CHRIS Hughton believes the plight of Newcastle’s Tees-Tyne derby opponents Middlesbrough highlights how well the Magpies have done to lead the Championship.
Boro joined Newcastle in their tumble out of the top flight last season, but have struggled to adapt to their less prestigious surroundings and are currently trapped in mid-table, five points adrift of a play-off place.
Hughton is not the sort of person to gloat about anything, but he admitted Boro’s problems should serve to illustrate his side’s own achievements as they lead the league with a six-point cushion and a game in hand before this afternoon’s trip to the Riverside.
“What has happened to them shows how difficult it is,” said Hughton, who is hoping José Enríque will be able to start at left-back today.
“It is a very demanding and difficult league. And anyone going down has not got a given right to come straight back up.
“You have to have a team that has got to show enough of the qualities that you need in this division to do well. So far we have shown lots of that.”
Some have attempted to knock United’s feats this season by pointing to the fact they have retained an extravagant Premier League wage bill with top flight players thanks to owner Mike Ashley’s personal backing. But that suggestion irritated Hughton, who rightly pointed out that wage packets do not do anything to win football matches.
He said: “Is it the case that we should be where we are because of our wage bill? That is a train of thought for a lot of people.
“They say that with the squad we have got, that is where we should be. But there are a lot of very good clubs that have come down and have found it very difficult.
“At the end of the day it is not about the wage bill. We must not forget this is the team that got relegated last season. And, when you get relegated, there is no God-given right to be the best team in the lower division, as has been seen on numerous occasions in the past.”
On paper, Newcastle had a squad which should have been good enough to avoid the drop ten months ago, whereas Middlesbrough gambled more on the excellence of its Academy system and the promotion of home grown players.
They have been hit twice as a result, arguably lacking the experience in the squad to deal with the difficulty of being a big scalp in the Championship, just as they were unable to avoid finishing in the bottom three last May.
Hughton said: “I think you need a combination of qualities. What we were fortunate enough to have was to only lose a few of our players and still have a lot of players who were determined to do well and bring the club straight back up.
“From a squad point of view, I always said I was happy with the squad and perhaps needed to boost numbers in certain areas.
“But if you are looking at the moral fibre of the squad, I was always happy with that. I thought that, with the rub of the green, we would always do well in this division.”
Hughton, though, is expecting another tough examination of the team’s promotion credentials against a Boro side he feels are much-improved under Gordon Strachan.
He said: “They will still think they are in with a shout of the play-offs. With 12 games left they have a very good chance to get there.
“Every game is tough in this league but the fact that it’s a derby game and they are fighting for promotion makes it harder.
“The manager has brought in his own players. He’s got some of his players from Celtic and they aren’t playing badly. I’ve seen the game and Cardiff away for them was unlucky.”