Evening Standard

In the spotlight: Chris Hughton was shocked by his Newcastle axing. Image courtesy of Evening Standard

Chris Hughton should have every reason to be angry. Following a 15-year coaching career at Tottenham, he was finally handed a manager’s position at Newcastle after Alan Shearer failed to keep the club in the Premier League at the end of the 2008-09 season.

Not only did Hughton bring them back up with 102 points but, by early December, Newcastle were mid-table. And, what’s more, in the match that matters most to the fans on Tyneside, the Geordies beat deadly rivals Sunderland 5-1 at St James’ Park.

Then, after a defeat at West Brom, Hughton became the first top-flight manager this season to be sacked.

Yet, as we speak in a hotel in Elstree just two months on, Hughton could not be calmer.

“There are lots of emotions you go through, particularly in the way I lost the job,” he says. “But the best way is to keep your emotions to yourself. You know you can’t change anything. But, would I rather be there than here? Yes, of course.”

This is the same calm, measured air that he displayed in his playing days but it cannot completely hide the anguish the 52-year-old former Republic of Ireland international feels as he recalls that conversation with Newcastle managing director Derek Llambias.

“What he said was the club wanted to go in a different direction, and that was it,” he adds. “He did not explain what the different direction was and I didn’t ask. The conversation didn’t even last two minutes. Did it come as a shock? Yes, it did.

“A few weeks before, there had been a big Sky story saying I was going to get sacked. My contract was until the end of this campaign and, at the beginning of the season, talks about a new contract broke down.

“So there were indicators but I wasn’t expecting it, particularly when we were doing well. Our target was to stay in the top division and we were mid-table.

“There were some disappointing results. We had lost at home to Blackpool and to Stoke but we beat Sunderland 5-1, Aston Villa 6-0 and we won at Arsenal, Everton, and West Ham.

“That’s what we expected, an up and down season. But, if your bosses don’t want you or they don’t rate you, they want to bring somebody else in, then it’s only a matter of time. Only they know the reasons for sacking me.”

Hughton knows all about football insecurity from his time at White Hart Lane and, it seems, this has helped to steel his resolve.

“I went through 15 years as a coach at Spurs working under seven, eight different managers,” he says. “And every time a manager went, you weren’t sure whether you’d still be there.

“Some people might worry about these things but I never have. I’ve always been a great believer that you work as hard as you can and try to have some direction in your life.

“I had hundreds and hundreds of messages from supporters who couldn’t quite understand it [my sacking] either. They felt it was unjust.

“They appreciated the job I’d done there, that the club needed a period of stability and that we were starting to get there. If that was the case, why disrupt things again?”

Hughton went to Newcastle in 2008 when Kevin Keegan had his Second Coming at St James’ and his three years with the Toon have made him appreciate the very different passion of the ‘Geordie Nation’.

“What I experienced there is completely different to anywhere I’ve been before,” he admits. “It is local passion. They are passionate supporters because they are local supporters. And, when you get that, you can feel it more. They’ll tell how it is, whether they are happy with the team or when they’re not happy.”

Hughton rented a house in Jesmond, very close to the city centre, and insists he was never treated as a southern import. “Even through the bad times I’ve always been delighted at how I’ve been treated up there,” he says.

“Winning the Championship was my biggest achievement. But I didn’t have any bad experiences. I really enjoyed my time there and certainly I’m better for it.”

Born in Stratford of an Irish mother and a Ghanaian father, Hughton was different in that he was a black manager in England. Paul Ince, in charge at Notts County and Chris Powell, recently appointed at Charlton, are the only serving black bosses in the four professional divisions, yet Hughton is adamant that things are now different.

“If I look at some of the racism problems we’ve had in society over the years, then it would be wrong for me to say that it doesn’t affect football,” he insists. “The number of black people in the higher reaches of the game is very, very small.

“But I do think it has changed. We now have more black coaches and black ex-players wanting to be coaches. And we’ll see more in the future.”

Hughton also wants to see more women in the game and was taken aback when he heard the Andy Gray-Richard Keys comments about assistant referee Sian Massey.

He says: “I was surprised by the comments they made. Especially, in this day and age. As a manager, if I saw a female on the line for my match, that would not worry me in the slightest.

To get to that level, it means they are deemed to be good enough. Most people in football would accept that she’s earned the right to be there.

“There is still a blokey culture in the game in the respect that it’s played by men. But what has changed is that there are more females going to football now, more who are interested in the game than when I was a young boy.”

If that is also welcome, some of the other changes, including the current impatience being shown to managers, worries Hughton a great deal.

His sacking was followed by that of Sam Allardyce from Blackburn and this weekend, ironically, the man who engineered the result that led to Hughton’s departure: Roberto Di Matteo from West Brom.

“Sam would be older than me but we both played in eras when managers stayed in jobs for a long time,” he says. “They were allowed to mould a team and were allowed to go through the ups and downs. But the face of football has changed very much. There are new owners, higher expectation levels and a desire for quick fixes. It’s a new culture that I don’t see changing.”

This search for quick fixes saw a record £225million spent during this January’s transfer window – £50m on Fernando Torres and £35m for striker Andy Carroll, who was handed his League debut for Newcastle by Glenn Roeder in February 2007.

“That will always be the case,” says Hughton. “There will always be somebody who’s willing to pay out that sort of money.”

It is part of this acceptance of change which makes Hughton see why the money men want his old club Tottenham to move near his former home in Stratford. “For somebody who’s had such a long association with Spurs, I wouldn’t want to see them leave White Hart Lane,” he says.

“I’m quite sure that, in their hearts, the Spurs board would prefer to stay there. The big problem is that the money people are saying that, if you want to make progress as a club, then the only way you’re going to be able to do that is by moving away from White Hart Lane.

“Spurs need to compete with the big clubs. They finished in a Champions League spot last season and are pushing for it again this season. That is real progress. If they want to carry on making that progress, they’ve got to have a facility that’s big enough.”

The need is all the greater because, believes Hughton, Harry Redknapp has produced the best Spurs team he has ever seen. Here Hughton speaks with unique authority, having been part of Tottenham for 30 years, arriving there as a 13-year-old schoolboy.

He was part of the early 1980s team which won two FA Cups under Keith Burkinshaw, played in Peter Shreeves’ 1984-85 team which came close to winning the old First Division title and in David Pleat’s 1987 FA Cup Final team that lost to Coventry.

“They were good teams but this is best squad I can remember. What Harry’s done has been fantastic, particularly with the quality there is at the top of the division.”

Hughton’s dream of emulating Redknapp at St James’ Park may have been cruelly cut short but there is no mistaking his determination to be back at the highest level of the English game.

He adds: “I’d be open to the idea of going abroad but where I really want to be is here, to come back to the Premier League as a manager. In football you can always have revivals.”


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