The Not-So Special One
Published 13/04/2010 | 05:00
It has been said so many times that Newcastle United are not so much a football club as an extremely bad joke played on arguably the most passionately committed group of fans in the game.
So how is it that having broken all the rules, treated a man like Bobby Robson with a disrespect to chill the blood and driven out all sense of decency and respect, they have returned to the Premier League, under-equipped perhaps to compete at such a level without major investment from owner Mike Ashley, but alive again with all that hope which on Tyneside is, plainly, resistant to all attempts to send it sailing out into the North Sea?
It is because when all else failed, when big Sam Allardyce produced rather more bluster than achievement, when Kevin Keegan's Second Coming was exposed as no more than another romantic misadventure, when even the aura of Alan Shearer failed to break the vice of institutionalised failure, they gave up.
They didn't send still another SOS to some big-name refugee from football employment. They turned to Chris Hughton. They said that maybe a man who had become a candidate for serial caretaking jobs, a man utterly without edge or pretension but someone who knew a little of the game because he had made it his life, would do well enough as the club, hopefully, went under the hammer as Ashley desperately sought to sell.
Even the terms of Hughton's appointment would have affronted many would-be messiahs.
He would be paid modestly by the standards of top flight management -- reportedly around £260,000 a year -- and when a buyer came in, and the TV vans pulled up outside St James' Park to cover the story of which celebrity manager would be given the latest chance to walk the endless road of Newcastle's attempted redemption, Hughton would do what he had always been prepared to do, without fuss or foot-stamping.
He would slip back into the background where so many of his type are prepared to operate, without fanfare or vast reward, because they simply couldn't imagine living without the adrenalin and the passion of football.
But then something quite strange, and perhaps even miraculous in the context of Newcastle's long history of futility happened. Hughton showed that he could manage. He could get the trust of the players.
When Newcastle celebrated their return to the Premier League, key midfielder Kevin Nolan was anxious for Hughton to be given his due.
He said: "He's a great manager and a great fella. Make no mistake, he knows how to lead a team. We have a committee in the dressing-room but when he comes in and tells us that we are doing something wrong, well, that's the end of it."
You have to wonder how many Hughtons occupy the back corridors of football, how many 'unspecial ones' go through a life in the game without hearing the call to glory.
We do not really know if Hughton can handle the pressures of a full Premier League season, how well he might surface from a bad day at Stamford Bridge or Old Trafford, but we certainly know now that he understands what it is to make a team work, to create the kind of chemistry which can make a disheartened rabble believe in themselves sufficiently to make any least one good season, when there is a certain drive and coherence.
Inevitably, in his moment of triumph, Hughton made no case for himself.
"I didn't win promotion," he said. "The players did that. They also know that apart from their responsibilities to the club, they owe something to a league in which they have done so well. There are matches left and they are important to other clubs, who are fighting for play-off places or against relegation."
Hughton (51) had plenty of time to learn such competitive decency as he played nearly 300 games, mostly for a good Tottenham team and then, in the twilight of his playing days, West Ham and Brentford.
Born in Stratford, East London, he was a fixture for Ireland, playing 53 times and earning a testimonial at Lansdowne Road.
He served, as player and coach, 10 managers at White Hart Lane, including men like Glenn Hoddle, George Graham, Gerry Francis, Ossie Ardiles and Jacques Santini, men who had become accustomed to the idea that they would be involved in the higher echelons of football.
Hughton didn't entertain such pretensions. He was happy to do his job in the background, a football man like many who are cast in that role but, in a few cases, not unbreakably.
At Liverpool there was such a man. He was a trainer whose nickname was Mr Elasto Plast because he was always around to stitch up a wound; one of his jobs was to drive Bill Shankly on scouting missions. But then he was called into the limelight when the great man left and he proceeded to win three European Cups. His name was, of course, Bob Paisley.
Chris Hughton may never have such aspirations. But still his is a remarkable story. He has brought some light into one of English football's darkest places and victory over Reading tonight could all but seal the Championship title and bring the first trophy to Tyneside since the same title in 1993 which sparked the previous era of optimism.
How did it happen? Because of a rare set of circumstances, and, hopefully, it will not be forgotten too easily, because Hughton knows a few fundamental things about how you run a football team.