The relegation of 2009 did something dramatic to a vocal section amongst the support of Newcastle United. The preceding years of failure had carried the soundtrack of regular appearances by Geordie fanatics on football phone-ins, seeking to remind us all what a ‘massive club’ the Toon was and how European football should be an annual occurrence at St James’ Park.
This scream of entitlement, repeated ad
Then something happened. Over that summer, a few different names were linked with the vacant manager’s post at the club, most notably former playing legend Alan Shearer (whose record as temporary manager it should be stated read P8 W1 D2 L5). Eventually, after much media speculation and the on-off Shearer saga the job went to Chris Hughton, who had been at the club while it plunged into freefall following the end of ‘messiah’ Keegan’s second coming. It was hardly the ‘glam’ appointment many had craved and it was unclear which way the season would go as the Magpies had just engaged in a cost-cutting exercise that saw Obafemi Martins and Damien Duff amongst others leave the club. Would they storm back into the top flight at the first time of asking? Or become another Leeds. Some may attempt to re-write history now but any suggestion that they were considered racing certainties for promotion, even within their own support, was well wide of the mark.
So Hughton’s job in galvanising a squad of players that had been demoralised and then depleted was a huge ask that would prove beyond the reach of many mere mortals. That he managed to lift the black cloud that had really been hanging over the club since Sir Bobby Robson left was a significant and vital achievement in itself. To build on this and turn the mentality of the squad right around was the work of an immensely capable and competent man.
It could be argued that the Magpies have not been blessed with too many of these in their recent history. As it was, any argument about how Newcastle would fare began to look like unrefined paranoia as they went unbeaten at home all season, lost only four games in total, and stormed to the Championship with a not unimpressive 102 points. Kevin Nolan looked like a possible England player again, and moreover, so did Andy Carroll, a youngster who had previously been seen as potential that was not being realised.
The most pleasant aspect of the club’s return to the top flight was the fact that their fans had appeared to have enjoyed their experience of new grounds, new supporters and a different type of football (this is of course easier when you are usually winning). The section of NUFC support that seemed to regard exhilarating football and appearances in Europe as some sort of divine right had either slowly disappeared or revised their view somewhat. Now the mantra was about consolidation, and first and foremost, staying in the Premier League. Respect for their organised, spirited team was beyond doubt and this clearly extended to Hughton, the man who had made the club worthy of respect again (having been something of a bad taste joke beforehand), and for a fraction of the sums squandered by some of his predecessors. Alas, the shock of their season out of the big-time does not appear to have had any sort of humbling effect on those running the club.
It took 16 games at the elite level for Mike Ashley to decide he needed a man with ‘more managerial experience’ to lead them to whatever target he had in mind. This, remember, was a newly-promoted team that had found itself in 11th place having had only modest sums for re-enforcements. Among the five victories that had helped them into the relative safety of the middle of the league were a Carroll-inspired 6-0 annihilation of Aston Villa, a 5-1 derby success against Sunderland and a superb and wholly unexpected victory away to Arsenal. Yes there were disappointments in there as well, but in what turned out to be Hughton’s penultimate game, they had taken an early lead against Chelsea before eventually securing a 1-1 draw.
This was hardly the mark of a team that had stopped playing for their manager, or were no longer capable of top-level performances. Yet from a place in his head somewhere between Fantasy Island and Narnia, Ashley has come to the conclusion that he, the club and its supporters can do so much better than Chris Hughton.
Perhaps he believed that the ‘arrogant’ strand of NUFC supporter still existed, the one who presumed that if the man in charge was not a Geordie and/or a ‘big name’ then he should immediately be written off as a dud. In this instance, he is wholly wrong, and has completely misjudged the mood of all those who populate the Gallowgate End. Like Ashley, Hughton may be a Southerner, but unlike him, the Toon Army had adopted the former Spurs defender as one of their own. As for the man who made his fortune with Sports Direct, well he has never really endeared himself to his paying public. However, without ever running the risk of being popular, he had managed to remain a neutral influence to the club’s atmosphere for just over a season. After today’s developments, one gets the impression that he could not do any more damage to his standing by appearing in the crowd at the next home game in full Mackem attire.
During his time at St James’ Park, Douglas Hall once famously called Newcastle’s women ‘dogs’, mocked the club’s supporters for their willingness to buy replica shirts and likened Alan Shearer (a man worth roughly 100,000 of Hall) to Mary Poppins. Unpleasant as these comments were, there was a wider sense that with Hall and Freddy Sheppard at the helm, this was a club in chaos from top to bottom, from classless owners through inept managers and mercenary players, to a section of the fanbase that had unrealistic expectations and a sense of entitlement.
There was a feeling among many followers of the game as a whole that these forces were all perpetuating and feeding each other, and thus it was hard to sympathise with any of them, the Toon Army included. This cannot be said of the club today, for the events of the 2008/09 season appear to have amounted to an injection of realism into those fans who had perhaps aimed too high and expected too much in previous years.
In this writer’s opinion, it is easy to sympathise with them, for on this occasion they deserve better leadership from the higher echelons of the club than has been displayed. Not as easy as it is to feel for Hughton himself however. His impressive record at Newcastle will surely land him another decent job in football sooner rather than later. Even after Sunday’s disappointing 3-1 loss to West Bromwich Albion, his interviews conveyed certainty, calm, a refusal to panic and real class. Many would surely agree with this writer’s view that his now former boss could learn an awful lot from him.