Is Hughton the right man for the big league?
Newcastle's manager must adapt fast to survive in the top flight
Wednesday 21 April 2010
Just about the only thing Chris Hughton has been unable to manage this season is to reunite Chas & Dave. Contractually obliged to immerse himself in the catchy work of the Cockney knees-up merchants at White Hart Lane in the early Eighties, the Newcastle manager, in one of his rare moments of candour this season, revealed with tongue only partially in cheek that he would like nothing more than to orchestrate a reunion after the pair split last year.
Otherwise Hughton, like his side, has enjoyed just about the perfect season. They will be presented with the Football League trophy in front of a 52,000 full house at St James' Park after Saturday's game with Ipswich, where an eighth consecutive victory will see them end the campaign unbeaten at home while reaching a century of points.
From Championship flat-track bullies, they will soon be cast as Premier League cannon fodder, the latest new arrivals looking to establish a foothold. Newcastle finished third after their previous promotion, but the top flight is a different beast to the one taken by storm by Kevin Keegan and Co 17 years ago. Survival, even for a club of their stature, has to be the aim. It is a realisable goal, but one which would arguably be made easier by a summer of significant change. There's a persuasive school of thought, and it seems perverse at a time when a club that has been the personification of turmoil in recent years finally seems to have found some stability, that they could benefit from further upheaval in the form of Hughton's departure.
That would give Mike Ashley – presuming the owner doesn't resurrect his so-far abortive efforts to sell now that the club's stock is finally on the rise – an opportunity to appoint a higher-profile new manager with ample time to prepare for the new season.
Mark Hughes fits that bill. Having experienced the goldfish bowl that is Manchester City, the unremitting media glare on St James' would not be much of a culture shock. Whether Hughton has the pulling power to attract the stature of player Newcastle now require is open to question.
He's been at home bringing in ones capable of helping to escape the Championship, but lacks standing on the European stage. It is an important factor, because after remuneration, potential new playing recruits tend to put the calibre of manager towards the top of their wish-list for future employers. Hughton has struggled in previous caretaker stints in the Premier League and perhaps it's better to leave now on his own terms, rather than be forced out with his reputation sullied should Newcastle endure an unwanted start next season.
That way, he leaves with his coaching career at its zenith, able to walk into the next Championship job that comes up, which is a scenario he would have jumped at less then 12 months ago. There are strong indications that should he not up sticks, and supporters are praying for a summer free of the turmoil that could ensue with another "will he, won't he sell" summer, the enigmatic Ashley, who has pumped in excess of £30m this season to bankroll promotion, will refuse to bite the bullet.
If he ignores the route of a higher-cost replacement and its long-term benefits, and tries to muddle through with Hughton on a budget which in Premier League terms is akin to footballing suicide, the task of ensuring survival becomes more tricky. Hughton has given up hope of a significant transfer kitty, with suggestions his summer budget could be under £15m. He said: "Talks are ongoing with the managing director and the owner, but we know they are different times these days."
Jimmy Bullard, Jamie O'Hara and Alan Hutton are all on the radar, purse-strings permitting, and Hughton added: "The days of big transfers – not only for Newcastle but for everybody – are a thing of the past. You have to look to improve, but you have to do it wisely." Insisting he has no qualms about going into next season with the nucleus of his Championship-winning squad, he added: "We know it's going to be tough, but we've generated good momentum and these lads deserve an opportunity."
There are players – Steve Harper, Danny Simpson, Steven Taylor, Jose Enrique, Kevin Nolan, Joey Barton and Andy Carroll – upon whom Hughton can rely to perform at the higher level. "Having shut the pundits up once this season, we need to do it again next," Nolan, their 18-goal captain, insisted. He added: "What Chris and Mike Ashley now decide to do is up to them, but we're confident as a team that we're good enough for the Premier League."
For every Nolan, there are several others who fall into a rather grey area. Top flight doubts remain with Wayne Routledge, Alan Smith, Ryan Taylor, Danny Guthrie, Peter Lovenkrands, Mike Williamson, Shola Ameobi, Fabricio Coloccini and Jonas Gutierrez.
Supporters will point to the outstanding campaign enjoyed by many of those players, but it's one thing leading the journeymen of Barnsley or Blackpool a merry dance, it's another replicating that at Old Trafford or Stamford Bridge.
Only those with goldfish memories will fail to recall how inept many of these same players were when Newcastle were relegated in disarray less than a year ago. It could turn into a slog on the Tyne for Hughton in his efforts to prevent a repeat. Then he can turn his attention to that Chas & Dave reunion.
What the magpies need
* To retain the support of the fans. Newcastle averaged 43,000 this term, among the top five in the country.
* Mike Ashley must ensure there is no doubt over his ownership commitment.
* Continue their home form. It's been almost 12 months since they were last beaten at St James', and sustained form there will be a cornerstone of survival.
* Back the manager. Chris Hughton could have as little as £15m to spend – Ashley needs to back him with more then double that to ensure that they can compete at the highest level.
* A proven Premier League striker. Andy Carroll has potential but has not proven it in the top flight.
* Keep Joey Barton fit and out of trouble. If he stays injury-free the midfielder will be like a new signing.
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