Mike Ashley could be facing winter of fans' discontent

THE shock decision to sack Chris Hughton is in danger of reawakening an angry mood of discontent.

Mike Ashley and Derek Llambias

AS Newcastle United's manager Chris Hughton not only brought stability to a club in turmoil, he also brought dignity and class to a regime apparently lacking both.

It was Hughton who repaired the damage done by relegation and it was Hughton who successfully guided the club back into the Premier League when most feared they were sliding towards a terminal decline.

It was results on the pitch, not interest-free loans from owner Mike Ashley, that brought promotion. It was Hughton’s presence in the dressing room, not the owner’s in the boardroom, that nurtured team spirit and restored a collective purpose.

Ashley paid the bills and covered the losses. He protected Newcastle United as a business – but Hughton rebuilt it as a football club.

He was the man who kept his head in the aftermath of relegation to the Championship when everyone around him seemed to be losing theirs.

He was the man who steadied the ship in the eye of the storm and carefully steered it away from a sea of uncertainty into calmer waters. And then he was pushed overboard.

He will not sink. A rookie manager when took on the United job 19 months ago, he has done enough to ensure he gets another job as a manager in the future. He deserves it.

There was widespread scepticism when he first stepped out of Alan Shearer’s shadow, but the “Hughton is a Geordie banner” unveiled before the start of the Tyne-Wear derby back in October said it all.

There is no greater honour for an outsider at St James’ Park to be adopted as one of the supporter’s own and few managers have generated as much affection as Hughton has over the last 18 months.

His achievements on the pitch brought respect, promotion was so special because it had been so unexpectedly straightforward, but it was the manner in which he conducted himself that earned a unique place in United hearts.

He will never be a Kevin Keegan or Sir Bobby Robson, but it is not an exaggeration to suggest the way he has been treated has generated almost as much anger among supporters.

The reason there have not been any anti-Ashley chants for months is because Hughton ensured the focus remained on the team, on their trials and tribulations, not what was or was not happening in the boardroom.

He has never been in any way critical of the regime that employed him, not when the club released a ridiculous statement back in May inferring they would not be paying any transfer fees over the summer, not when they refused to open new contract talks and not when they tried to make him have Peter Beardsley as his assistant.

He will be deeply upset about what has happened. He will feel betrayed and let down and he will be frustrated he has not been given the chance to right recent wrongs – but you doubt that you will hear him say any of it in public.

That is a mark of the man and an indication as to why he is so universally liked and respected, and why the Ashley regime, with its propensity for public relation disasters, will constantly attract criticism and mistrust.

We do not know much about Ashley. He has never spoken to the fans through any medium and he has never shown any inclination that he would like to.

But what we do know is he does not care what people think about him or the decisions he makes, and although he will soon realise how much anger there is surrounding this issue, it will not worry him in the slightest.

It is his club and he can do with it as he wishes. He paid for relegation out of his own pocket and he has a plan to restore the club to former glories. Sadly, it is a plan which does not include Hughton.

There will probably be some public show of defiance at the Liverpool game this weekend, but supporters will have to ask themselves what good it will do to a group of players who are still trying to come to terms with what has happened to their popular leader.

There will be calls for Ashley to get out of town again, but he has tried – twice – to do just that without any success.

It has only been a little over 12 months since he took the club off the market after failing to find a buyer at a knock down price of £100m.

Instead, the club will hope the agenda moves forward again with good results and a good replacement, and Martin Jol has the sort of big club pedigree they are after.

His decision to resign as manager of Ajax after flirting with Fulham in the summer seems like more than just a coincidence; he could be in England as early as today to discuss terms.

However, Ajax have been struggling in their domestic league and have been knocked out of the Champions League in the Group stage, so Jol may simply have been quitting the Dutch club because he felt he had taken the club as far as he could.

Martin O’Neill is also out of work after quitting as Aston Villa boss and has the track record, clout, experience and profile to be welcomed into the job.

But would he want it? O’Neill left Villa because he did not get enough money to spend in the summer and he does not like any sort of boardroom interference.

Ashley has not been generous with the cash either and he and managing director Derek Llambias like to be heavily involved in the football side of things as well.

Stranger things have happened, but there would have to be a major change in approach at St James’ Park to persuade the outstanding candidate to accept an offer.

What about Joe Kinnear? He remains close to the board, who have consistently maintained United would never have been relegated had he not suffered a heart attack in February 2009 and would love to return to the North East.

And then there is Alan Pardew. Out of work, rumoured to have been offered the job weeks ago on internet message boards and social networking site Twitter and willing to brave the climate of animosity to take on such a big job.


David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer