The firing of the popular and affable Chris Hughton from his post as manager of Newcastle United on Monday is the latest in a line of countless missteps made by an executive management team whose reign has been characterised by poor decision making. The club’s owner, cheap sportswear magnate Mike Ashley, probably feels entitled to make any coaching staff changes he likes having poured £200million of his own money into a once giant of English football, but he has consistently shown he cannot be trusted to handle such matters with any delicacy or nous.
Just months into Ashley’s ownership, the dismissal of Sam Allardyce, an unpopular but nonetheless adept manager who was arguably operating with long term goals in mind, was a poor move but the error was only compounded by the appointment of his replacement. A finicky and demanding fan base has not helped Ashley’s cause, but a lack of appreciation for the historical loyalty of those fans has meant he’s dealt with their demands as stereotype would dictate. Enter Kevin Keegan, experienced but an emotionally fragile football romantic. True, Newcastle fans preached the Good News of their messiah’s return as expected, but Keegan and the modern machine of Newcastle United were a poor fit. This new machine had at it’s cold mechanic heart a newly instated continental-style management hierarchy to supposedly aid and support Keegan in his managerial duties. To force a European organisational structure firstly upon a league that did not and does not utilise this system and secondly upon Keegan was a disastrous miscalculation. Insulted and broken, Keegan departed.
Despite protestations from the Newcastle faithful for the ‘Cockney Mafia’ to move out, Ashley sought to quell their unrest by appointing archetypal cockney Joe “You’re a c***” Kinnear. After Kinnear’s health problems got the better of him, an obtuse Ashley fell back on the old tried-and-tested-and-failed method of messianic recruitment to win over the hearts and minds of both the failing Newcastle players and the fans. Anyone who bothers to listen to what Alan Shearer has to say on Match of the Day would attest to his general lack of charisma and articulation for football’s nuances and, although given a very tall order to keep Newcastle in the Premier League with eight games to go, it was of little surprise to see him fail.
These were grim times on Tyneside, grimmer than usual, but all was not lost as Hughton, the reliable, dependable workhorse of a caretaker manager, was there as always to guide the club through it’s darkest hour. They took the Championship by storm, winning the title, and automatic promotion with it, with two games to spare. The momentum only continued into this season with the results speaking for themselves; wins at Arsenal, Everton, Aston Villa, Chelsea (albeit in the Carling Cup) and not to mention their imperious destruction of Sunderland, left them sitting at a healthy 11th in the table, one place above Liverpool. But this did little to prevent Ashley and his associates from making their worst decision so far in sacking Hughton, a manager not only capable, but rapidly improving.
Ashley now seeks a manager with Premier League pedigree but Hughton’s shoes are large ones to fill. Few can match his ability to motivate and control some of the most volatile personalities in football (messrs Barton and Carroll), and few managers are so likeable. Kevin Nolan’s admittance that the players were shocked to hear of Hughton’s departure only gives credence to the idea that the players were playing out of their skins for their manager, one who they liked and respected. The next manager will inherit a squad more than capable of surviving in the Premier League, and should do without little trouble, but if it is expected of him to finish higher than 11th then Ashley may just find himself wielding the axe yet again. Here’s to hoping the widespread condemnation of his current restless change may teach Ashley a lesson yet, and allow the next unfortunate soul the time to achieve.