Hughton - dignity amidst the St James' Park circus
BACK in the 1980s Chris Hughton earned a United Nations commendation for his anti-apartheid campaigning. Three decades later, some would argue the 51-year-old deserves to be honoured again for the way he revived a sinking ship. From Tyneside to Trafalgar Square, football fans across the country recognise that Newcastle United were effectively saved by Hughton's ability to unite a dressing room torn apart by over-inflated egos, over-spending and relegation from the Premier League. But December 6, 2010, five days before his birthday, was the afternoon when his first managerial post came to an end. After months of claim and counter-claim about his position, Hughton's worst fears were realised after Sunday's 3-1 defeat at West Brom. HIS appointment as first team coach in February 2008 might not have been to the liking of everyone, given how Dennis Wise had asked him to come in to work alongside Kevin Keegan. His approach and willingness to toe the party line, however, ensured he became a respected and liked member of the backroom team and beyond. Keegan's resignation in the September provided the former Tottenham defender with the role of caretaker boss for the first time, before Joe Kinnear was introduced not long after and that paved the way for his promotion to assistant manager. When Kinnear had to undergo heart bypass surgery, Hughton took charge of first-team affairs again until a failure to defeat Bolton, Manchester United, Arsenal, Everton and Hull convinced owner Mike Ashley to turn to Alan Shearer for help. But once Shearer had failed miserably to keep Newcastle in the Premier League, Ashley soon turned to Hughton for a third time after refusing to give the club's record goalscorer the opportunity to try to spearhead a revival. THAT proved to be to Hughton's gain. A summer of turmoil and uncertainty was a mark of the preparation for life in the Championship. Ashley's inability to sell the club for the price he wanted meant he was reluctant to bring in new players, but he quite actively sold many members of the squad, including Obafemi Martins and Sebastien Bassong. During such fraught times, Hughton was the calming figure the players needed. He helped experienced hands like Steve Harper, Alan Smith and Kevin Nolan become major players in reuniting a group torn apart by salaries and CVs. A pre-season which included a heavy defeat to Leyton Orient and a trip to Ireland provided the squad with the performances and time together Hughton hoped for. Three months after Newcastle fans feared they could drop further down the Football League ladder, Hughton was named permanent manager in the November for leading them to the top of the Championship and claiming two manager of the month awards. He was clearly doing things right. Every member of the playing staff has always spoken highly of him, showing the utmost respect for a man that had waited 16 years to be in full control of a team's affairs. That was a situation summed up perfectly by Jonas Gutierrez yesterday. "Thank you Chris Hughton for believing in us when nobody believed in us," was Gutierrez's short yet very appropriate message on Twitter last night after confirmation had spread. Danny Simpson, simply, said: "Shocked." IT was not just his players that were appreciative of what he did at St James' Park - Hughton will forever remember the night at Home Park, Plymouth, when thousands of ecstatic Geordie sung his name and celebrated a return to the Premier League as champions in April. And, despite a summer of limited activity on the transfer front, Hughton was always dignified and he never knocked the men above him, which could quite easily have led to accusations of him being weak. Publically he just got on with his job. There might have been afternoons when the supporters would turn on the Ashley regime, but he demonstrated a focus that helped deliver exceptional victories over Aston Villa, Everton, Sunderland and Arsenal. There have been mutterings for the last few months that he was only a couple of matches from the sack, but it just seemed unlikely since Newcastle were constantly delivering when it mattered most. But as talks over a new contract were continually put off until the New Year and Hughton was never allowed to bring in a replacement for Colin Calderwood, who took over at Hibernian, there was always an element of doubt lingering around. Dreadful defeats at Bolton and West Brom, plundering eight goals from two away trips, were to prove the perfect window of opportunity for the owner to call for change. While there may still be exceptional support for Hughton on Tyneside, the decision maker based further south had other ideas. Ashley, the unpredictable sportswear tycoon, might owe the club's rejuvenation to the former Ireland international, but he has shown once again that there is very little room for sentiment in business.
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