this football club," he said. He is smart enough to know that understanding and reason have little to do with football and nothing to do with managing Newcastle United.

The bookies suspended bets on his dismissal and the club issued a statement that didn't create a carefree air of confidence. "It is our intention to re-negotiate his contract before the end of the year," it said.

So, strangely, Hughton is now under more pressure before today's derby. Newcastle's intentions were not enough to breed confidence, they rarely have been.

Ashley might need a manager who can make a bit more noise as well. It is no surprise that the names being linked with the job are from a milieu that can be described as the busted flush brigade of London managers. Men like Alan Pardew and Alan Curbishley know their way around a tv sofa.

Ashley got lucky with Hughton after his experiment with Alan Shearer saw Newcastle relegated. Of course, Ashley might not know he got lucky.

Shearer remains in the background which, as anyone who has watched his television performances will confirm, is the best place for him. He is, it seems, prepared to come out of retirement for only two jobs: Newcastle United and, of course, England.

Gary Lineker put Shearer's name forward for the England job recently, demonstrating that the high-end documentary Lineker made about England's problems was not a waste of money. So Shearer waits for the job he really wants, despite having done it once and relegated Newcastle. This is often reported as "being through no fault of his own".

Shearer only had eight games but his side only won one of them and when they were relegated he reminded people that "we weren't relegated because of today but over 38 games". And people think he's no good with the media.

Ashley waits for a return on his investment and the people wait. Hughton has brought maturity to the club but even those who grow up have the odd childish tantrum every now and again.

After the dark years, and the manic years and the comic years, Hughton has brought seriousness and purpose. There was once a comedy act at St James' Park called Boumsong and Bramble. Now Titus Bramble is solo and thriving at Sunderland.

But there is one man touting for a job right now who would force them back to old ways. There is one man who would bring them on the familiar march of the dispossessed up the hill to St James' Park.

"I would love to manage in the Premier League," Diego Maradona said on Friday. The Geordie Nation can hear the beat of the tribal drums. They may have no desire to hear them but when they bang loudly on that big bass drum, they can't do anything but mobilise.

dfanning@independent.ie

Sunday Independent

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