Chris McGrath: Shame on Ashley for failing to recognise Hughton's remarkable Newcastle rescue job

The Last Word

Say what you like about the Carling Cup, it's not often you see a goalkeeper with no arms matched against one who can score the kind of goal few people had ever seen a week ago.

Admittedly Tim Krul knew rather less about his own goal on Wednesday, ricocheting off the back of his cranium, than had that performing seal, Javier Hernandez, when scoring for Manchester United against Stoke three days previously. At the other end, equally, Wojciech Szczesny demonstrated not only that he has retrieved full use of his arms, after contriving to break both in a gym accident last year, but also that Arsène Wenger may have had sound reasons for refusing to buy a top-class goalkeeper – apart, that is, from an inveterate belief that whatever is obvious to everyone else cannot possibly be right.

He's the benign dictator, the Arsenal manager, predicating his every move on the suspicion that the majority will dependably get things wrong. Sure enough, now that his previous wariness of the Carling Cup has been embraced by managers and fans almost everywhere, he has suddenly decided to take the thing seriously. Maybe it was all a cunning double bluff.

If so, the latest sucker was Chris Hughton, the Newcastle manager, who might as well have sent a white flag to the visitor's dressing room as a team-sheet. He had decided to hold back his big guns for the attritional business of surviving in the Premier League – a pity, because Newcastle are one of many clubs for whom the Carling Cup nowadays represents just about their only chance of winning a trophy.

Now, sadly, they have fallen for the corrosive lie that 17th place in the Premier League is all the fulfilment most clubs and fans can reasonably seek. Let's hope Hughton's ambition had not been contaminated by the bewildering "rumours" supposedly surrounding his future. For the most part, it must be said, Hughton has maintained a heroic dignity – which is more than might be said for those who keep asking him on television whether he is at all unsettled by all these unsettling questions.

Even by the egregious standards of football, to discard Hughton now would be an affront to decency and sanity. True, given who pays his salary, that offers him precious little comfort. But you would like to think that even Mike Ashley can recognise that he has somehow ended up with one of the ablest managers in the land – despite reportedly paying him about ten bob a week.

Anyone could see that the rabble relegated two seasons ago were more likely to plummet straight into the next division than bounce straight back, as they did, with 102 points. And here they are, ninth in the table. Hughton, in his understated way, has brought authority and unity to a dressing room that might otherwise serve as the china shop to Andy Carroll's bull. He has also coaxed a striking renewal from Joey Barton and, but for wretched luck, hinted that he might be able to do something similar with Hatem Ben Arfa.

And what of the fans, so often patronised for delusions about their club's rightful standing? Well, they seem heartily relieved to see Hughton bring a stable end to the messianic derangement that brought back Kevin Keegan and Alan Shearer.

In fact, the only discernible source of discontent on the terraces – apart from Ashley himself, of course – is the fact that they must share them tomorrow with the good folk of Sunderland.

If this nonsense has only obtained a life of its own through the amplification of unattributed whispers by press and bookmakers, then it is easily within even Ashley's competence to prove as much. During the week the club produced a statement ostensibly in support of Hughton, suggesting that his contract would be renegotiated at the end of the season. Well, so you would jolly well hope, because that's when it expires.

Running down his contract keeps the sword dangling by a horsehair. What Ashley should be doing, of course, is putting a new, improved deal on the table immediately, if not before. That would shut people up. More to the point, it would show due gratitude for what Hughton has been doing. It might even start rumours on Tyneside that Ashley has half a brain. As Wenger knows, people are prepared to believe anything.

Real scandal is Pique's failure to make the Ballon d'Or's shortlist

Plenty of Englishmen have shared a fit of pique that not one of their compatriots has made the shortlist for the Ballon d'Or. This is of course a dreadful affront to Emile Heskey, Matthew Upson and Gareth Barry after their coruscating contributions to England's luckless World Cup adventure. To any neutral, however, Pique is a far more literal reaction to the Fifa list of 23.

Never mind the English. Apparently there have been seven better Spaniards playing football over the last year than Gerard Pique, whose blossoming since leaving Old Trafford qualifies him as perhaps the biggest blunder of the Sir Alex Ferguson era.

Apparently the theory was that the emerging Jonny Evans would render him superfluous to requirements. Ferguson has had many opportunities to repent in the meantime. Perhaps he thought of Pique's old head on young shoulders as Gary Neville, already booked, launched that senile assault on Matthew Etherington at Stoke last weekend. (And yes, Tony Pulis, you are right – that was a disgusting piece of refereeing.)

No matter how giddy the stage, or how frantic the play, Pique has pipe-smoking time on the ball. And when things get sticky – as he showed most memorably, albeit ultimately in a fruitless cause, against Internazionale last season – you can send him up front and marvel at a striker who would walk straight into the England team.

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