A friend commented on Facebook Monday afrernoon that the last thing he expected to read in the UK press was that Newcastle had sacked manager Chris Hughton.
I was going to write a post about Newcastle's loss to West Brom on Sunday. I was going to write how Newcastle once again had a poor start in a game, and lacked the drive and motivation to carve out an equalizing goal. I was also going to write about how awful reservist midfielder Danny Guthrie played on Sunday. He was simply pathetic in his set plays (a free kick and a corner - why was he the kick taker?), passing, and defense. His very unfortunate slip and subsequent injury ended his nightmare of a day, as West Brom’s Peter Odemwingie ran past him to score his second goal.
This loss has Newcastle stuck on 19 points, with fewer than 3 points likely between now and the end of the calendar year. It's not the end of the world. December was expected to be a month devoid of points. And so this post was only going to be about the defeat in West Bromwich.
But all that changed on Monday morning when the team's board, and owner, Mike Ashley, made the shocking decision to terminate manager Chris Hughton. It was a disgusting stunt. The announcement came just after all the nation's newspapers were already printed for the day. The faithful drinking their coffee in Newcastle Monday morning wouldn't see the story on the sports page at the news dealer, but surely they saw it on their smart phones.
And what did the firing of Chris Hughton prove? A few things, apparently. Success is a punishable offense on Tyneside. The front office does not want to retain success or talent. The front office never respected nor appreciated Chris Hughton or the fans (at least they haven't respected the fans since the early part of this decade, when Newcastle were usually fifth or sixth place in the Premiership). And Hughton’s firing sent a clear message to players and managers for the foreseeable future: you won’t find any stability, comfort or anything resembling job security at NUFC for at least a few more years. With ten managerial changes (five of them terminations or resignantions) in the last five years, who would want to manage Newcastle now?
The players are reportedly devastated, blaming themselves for this senseless action. And the termination of Hughton puts Newcastle's mission for this season at serious risk. Their schedule is very difficult through December, so wins are unlikely for the time being. But if the team can't resume winning in January against Wigan and West Ham, they could drop out of the Premiership by May.
They are just five wins away from safety, but where are those five wins going to come from if the team is now in disarray?
Indeed, this firing makes zero sense. Hughton was providing competent managing while building a good relationship with his players. NUFC is trying to save money as the organization pays off its large debts. While Chris Hughton was not attracting top international talent to the club, that was not his objective for this first season back in the Premiership. His objective was easily understood by all: earn 35 points and keep the team in the Premiership. And we all knew there would be a limited budget with which to accomplish that. The club informed him that it did not have a sizable transfer budget for this season (and probably next season as well). Despite serious budget restrictions, Hughton was able to purchase six players during his tenure, including defenders Mike Williamson and Sol Campbell, and midfielders Hatem Ben Afra (on loan), Cheick Tiote, and Dan Gosling, who is scheduled to make his Newcastle debut in a few weeks. Hughton had Newcastle on-track for 10th or 11th place in the league, which would have been slightly better than the fans could have hoped (seriously, 40 points the first season back in the Top Flight would have been dreamy!).
It is an ugly and transparent lie when the club points to Hughton’s lack of "managerial experience" as grounds for termination. Never mind that he led the team out of the Championship in a short and smooth 11 months. The team was in shambles when he took over in May of 2009. By April of 2010, Newcastle were riding high, retaining their incredible fan base, and ready to make serious money again. Forget the fact that his record was 30 wins, 12 draws, and just 4 losses while in the Championship, and had a perfect undefeated record at home. Just forget the 90 goals scored during that season of recovery. Never mind the fact that Hughton had been in Newcastle’s front office since late 2007, and had 17 continuous years of coaching experience since he joined Tottenham as an assistant coach in 1993. Forget that he has had his UEFA Pro license easily renewed several times, while a former Newcastle manager, Glenn Roeder, didn't have the necessary license when he took over as manager in 2006. Lack of experience? What lack of experience?
As far as I know, there were zero calls for his termination from the squad. Hughton was a rising star. He was simply the correct man to lead the team for the foreseeable future. I actually envisioned Hughton celebrating 200 wins as Newcastle manager (he departs with 40 wins). But I should have known better. I should have known that Mike Ashley, a man who spends more time in London than in Newcastle, was itching to fire him months ago. And now Ashley has chosen the middle of the most challenging stretch in the season schedule to destroy the team’s chemistry and bring unnecessary emotional and financial stress onto the organization.
Mike Ashley’s lack of professional football knowledge is quite clear. While he was eager to terminate Chris Hughton, he and the board had no immediate successor named. If they saw Hughton as nothing more than a glorified caretaker / interim manager, then why bother hiring a “permanent” replacement? If the next guy can't be Ashley's lapdog, then he's doomed as well.
Some 36 hours after Hughton’s firing, the organization announced that it will name a new manager Thursday morning. And that new manager will be Alan Pardew, a man who sources say is close friends with Mike Ashley, and yet arguably has the same amount of league managing experience as Chris Hughton. In fact, the two men are nearly the same age with Pardew at 49 years of age and Hughton at 52. Needless to say, the Geordie faithful and even some owners, former players and coaches are quite upset over Hughton’s dismissal.
Newcastle supporters are obviously dreading the installation of Alan Pardew.
Newcastle host Liverpool late Saturday afternoon. What was to be a tense, close match a few weeks ago has now become a far more messy affair than it ever needed to be, thanks to an owner who doesn't care about the supporters, the players, or the proper way to let a team develop and grow in the Top Flight.
UPDATE, December 9th, 21:25: Ben, over at Black & White & Read All Over has chimed in with his excellent commentary, in addition to the references linked above and noted below. Who says covering Newcastle United is boring? I've been following the club since 1993, and it has been anything but.