After six managers in just three years, there has been much turmoil at Newcastle United. Add to this relegation from the Premier League, as well as owner Mike Ashley putting the club up for sale and it’s been a testing few years for even the most loyal of fans.
Since Glenn Roeder left the club in 2007, Newcastle’s fortunes have steadily declined. Sam Allardyce and Kevin Keegan came and went before Joe Kinnear and Alan Shearer tried and failed to keep the Magpies in the Premier League. For the first time since 1993, the Toon Army find themselves in the second tier of English football.
With the club looking for a buyer and with no manager, things were looking bleak at St James’ Park during the summer and the thought of bouncing straight back up to the Premier League was extremely optimistic. The decision to appoint Chris Hughton as caretaker manager was greeted with even more mutterings from the Geordie faithful. After all, there was only one man Newcastle fans wanted to see in charge and for all Hughton’s qualities, he was never going to be able to compete with Alan Shearer in the popularity stakes.
Fans and pundits alike questioned if Hughton had the experience to get Newcastle back up to the top flight and with the club still up for sale, how long would it be before a new owner came in and installed a new permanent manager causing further upheaval at the club?
Ashley however, decided to take the club back off the market and after a solid start to life in the Championship, which saw Hughton win successive manager of the month awards, he was named permanent manager of the club signing an 18-month contract.
For all that Hughton’s managerial experience has been questioned, he has been involved in coaching for a long time now, spending several years as assistant manager at both Tottenham Hotspur and Newcastle. The former Republic of Ireland international spent 14 seasons as a coach at Spurs working under ten different managers, and having two separate spells as caretaker manager. He then moved to the North East to be part of Kevin Keegan’s coaching staff, again taking charge as caretaker manager when called upon.
Despite not knowing how long he would be in charge when he took over, the much under-estimated Hughton has got his Newcastle side organised in a way they rarely were last season and players who seemed to be disinterested and lacking confidence in the Premier League have suddenly started to perform. Reports of dressing rooms rifts are now a distant memory, as Hughton has put the ‘united’ back into Newcastle. Kevin Nolan has been one of the star men in the Championship this season, and the likes of Alan Smith and Jonás Gutiérrez are showing they have too much quality to be playing in the second tier of English football.
It is though perhaps Newcastle’s defence that Hughton has made the most difference to, with the backline conceding just ten goals in their opening 16 league games – the least amount of any team in the league. Last season the Magpies were leaking goals left, right and centre, especially after the departure of Shay Given to Manchester City. Fabricio Coloccini and Steven Taylor are looking more solid than they ever were in the Premier League and if Hughton’s side are to return the top flight at the first time of asking, it is their defence that is going to be the key.
Not only has Hughton had to handle divisions in the camp and Alan Shearer’s name constantly hanging over him, but the new boss has also had to deal with the club’s crippling wage bill. Several players departed during the summer, including Michael Owen, Obafemi Martins and Sebastien Bassong, more than halving the clubs old annual wage bill of around £70M, but at the same time leaving the squad dangerously thin.
Although Hughton has claimed his lack of squad depth has created a much tighter unit, the Magpies will need to strengthen if they are to continue to vie for promotion. Managing director, Derek Llambias has stated that there will be money available to spend in the transfer market and Hughton can be expected to bring in a few more quality names in January.
As ever with Newcastle and with Mike Ashley at the helm, things never seem to run smoothly. Despite taking the club off the market and being top of the league, Ashley has irritated fans further, by revealing he wants to sell the naming rights to the famous St James’ Park for next season, and in the meantime showcase his own company, Sports Direct. Fans are less than happy that they will be playing the rest of their home games this season at the not so catchy [email protected] James’ Park Stadium, protesting at the game against Peterborough on Saturday – another distraction that Hughton will have to make sure does not affect his players.
Regardless of all the club’s ongoing off-field issues, Hughton has got on with his job and exceeded expectations so far this season. The ironic thing is, that if Newcastle had been taken over, and Shearer installed as manager, it’s doubtful they would be in the position they are in now.
After a third of the season gone, things are looking promising for the Magpies and if signings are made in January, Hughton should be able to call himself a Premier League manager next season – whatever their stadium may be called. It is a chance he would at least deserve if he can continue to provide Geordie fans with a smooth ride through the choppy waters of the Championship.
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