Wednesday 24 April 2019

Betrayal of Hughton proves that Benitez is not the first to fall foul of Ashley regime

Newcastle United owner Mike Ashley. Photo: Reuters
Newcastle United owner Mike Ashley. Photo: Reuters

Luke Edwards

Chris Hughton's return to Newcastle United this weekend should remind everyone that Rafa Benitez is not the first good man, who has done an excellent job in the most demanding of circumstances, to have fallen foul of Mike Ashley.

If Newcastle supporters are infatuated with Benitez - love at first sight, followed by unrestrained passion, in a relationship that borders on the obsessive - Hughton was the guy who moved out of the friend zone. He is the one you did not think you could fall in love with until you were head over heels.

You will not find anyone on Tyneside with a bad word to say about the man they nicknamed Comrade Chris in honour of his left-wing politics.

At Newcastle he was the coach who became caretaker manager and eventually, almost by accident, the full-time boss.

And just like Benitez, Hughton repaired the damage done by a relegation that was not his fault, won promotion and reunited a club fractured by Ashley's diabolical decision-making.

When we record Ashley's blunders on Tyneside, his faux pas, his insults, his monumental errors in judgment, we sometimes ignore the betrayal of Hughton.

It was the summer of 2009 when the former Republic of Ireland international was left in charge of a team in disarray at a club in chaos.

Having fallen out with Kevin Keegan 10 months earlier and sparked the first wave of protests against him, Ashley had put the club up for sale and (in what has become something of a pattern) failed to find a buyer.

He replaced Keegan with Joe Kinnear and everybody cringed. He replaced Kinnear, who suffered a heart attack, with another Geordie legend, Alan Shearer, and then fell out with him too when the club's former captain failed to keep them in the Premier League and insisted on a radical and expensive overhaul of the squad.

Relegation scared Ashley, the damage so severe that he put the club up for sale again. Even at the cut-price cost of £100m nobody would take a chance on a business that was likely to haemorrhage money in the Championship.

Newcastle, everybody said, were about to become the new Leeds United, paralysed by debts and apathy, heading for a decade outside of the top flight.

In the background was Hughton, as first-team coach. When the music stopped that summer, Hughton was the man left holding the parcel. It looked like a hand grenade wrapped in a brown paper bag.

Hughton had never managed before. He was a well-thought-of coach, spending 11 years at Tottenham Hotspur before moving to the North East, but he was not deemed to be management material. Too nice, too soft, too calm.

Ashley did not care. He wanted out and if Hughton was not perceived as a safe pair of hands, as such, he could take the training sessions and hold the fort during pre-season until a buyer could be found.

When he was made caretaker manager before the start of the 2009/'10 season it was not a popular choice. The fans wanted Shearer back and although nobody screamed at Hughton, it was thought he would be out of his depth.

Hughton, though, was precisely the man Newcastle needed. Rather than compete with an influential senior group in the dressing-room, he worked with Kevin Nolan, Joey Barton, Alan Smith, Steve Harper and Nicky Butt to create something special.

Strong leaders come in many different guises and Hughton's style was perfect. It was not management by committee, but neither did he seek absolute power.

He nurtured rather than bullied, he allowed the squad to police themselves, recognising the strength of characters inherited, but he was in charge.

If he wielded soft power, it should not be mistaken for weakness. Without Hughton's gentle touch, that group could well have competed with each other. Instead, encouraged by him, they pulled together and in the same direction.

Hughton commanded respect, not because of what he had achieved before, not because the players feared him, but because they liked and wanted to play for him. He earned their trust and then their loyalty.

It was a masterclass in man-management, the same qualities that still shine through as the 59-year-old has quietly gone about transforming Brighton and Hove Albion. Hughton has overseen a revolution on the south coast, but the work he did at Newcastle was just as impressive.

Newcastle supporters slowly but surely fell in love with Hughton - his calmness under pressure, his quiet and considerate nature, but also his strength.

Newcastle obliterated the Championship, losing just five games, returning to the Premier League a rejuvenated force. Even Ashley was no longer despised. Hughton's team were the most welcome of distractions to the animosity supporters still felt towards the owner. Quietly, the 'For Sale' signs were taken down. Ashley intended to stay.

So how was Hughton rewarded? With the team sitting 12th in the Premier League in December and with absolutely nobody wishing to see him leave, Hughton was sacked following a 3-0 defeat at West Bromwich Albion.

The Newcastle hierarchy had been plotting his removal for weeks, Alan Pardew swiftly unveiled as his replacement. Hughton had done nothing wrong - in fact, nobody could have done more.

But in their wisdom, Ashley and his acolytes believed Newcastle had been promoted despite him, that it had been the quality of the players at his disposal, rather than Hughton's leadership, which had brought success. Worse than that, when the players clashed with Ashley over bonuses ahead of the new season, Hughton had taken their side.

So, at the first opportunity they tossed him out and congratulated themselves for doing so when, the following season, having reinvested the £35m they received from the sale of Andy Carroll to Liverpool, the team finished fifth.

The betrayal of Hughton was forgotten, but supporters still appreciate everything he did. And given what he has gone on to achieve and the problems which still plague Newcastle under Ashley, the decision to sack him looks even more foolish now than it did then.

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