Hughton keeps focus on derby after he falls foul of bookies

Chris Hughton, the Newcastle manager, yesterday insisted it was business as usual as he attempted to concentrate on the visit of neighbours Sunderland in the wake of his club unwittingly fanning the flames of speculation over his immediate future.

Hughton was the subject of rumours that he was about to be dismissed in the build-up to Wednesday's Carling Cup match with Arsenal, but the speculation was seemingly driven by nothing more substantial than publicity-hungry bookmakers, sections of the media and idle gossip. After the game, the club took the unusual step of releasing a statement stressing that the manager's job was safe.

It is perhaps a sign of the times that a man who has guided his team to the Championship title and into the top half of the Premier League can find himself having to reiterate that he will still be in charge on Sunday, when Steve Bruce's side arrive in search of a first win on Tyneside for almost a decade.

The seeming reticence of Mike Ashley to open talks on a new contract – Hughton's current deal expires at the end of the season – has created a vacuum that has been filled with gusto by renewed speculation, backed up by supposed frenzied betting activity, that the Newcastle owner is in the market for a new, more high-profile manager. The best the rumour-mongers could come up with, however, was the far from box-office Alan Pardew.

"One thing I can guarantee is that the 11 players that start will all be ready for the derby," insisted Hughton, who is not the first and will not be the last manager to find himself a human casualty of the voracious gambling industry. On more than one occasion before Rafael Benitez's departure from Anfield, betting was suspended, and publicity of course gained, by bookmakers refusing to take further money on the Spaniard's demise. On the other hand the odds-makers seemed to be ahead of the game when Martin O'Neill parted company with Aston Villa at the start of the season.

Newcastle hardly helped Hughton's cause, issuing a tepid vote of confidence that could be filed under "too little, too late". Not for the first time the hierarchy at St James' Park were guilty of being reactive. In many ways it would have been better to remain silent on the matter until contract talks are opened, rather than being drawn into a story they have unwittingly now given fresh legs to. This one will run.

Hughton found an ally in Bruce, who has in the past come close to filling the role currently occupied by the former Tottenham Hotspur defender. "When I'm told he's under pressure, or that his job is under threat, I find it absolutely ridiculous," Bruce said. "It's the downside to what we do for living. I find it appalling that he has been criticised and questioned, but that's unfortunately what we have to deal with. For him to have to answer questions on it, I found that totally ridiculous."

Hughton, never the most natural in front of reporters, was clearly uncomfortable when asked for his reaction to Newcastle's hastily-issued statement, although the voracity with which he continues his search for a new assistant to replace the departed Colin Calderwood suggests he feels he is still in the job long-term, and rightly so.

Ashley disposed of Sam Allardyce within a matter of months after taking charge three and a half years ago, but Hughton enjoys the advantage of being appointed by the incumbent owner 12 months ago. Clearly keen to put the issue to bed, he said: "We've just been getting on with the job and preparing for Sunderland.

"It's a massive game and it's all we're talking about. My understanding is that I am manager of this football club. I'm proud of that and looking forward to a big derby game."

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