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Stats count for little in bizarre NE region

By Dave Hannigan

[caption id="attachment_21931" align="alignnone" width="600" caption="Former Irish international Chris Hughton has impressed as manager of Newcastle United."]


According to the warped logic of English football, Chris Hughton's job as Newcastle United manager was under serious threat before his team demolished Sunderland last Sunday week. Yet, in the aftermath of that game and a result that sent their opponents down to 12th in the table, just a point better off than Newcastle were before the weekend, there hasn't been a single murmur about the future of Steve Bruce.

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If Hughton's career was on the line for having a newly-promoted team just below mid-table, surely his neighbor's position must be considered tenuous given how much Sunderland have spent in recent seasons? The reason why one manager was in trouble but the other appears immune to it is very obvious. Steve Bruce gives good copy to the media. He's personable and quotable and approachable. Mad as it may seem, this kind of thing counts for something in the English game. Witness the love and affection showered upon Harry Redknapp by journalists of every stripe.

How else could we explain why Bruce, despite a rather mediocre record in the Premier League, hardly ever comes under pressure and even when unemployed, is regularly linked with vacancies? More than once he's brought teams out of the championship but so have lots of other people. Indeed, Mick McCarthy has proved especially adept at doing so on tight budgets. Once in the top flight though, Bruce promises far more than he ever delivers and yet is rarely under pressure for his job.

Somehow, by some measure, he's rated as a top manager. Why? Well, the fact he was a more famous (he definitely wasn't better) player than Hughton works in his favor too. When judging managerial ability, journalists, fans and club owners still place way, way too much store on their memory of an individual as a player, rather than his ability as a boss.

Since taking over Newcastle permanently in the early summer of 2009, a time when very few people were willing to accept the most poisoned of chalices, Hughton has guided them to 38 wins and 15 draws from 64 games. Even allowing for the fact most of those victories were gained in the championship, that is a fantastic record. In stark contrast, Bruce has won less than a third of all matches since taking over at the Stadium of Light. Yet, mark it down, when Hughton does go, Bruce's name will actually be in the running for his job because he's high profile and a Geordie by birth.

And the sad truth is that the chances are Hughton won't endure at St. James' Park. How can he? It's too bizarre a region of the football world. They claim to have the greatest fans around yet averaged 8,000 back in the early 1990s when they weren't in the top flight. Just to show how bad that was, Manchester City averaged 31,000 when they slipped down two divisions not that long ago. Still, the myth of the Geordies being a peculiarly passionate and more committed fan base persists and is constantly propagated by the English press and Sky Sports.

Believing their own hype, this constituency of supporters and the complicit media in the Northeast are still pining for Alan Shearer to take over the club. Just because he was a great center-forward, it follows he must be a great manager - even if he's already tried it and was especially bad at the job. One win from eight tries was his record. Is there any other industry on earth where somebody with that CV would even still be considered managerial material? In football, it seems the normal rules of life do not apply.

In Newcastle, they dream about Shearer then and denounce Sam Allardyce for his part in ruining the club. Allardyce had the team in better shape and won more games than Shearer and Kevin Keegan combined during the ill-fated 2008-2009 season. Yet, he is reviled up there because his side didn't play attractively enough for the local dilettantes and, in a real prehistoric County Board type of way, they still talk about how he was introducing too much science into the backroom set-up. Yup, scientific preparation is bad but abolishing the reserves as Keegan once did is romantic and fantastic for the future of the club.

This is the kind of lunatic thinking that explains why, in the build-up to Sunderland versus Newcastle, Bruce had to come out in defense of Hughton.

"It's absolutely ludicrous that he should be in any danger of getting the chop," Bruce said. "Newcastle supporters should be thankful he is in charge of their team because if it wasn't for him, then we wouldn't be looking forward to what should be a great game. They could quite easily have been a Leeds or a Middlesbrough. It is not easy for a big club with big expectations to go straight back up from the Championship. Newcastle could have been in danger of falling but under Chris they did great. He has steadied the ship and handled things fantastically well."

Even with those kind of endorsements coming from his peers, it emerged late last week that Hughton was running into trouble with the Newcastle ownership about his choice of new assistant-manager. With Colin Calderwood departed to take over Hibernian in Scotland, Hughton apparently had former Republic of Ireland boss Brian Kerr in mind for the role of his number two. A logical choice given Kerr's eclectic yet impressive resume, and a long-standing friendship with Hughton, reports are that those in power at St. James Park frowned upon the suggestion.

They would prefer Peter Beardsley to be given the job because he was one of the greatest-ever to wear the black and white stripes. Yup, they want to appoint a great player with minimal coaching experience rather than a great coach with no affiliation to the club. Of course, they do. That worked so well last time out. Those who will not learn from history are condemned to repeat it. Etc.