It was a crazy game at Blackpool tonight and it’s a crazy looking division at the moment, with all three promoted teams sitting pretty in the top half. But while the clash at Bloomfield Road resembled more of a pantomime than a football match, the real outstanding slice of theatre was being dished out the day before at St James’ Park.
With the 5-1 spanking of their hated local rivals, Newcastle United reinforced the notion that they are savouring their renaissance. Sunderland can be blamed for something of an implosion but the realism of the situation is that the Toon’s performance was as impressive as anything seen outside Stamford Bridge this season.
And now here comes an admission. Chris Hughton never looked like a football manager to me. His installation to hold together crumbling forts at Tottenham and then Newcastle always had the feel of the supply teacher about it, and even over the summer following Newcastle’s relegation, the club’s board grappled with Alan Shearer over what kind of money it would require for him to move in and take over the unruly class again.
But Hughton survived on results back then and has continued to do so until this day. Nowadays he is not just football’s only coach who could get work simultaneously promoting two ‘before’ shades for Just For Men; he has also done one of the finest jobs of any manager in the country over the last twelve months. So why do rumours persist over his position?
The cynical conclusion would be that the media need a story in the aftermath of the Hicks and Rooney bombshells and Newcastle can usually be relied upon to provide as much. But there’s never smoke without fire, and where Mike Ashley is concerned, it’s usually worth having an extinguisher on standby.
Perhaps wisely, the cockney boy who all Toon fans love to hate has kept quiet during this age of resurgence. But the niggling feeling is that here is a man who can’t allow his toe to hover above the water for too long. Hughton has answered any doubts emphatically this season, and particularly in Sunday’s demolition, but with every defeat he will be looking over his shoulder.
The case against Hughton is that he is a man unfit for dealing with big egos; that strong personalities need an iron rod to keep them on the straight and narrow. But by allowing Kevin Nolan to act as mentor to the wayward Andy Carroll and giving Joey Barton an opening to carve a career with his feet rather than his fists, Hughton has instilled a close bond between his charges. And it’s no surprise who the chief protagonists were when Sunderland were put to the sword.
Still the argument goes that Hughton is a manager who doesn’t manage, succumbing to the age of player power and passing over the dressing room to the senior pros in the side. Whether that’s true or not, this kind of lateral thinking is something unlikely to have ever been deployed during the totalitarian regimes of Souness, Allardyce or Kinnear, and the approach has paid dividends.
With his ill-fated history of quotes and unfortunate penchant for picking managers out of his 1999 sticker album, Ashley would be well advised that the sound of silence is the way forward. And by and large even Newcastle’s famously histrionic fans are being placated by results. There will always be the odd dissenter but they ought to be banished to the top tier of the Gallowgate to be seen and not heard.
While a glossy position in the table does not account for the fact that they are yet to meet with Arsenal, Chelsea or Tottenham in the league, could any Magpies fan have said without jest that they could expect to find themselves where they are now after the turmoil of 18 months ago? Having made no permanent signings in the summer, Hughton guided the club out of the Championship – a graveyard for the havoc-stricken behemoth – with nerveless ease and they’ve taken to life back with the big fish like they’ve never been away.
Hughton may not be the sort of man who wants his face beamed alongside the Tyne Bridge but perhaps that’s what Newcastle need after a raft of big name failures. If he can continue to get results then he can rest assured. But while the new contract fails to materialise, the rumours will persist.
Stability doesn’t sit well with Newcastle and until it does their fortunes will continue to fluctuate, which is why Hughton putting pen to paper is a must for the club at this moment. But this is a story still in Ashley’s clumsy hands and all he needs to do is flick the page to start a new chapter of the tragicomedy on the Tyne and allow the soap opera to start all over again.