IF there is one thing which has made Newcastle United’s progress this season so pleasing it is the fact nobody predicted it. For once, the Magpies have pleasantly surprised in the Premier League rather than frustrated falling short of public expectations.
Promoted as champions from the Championship, there was no getting away from the fact the core of this United squad was the same as it had been when they crashed out of the top flight 12 months earlier.
When Newcastle’s owner Mike Ashley refused to sanction a lavish spending spree, a club statement in the immediate aftermath of the promotion party insisting there would be no capital outlay on new players, it crushed optimism and squashed aspirations.
In Chris Hughton, Newcastle had a manager who had never managed in the top flight on anything more than a caretaker basis and whose record in that role for Newcastle read played nine, won one, drawn one and lost seven.
For those who refused to acknowledge the significance of his achievement in getting Newcastle back into the top flight at the first time of asking, he was a rookie boss whose players had got themselves promoted in spite of, not because of, his presence in the dugout.
That is both insulting and grossly unfair, yet it is a perception which persists even as Newcastle occupy fifth place in the Premier League table.
If the buck stops with the manager when things are going badly, then surely the credit has to find its way to the man who picks and directs the team when things go well.
The club’s failure to open new contract talks this season has ensured the ground continues to shift under Hughton, but he has done more than just keep his balance.
After three successive league victories, including a 5-1 derby demolition of local rivals Sunderland, Hughton has never looked more secure in a manager’s chair which has looked about as comfortable to sit in as a bucking bronco since Sir Bobby Robson was shown the door just over six years ago.
Nobody would have predicted United’s win at Arsenal at the weekend, but then again nobody expected Newcastle to be fifth in the table after 11 games, seven points clear of the bottom three.
As things stand, European football looks more likely than a return to the Championship, but Hughton is quick to change the perspective and reign in expectations. “Safety remains our primary objective and that will not change because the league is such an unforgiving league,” said Hughton (right). “We will go through bad periods.
“We are on a very good run at the moment, three very good wins, but at some stage we will hit some bad form and results will not go our way, or we will hit bad luck in games.
“That is inevitable because of where we are and we have to be guarded by that.
“Subsequently, because of that, the most important thing for us is to stay in this division, allowing us to make progress again next year.”
One of those who failed to remain in the manager’s seat was Sam Allardyce, a big-name boss with an ego to match who came to the club preaching about set-pieces, the priority of defence over attack and the need for long-term planning.
According to ‘Big Sam,’ expectations were too high on Tyneside at a club which was last a prolific trophy-winning force in the 1950s and which has not secured a significant piece of silverware since the Fairs Cup success of 1969. Allardyce lasted eight months, unable to persuade the board or the club’s supporters his negative brand of football was worth persevering with, but perhaps he had a point.
The pressure of expectation was too high, the clamour for instant success too ferocious. The humbling experience of relegation has changed that.
Hghton admitted:“It is always difficult to say relegation was a good thing because the last thing you want from a club is to be relegated, but in some way it has helped us.
“What it has allowed us to do is put things in perspective.
“It has allowed the club to regroup , it has allowed the club to makeharsh decisions which have allowed us to go back to the Premier League and hopefully get to a sound footing again.
“The most important thing was the fact we discovered the winning habit again last season.
“For the players, last year was a really good season because, although we were in a different division, we saw real progress.
“What we wanted to do was take that progress into this division and we are going some way to doing that.” Allardyce used the £6m he received in compensation from Newcastle to buy a villa in Spain he named Casa St James in honour of those who paid for it.
It is a jibe which hides the bitter disappointment he carries for “failing” in his first big club job.
He said: “I don’t think there is any doubt I was not given time to make a mark.
“It was bitterly disappointing at the time because I was just beginning to get a good feeling for the place.
“The fans’ reaction was a bit of a shock at the time. It was not unexpected, as if you don’t do well, the crowd show their displeasure at Newcastle. “