With the club up for sale and a disintegrating squad, managing Newcastle looks like an impossible job. Not so, Chris Hughton tells Stuart Rayner.
FOR Sky Sports News viewers, the on-going story of Newcastle United has been car-crash television of the most gruesome order.
Despite all the Magpies’ natural advantages, St James’s Park today hosts a Football League match for the first time since its stands were rebuilt to dizzying new heights. Six weeks after managing director Derek Llambias claimed “more than two” bidders had met Mike Ashley’s £100m asking price, the “For Sale” signs remain up. For the second time in under a year, the sportswear magnate might have to sheepishly pull them down.
From the moment the Magpies dropped out of the top-flight, Alan Shearer was the overwhelming choice as manager. Three months on, Ashley is still to repeat “the best decision (he had) made”. Alternatives have been floated in the media recently, all met by snorts of derision. Even the club’s second strip provoked ridicule.
Perhaps the analogy of a shipwreck is more fitting than a car crash. Those who were quick to voice their loyalty after relegation now seem to be scrambling for the lifeboats. The man shuffling the deckchairs on this titanic football club is Chris Hughton.
Being United’s figurehead – by virtue of being the only head above the parapet – is, he admits, an “odd existence” but one he is getting used to. This is Hughton’s third spell as Newcastle’s caretaker manager in under a year, the fifth of his career. People are starting to ask if it is an impossible job but the former defender is keeping the sympathy card firmly in the pack.
“No,” he says. “Not at this moment, and that’s in all honesty. At the moment it’s been very much just team matters. It hasn’t been plain sailing but the biggest focus is the team doing well and winning games.
“We lost one game in pre-season and lost it quite heavily (6-1 at Leyton Orient) but apart from that we had quite a good pre-season. We applied ourselves well and got what I thought was a good result at West Brom. If that hadn’t been the case, life certainly would have been a lot tougher.
“I don’t have daily conversations with Derek Llambias. I don’t know whether I will be in charge for Sheffield Wednesday (on Wednesday). The remit I have at this particular moment is to look at the team. What decision will be made about the bigger issues such as selling the club or what manager will be brought in, I don’t know. Anything beyond the next game I am not aware of.
“What I am aware of is that I am a coach here at Newcastle United, holding the fort, managing the team as best I can.” Twice Hughton held the fort at Tottenham Hotspur while they gave the managerial merry-go-round another twirl. But the chaos surrounding the Magpies makes it a very different experience. “It’s quite an odd existence but it’s been that way for a while,” he says with an air of resignation. “Probably the position we are in now is the same we were in on the first day of pre-season, so it is something I have got quite used to. Everyone associated with the club – players, staff, supporters – would like to situation resolved.
“From day one of pre-season there was going to be a lot of publicity about players wanting to go, players wanting to stay. We went through a period where we didn’t go a day where there wasn’t something written.
“So if anything, you have to focus even more on the team and what your objectives are because the things you can control are the things that happen on the training pitch and in games. If you took to heart too much what you read you wouldn’t be able to do your job properly.” Typically, he is quick to point out someone always has it worse. “It is probably tougher for family because they are the ones on the fringe of it,” he argues. “It’s always better if you are dealing with it because you can take stock. In our situation it would probably be more difficult if you didn’t have a focus. You almost get used to all the other stuff around you. The most important thing is you are able to focus on trying to win matches.”
Arsène Wenger admitted yesterday he is not afraid to throw in the odd untruth to protect his Arsenal players. Hughton is not only shielding his squad from tales of dressing-room unrest and training-ground fights, but also his paymasters. On Thursday afternoon Hughton told the media no discussions had taken place about transfer targets, but they might next week. Yesterday morning, Danny Simpson arrived on loan from Manchester United. Whether the situation quickly changed, Hughton had been kept out of the loop, or if he was being economical with the truth is unclear. All are plausible. One of the biggest unknowns in this summer of uncertainties is how the crowd reacts to their first Championship home game. This time, though, Hughton talks with a genuine air of conviction.
“The most important reaction from the crowd is the one the team is able to give them,” he sidesteps. “I am quite sure if they see we are doing well and there is a group of lads that is committed and doing everything to win the game, they will get behind us. It has been tough on the supporters but they are a loyal and passionate crowd. It has been testing for them but they will want to get behind the team.”