By Dave Hannigan
It says much about the bizarre nature of professional football that Chris Hughton's fine achievement in leading Newcastle United back to the Premiership has been accompanied by a serious debate about whether the club needs to replace him now that he's done the job. Among die-hard fans of the most over-hyped outfit in the English game and newspaper columnists alike, there's a view that he's somehow not a big enough name to manage in the top flight. The thinking is that his lack of profile will affect his ability to attract bigger and better players to St. James' Park over the coming months.
It's an interesting argument. There's no question getting a side out of the League Championship is a much different task than keeping them in the Premiership. Mick McCarthy has proved a dab hand at the first of those and yet it's only now, at the third time of asking, that he's going to succeed with Wolves in avoiding relegation with the same squad he got promoted. Hughton's feat in steering a club that appeared to be in disarray, and which had shed six internationals, straight back up is notable. But, as has been pointed out by his critics, he did have some of the highest-paid players in the division at his disposal.
The odd element to all of this is that you'd think Newcastle supporters would have learned their lesson about going for style over substance. Remember, it's barely a year since so many of them wanted Alan Shearer to take over even though his stint in charge in the Premiership had been pathetic and he'd evinced very little talent for the managerial side of the game. They wanted his name and his profile and chafed at the fact Hughton, a career coach rather than manager, was charged with the task of restoring them to what they perceive to be their rightful place among the elite.
It's worth mentioning too that Mike Ashley had offered David O'Leary £250,000 to take charge and Hughton's former international team-mate thought better of it. That rejection alone summed up how the job at St. James' Park wasn't very highly regarded within the sport. All of the politicking off the field and the loss of key players on it had most people thinking "the barcodes" might be spending more than one campaign in the league championship. Now that Hughton has them on the way back, everybody wants to conveniently forget Shearer himself warned that Newcastle could very easily become "the new Leeds United."
A cynic might venture that the club could have went the way of Leeds and dropped down another division if the most boring pundit in the history of television (some boast given the competition for that title in England) had been their manager. Instead, the quiet, unassuming Hughton brought decades of actual coaching experience (strangely this is never the most prized attribute when clubs go looking for a manger) to bear and turned his motley crew into a formidable team. For this, he now has to endure columns speculating that Mark Hughes or Steve McLaren should replace him because they are "bigger and more vocal personalities."
"It's not a question of me being quiet," said Hughton, addressing his perceived shortfall in this area earlier this week. "Everyone has different opinions. Some will have the opinion that it should be a particular type of manager who is in charge. Others will have the opinion that I'm doing a wonderful job and I deserve to be in this position. What I can't do anything about is change people's opinions. All I can do is do the best I can and doing the best I can will hopefully give this club further achievements. It's not a question of preferring to be quiet - you go through all the divisions, look at the managers and everyone is different. Everyone works in different ways but the only thing a manager will be judged on will be what he achieves."
The last part isn't strictly true. There's a few managers knocking around the English game who are being judged far more on what they did as players than what they've achieved as gaffers. Steve Bruce is the most mediocre example of this ilk. The simple fact he was a wholehearted defender and strong character on a very good Manchester United team in the mid-1990s appears to insulate him from any proper evaluation of his questionable managerial skills.
That there is even a discussion about Hughton's future though underlines how football is a game where a reputation matters far more than actual qualifications. Those who are promulgating the claims of McLaren and Hughes for the job ignore the fact that the current boss has more experience as a coach at the top level than both of them. It's worth noting too that he had a far more illustrious playing career than the Twente Enschede man.
Hughton's problem is he's not fashionable and doesn't fit the media's hackneyed idea of what a manager in charge of a club this size (averaging 50,000 at home games etc) should be. To get the other side of that argument, journalists should ask Ipswich Town fans as they watch Newcastle celebrate this Sunday whether they are happy that their owner last year went for a high-profile and glamorous appointment in Roy Keane?
"I worked under Sam Allardyce, Kevin Keegan and Alan Shearer, but Chris is the best," said Newcastle's Spanish defender Luis Enrique recently. "The others are famous names, but it is not always about that. Chris has had one season and grown into the job. People who say he will not be as good a manager in the Premier League are being unfair. Everyone was so happy when he was given the manager's job on a permanent basis because it was so well deserved and he is the man to take this club forward."
Whether Mike Ashley has the courage to give Hughton his chance to prove as much remains to be seen.