The actions of Newcastle United’s owner, Mike Ashey, since he took charge three years ago, have surprised, shocked and appalled many. Last week, the multi-millionaire eccentric plumbed new depths and raised many an eyebrow with the extraordinary decision to sack Chris Hughton, the man who had brought stability and, indeed, promotion to a club in crisis.
London-born Chris Hughton served many years as assistant coach at the club with which he spent most of his playing career, Tottenham Hotspur. Indeed such was his quality as a coach, he was kept on as assistant by no fewer than nine different managers between 1992 and 2007. This fact alone is representative of the high regard in which he is held in the game; very rarely does a new manager arrive without his own staff, particularly his own right-hand man. Having served an extended apprenticeship, Hughton’s time at White Hart Lane eventually came to an end with the sacking of Martin Jol in 2007. The fact that he had never managed outright led to surprise upon the announcement that the likeable ‘Irishman’ was to be caretaker manager of Newcastle United in 2008/9 following the departure of heroic player but less-than-convincing manager, Alan Shearer. The work Hughton did at St. James’ Park under what were extremely testing conditions was little short of superb.
Mike Ashley had given short shrift to the seemingly habitual scapegoat, Sam Allardyce, before he installed fan favourite and former ‘messiah’ Kevin Keegan as manager in 2008. Keegan’s time at Newcastle was undermined, however, by the so-called ‘Cockney Mafia’ of Ashley, managing director Derek Llambias, and the Director of Football, the tigerish and unpleasant Dennis Wise. The triumvirate interfered extensively with the running of the first team, to the extent that ‘King Kev’, not for the first time, walked out. Following the bizarre appointment of Joe Kinnear and the desperate appointment of Alan Shearer, Hughton was in place for the start of 2009/10. Despite his position not being made permanent until November 2009, Hughton guided Newcastle United to domination in the Championship, the club finishing top of the table with their highest-ever points total. This season, Hughton was just gaining a foothold and attempting to establish the club in the Premier League, when he was dismissed. Newcastle were in 11th place in the league.
The general reaction in the football world was one of shock. It was almost impossible to understand Ashley’s decision-making; a man who had the respect of his players and his peers, who had guided the team to promotion and who was doing a commendable job of consolidating in the Premier League, sacked on a whim. The fans, as was to be expected, were and are furious, with demonstrations held, for the umpteenth time, outside St. James’. Much to the chagrin of the Toon Army, Mike Ashley decided that the club needed a manager “with more experience”. How exactly the rotund owner came to this conclusion is a mystery; had Hughton’s team been struggling at the foot of the table, with only a slim chance of survival, the hard decision to sack the manager might have been understandable. As it was, the fans, while still feeling sorrow for their former manager, inevitably began discussing potential successors. The most obvious candidate appeared to be Martin Jol, a likeable character with a proven record in the Premier League, who began the slow turnaround of Spurs from mid-table ‘wannabes’ to Champions League contenders. The big Dutchman recently left Ajax and is now a free agent; and had Jol been brought in and had an instant impact, as harsh as it may seem to say, the hurt at the treatment of Chris Hughton would fade fairly quickly.
In a move that amazed even those familiar with the circus routine at Newcastle under Ashley, the owner decided against bringing in Jol, and instead, plumped for Alan Pardew. Pardew was last seen getting sacked by League One also-rans Southampton at the end of August. The experience Ashley must have been hugely impressed by includes two decent seasons at West Ham, promotion and FA Cup final appearance, relegation with Charlton and an unimpressive stint with the Saints. The appointment of Pardew must surely be seen as a sideways step at best. Alan Pardew’s experience amounts to two seasons in the Premier League in a ten year career, hardly a solid and established background that deserves preference over Hughton.
One cannot blame Pardew for taking the managerial post at St. James’s, despite its propensity to entertain at the expense of its supporters, Newcastle United is clearly a big club, with a huge support and a high profile; should he be able to create order from the chaos of the Ashley regime, Pardew will have achieved a great deal. Equally though, should his reign end, as have his predecessors, ignominiously in a year or so, he will receive little sympathy, entering the fray, as he does, in full knowledge of the owner’s idiosyncratic and often destructive actions.