CHRIS HUGHTON was an under-appreciated saviour of Newcastle United, writes Stuart Rayner.
THERE is never likely to be a statue of Chris Hughton outside St James’ Park to match the one of Sir Bobby Robson. It may be sacrilegious to say it out loud on Tyneside, but if anything, the quiet man of Newcastle United is even more deserving.
Robson was not just a great manager but a great man. His charisma and enthusiasm transcended football’s tribal loyalties.
He restored Kevin Keegan’s slightly damaged legacy to bring Newcastle some of the greatest nights in their history against clubs like Feyenoord, Juventus and Inter Milan.
When you consider the great days in Hughton’s Magpies career came against the likes of Plymouth Argyle, Barnsley and Ipswich Town, it is perhaps not a surprise his image is yet to be cast in bronze.
However, the reception Hughton gets when he brings Norwich City to his old stomping ground tomorrow will underline just how much the fans of Newcastle appreciate what he did for them in their hour of need.
As those who played under Hughton are only too willing to attest, it is not just the supporters who are grateful to him and his loyal assistant Colin Calderwood.
“He deserves a fantastic ovation and recognition for what he did in his time here,” reflects Hughton’s first-choice goalkeeper, Steve Harper.
“He played a huge part in the rebuilding of this club and I’m sure the fans won’t want to forget that and will show their appreciation before and probably at the end of the game as well.
“Chris and Colin – don’t forget Colin – did magnificently.”
A once-great club was not quite at is lowest ebb when Hughton took over, but not far off.
It is no exaggeration to say the Magpies would not have been playing Europa League football in Madeira on Thursday had it not been for him.
His successor, Alan Pardew, was quick to acknowledge his debt to Hughton for laying solid foundations when he picked up the Manager of the Year Award at the end of last season.
It is worth remembering the terrible situation Hughton stepped into in the summer of 2009.
Newcastle had been humiliatingly relegated after a season of three managers.
Hughton had played his part, standing in twice as caretaker without managing to lift the club from its lethargy.
Prize assets had to be sold – though crucially not all of them. More importantly, morale had to be rebuilt.
Fortunately, as he showed at Birmingham City last season, Hughton’s unassuming style is perfectly suited to the job of crisis management.
Harper added: “He steered the club through very choppy waters and did a fantastic job of it.
“He’ll get a fantastic reception but that won’t stop us trying to win!”
Hughton’s appointment, almost by stealth, was nothing like Keegan’s triumphant return to St James’ Park, an instant shot in the arm to rock-bottom morale when the club were staring relegation to the third tier right in the face.
Hughton was hardly anyone’s first-choice for the job.
That was Alan Shearer, who finished the previous season in the dug-out.
Even when the season started, Hughton was still only a caretaker.
Quite apart from his underwhelming record the previous season – two points from 10 games – there was another problem with Hughton. The theme of 2008-09 was the bile directed against the “Cockney Mafia” running the club.
A Republic of Ireland star he may have been, but Hughton was born and brought up in Forest Gate, London. He had the accent to go with it.
Like all good managers, Hughton had the commonsense to play to his strengths. Where Robson used his seemingly endless enthusiasm to inspire players to joyful football, Hughton’s quiet humility came to the fore.
Bereft of ego, he appreciated as a caretaker with no managerial pedigree to fall back on, he lacked dressing-room authority.
While other managers would have been determined to stamp their mark on the players they inherited, Hughton took a backseat and left it to senior figures like Harper, Kevin Nolan and Joey Barton to get a grip on the squad, most famously after a humiliating pre-season drubbing at Leyton Orient.
His quiet revolution was very much a player-led one. The results spoke for themselves – unbeaten at home all season, and promoted back to the Premier League as champions, 102 points later, at the first attempt.
It was such a turnaround that by the end of the campaign the supporters finally began to chant his name, to his sheepish response.
Even the manner of Hughton’s departure helped his image, shown the door after a knee-jerk reaction to poor run of early-season results by an unpopular hierarchy anxious for a more assertive man at the helm.
Appreciated more now he has gone then when he was on Tyneside, Hughton seems certain to get his dues tomorrow. He will probably wish he – like the banned Pardew – was in the stands, out of sight, out of mind. Like it or not, he deserves better.