Hughton's steady presence restores order on Tyneside
Chris Hughton has worked wonders this season, writes Dion Fanning, but the hard part is still to come
P erhaps it was inevitable Newcastle United would find leadership that would inspire them in a man who is temperamentally the club's opposite.
For a long time it was prescribed that Newcastle needed a big personality to absorb the inevitable tremors that came with managing a club constructed on football's equivalent of the San Andreas fault.
Instead, they have found peace, however temporary, with an ego-less man whose values would make him unusual at any 21st century football club.
But football has changed, not Chris Hughton. He has a sensibility which the game would have embraced in other eras but which was rejected for a brasher approach as clubs came to believe the good times would never end.
"He is a very intelligent and thoughtful man," says Andy Reid, who worked with Hughton at Tottenham and Ireland. As a Sunderland player, Reid is not a disinterested observer of Newcastle's. He did not expect them to be promoted this year, he said, but he believes he is not alone among those associated with Sunderland fans in welcoming them back.
"Sunderland supporters were happy that they got relegated," Reid said on Friday, speaking from Dubai where a recuperative break had to be extended due to the alleged volcanic eruptions in Iceland. "But now they are looking forward to those games because I know I've missed them."
Tomorrow night, Newcastle could clinch the Championship title at Plymouth. They had entered the division with the air of a team just passing through, but passing through the way a man who has jumped off a building passes through the sixth floor. A desperate pre-season followed, culminating in a 6-1 defeat at Leyton Orient. Newcastle didn't seem aware of what was to come.
Hughton remained stoical but the club was experiencing another earth-shattering day that, for once, would make a difference,
"Getting tonked 6-1 was a shambles, but brought a few things to light," Kevin Nolan said earlier this month. "It showed who wanted to be here and who didn't. What you've got now is a squad of players who want to be here, train hard, work hard and play hard, and who want to get this club back to where we think it belongs."
Where they belonged seemed questionable at that stage in the season. Damien Duff and Obafemi Martins were among the players in the Newcastle team at Orient. They were among those who would leave and the club seemed destined for more chaos and destruction.
Hughton was the man left standing once it became clear Alan Shearer wouldn't be coming back and he made the players trust each other again.
"He hasn't surprised me at all, the reason he surprised some people was because he was a number two for so long," Reid says. "I think he's proved to everybody that he can be because the job he had to take on was far from an easy job. At the start of the season, I wasn't tipping Newcastle to come back up. I thought they'd find it really, really difficult."
Hughton has made it seem effortless which it clearly wasn't and he has trusted people and asked them to trust him, a high-risk strategy because it makes so much sense.
"His main quality is how he deals with people, how he is with people. He commands respect because of his manner. That's where his main strengths lie," Reid says.
"Looking from the outside, it seems that he has never been afraid to take advice," Reid says. "I'm not a manager but I think that would be the most important thing to do as a manager. There are a lot of managers who think differently."
Hughton wasn't one of them. There is a players' committee of Nolan, Nicky Butt, Steve Harper and Alan Smith and Hughton consults with them when he feels he should. He has made no apologies for this and it has been hailed as one of his great strengths. If things become too turbulent next season, it will be seen as his greatest weakness.
Newcastle United is like a reformed character that everyone expects to re-offend. There is some suggestion that Hughton will not be manager next season if Mike Ashley sells the club in the summer. Ashley is more likely to stay and allow Hughton to spend £15m improving a squad which may need up to ten players.
Ashley may have concluded that it is not a good time to sell but there is still a debate in Newcastle over Hughton's position. When the summer comes, Newcastle United crave action. They want attention and a sense that things are happening. Hughton, on the other hand, will remain undemonstrative and methodical. The big players are unlikely to be arriving so the club may crave a so-called big-name manager like Mark Hughes or, em, Steve McClaren.
Hughton was criticised in the aftermath of the incident that left Steven Taylor with a broken jaw after an alleged altercation with Andy Carroll. Carroll shares an agent with Kevin Nolan leading some to wonder about the wisdom of consulting with a committee whose members might not be as devoted to socialist principles as the manager.
Hughton is principled but he is also a pragmatist and a survivor, the man who was always still standing when Tottenham guillotined managers in the 1990s. He learned much then about how football works and he may have learned even more in the year he spent at Newcastle watching a club implode.
He arrived to work under Kevin Keegan but at the behest of the new regime of Dennis Wise. Hughton's survival skills were needed again but this season he has shown that he has spent a lifetime paying attention.
There were other traditional football values that Hughton never embraced. When he was brought up in east London as the child of a Ghanaian father and an Irish mother, he felt different to much that was around him.
"I was born in London, therefore I am from England but I have never felt English," Hughton told David Walsh in an interview before the 1990 World Cup. "I don't mean that I'm anti-English, because I am not but as soon as I started working these things out, I saw myself as a sort of United Nations man."
He experienced racism as a player and he remains a committed campaigner and a man of strong views, although he insists that the column he wrote for News Line, the newspaper of the Workers Revolutionary Party, during his days at Tottenham was purely about football. He is not a man you can imagine uttering a trite "sport and politics shouldn't mix" at any stage in his career.
He was Ireland's first black player and now he quietly makes a stand for black managers in Britain who have felt excluded from the closed shop that is the clubbable English management circuit. Hughton won't fit in there easily. He is too thoughtful for the foolish banter but he has revealed this season at Newcastle that he is adept as anyone in England in managing ego and bringing order to chaos.
It may or may not be racism that has prevented Hughton being promoted in the past, but it is certainly a failure of the imagination, something endemic in English football even if racism has been wiped out or, at least, suppressed.
Hughton also represents a connection to another era: when he was 16, Tottenham signed him on an amateur contract and he went off to do a four-year apprenticeship in Lift and Escalator Servicing.
Two years later, Tottenham offered him a pro contract. He could bin the apprenticeship if he wanted. Instead he asked to sign part-time. "I knew that doing just two years of a four-year apprenticeship was useless."
He knows the world and he knows a lot more than he lets on in his bland utterances to the media which are, in their own way, exactly what the club needed after the serial disruption.
This week there will be a title but in the summer there may even be a tougher test. Newcastle might revert to type or they might learn from their manager and avoid the chaos.