There wasn’t a great deal of positive gloss that could be put upon Newcastle United’s thumping at the hands of Arsenal in the League Cup on Wednesday night. Comprehensively outplayed by a team that is starting to look more than capable of ending its trophy drought by the end of this season, Newcastle supporters were offered a reminder of how difficult this season could yet become for them and, in the press, the subtle yet dread sound of knives being drawn for manager Chris Hughton has become audible. Just as many of the club’s supporters may have begun to hope that the element of soap opera that had dogged the club for longer than anyone cares to remember had begun to subside, so the rumours begin again.
It is in itself a testimony to Hughton’s qualities as a manager that the absolute chaos in which Newcastle United found itself a year and a half ago. After the ruinous decision to appoint Alan Shearer for the relegation run-in at the end of a desperate season ended in the club dropping out of the Premier League altogether, it felt as if this relegation could just be the beginning of their difficulties. Hughton, however, pulled the team together and his achievement in getting promoted back into the Premier League as champions at a canter cannot be understated. Newcastle supporters, who had spent a long time away from the second tier of English football, may have taken away the impression that the Championship was easy – supporters of last year’s relegated teams, the highest of whom, Burnley, currently lays in seventh place in the table, may seek to disagree.
Newcastle have made a solid start to their Premier League season. They are in ninth place in the table, beat Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in the League Cup and put six goals past Aston Villa in their first home match of the season. Their defeat against Arsenal was not a great result (it’s difficult to imagine any home defeat being regarded as anything positive), but it was the exception rather than the rule in so far as this season has gone for them so far, so how and why have these rumours have started? There seems to be absolutely no stomach amongst Newcastle supporters for Hughton to be replaced, but what we seem to be witnessing here is a perfect storm of over-exuberant media speculation and a club management that still seems incapable of not putting their collective foot in it when the opportunity arises.
The origin of the story seems to have been from The People, where former Newcastle Chronicle writer Alan Oliver continued what many Newcastle supporters consider to be a vendetta against the club. Oliver’s assertions were comprehensively demolished in this article on the Newcastle fan site NUFC Blog, but by this time a story that didn’t have anything beyond one man’s idle speculation behind it had taken on legs of its own, with the Daily Mail opening with the almost nonsensical comment that, “Owner Mike Ashley and managing director Derek Llambias, who are desperate to retain their Barclays Premier League status this season, are growing increasingly jittery about their early season form”. Following Wednesday night’s defeat at the hands of Arsenal, the club felt compelled to issue a press release on the subject.
We might have thought that, by now, those running Newcastle United would be more familiar with the conventions of the game than they seem to have been over the last few days or so. The “vote of confidence” has taken on a life of its own now, to the extent that we could be forgiven for believing that club owners now feel compelled to issue one when they have already decided to sack a manager. All that Newcastle United had to do after the Arsenal match was make no comment. As it stands, their club now goes into a derby match against Sunderland with a feeling of uncertainty in the air and the feeling that a storm has now blown up out of nothing that will only, if anything, have a destabilising effect upon the team.
The irony is that Chris Hughton, of all people, doesn’t deserve any of this. There has been considerable talk of Oliver being motivated by having been frozen out of St James Park by Mike Ashley. This may or may not be true, but if there is much that can be criticised about Ashley and Llambias, why would this hack choose to go after one of the ever diminishing number of good guys left in the game? Of course, being a good guy isn’t enough in itself to keep the manager’s position at a Premier League club, but the fact that Hughton stabilised the club after relegation when the sky could have fallen in upon them, got them promoted back into the Premier League without even really breaking his breath and stabilised them in mid-table after their first three months back indicates that he has the qualities required to be the best man for the job in abundance.
Something has certainly changed at Newcastle United over the last twelve months. There is no expectation of instant success at the club any more, and the chastening experience of a year outside of the Premier League seems to have taught the club’s supporters a very valuable lesson. The fact of the matter is that no good would come from replacing their manager and that to even be having this debate about the manager of a newly-promoted club that is in the top half of the Premier League season as autumn starts to turn into winter is more a reflection on the hysterical press than on the qualities of the manager himself. Perhaps we shouldn’t expect any better from those that run Newcastle United that they could manage to make a hash of some idle gossip following an almost entirely baseless tabloid press story. Fortunately, the supporters of the club are too smart to take much notice of such rot.