Humble Hughton the toast of Newcastle

NEWCASTLE UNITED’S history is littered with folk heroes.

From Jackie Milburn, Malcolm Macdonald and Alan Shearer – men who have been granted legendary status at St James’ Park – to Bobby Robson, whose achievements in the game won him plaudits far beyond the black and white corner of the north east of England, services rendered in the club’s cause are celebrated long after their completion.

But rarely can the Toon Army have risen as one to show their appreciation for a more unlikely hero than former Republic of Ireland full-back Chris Hughton.

The 51-year-old is the current toast of the Toon which will no doubt be a cause of as much embarrassment as pride for the most modest of men.

The record books will show that Hughton guided Newcastle back into the Barclays Premier League at the first attempt.

What the record books will not document is just how unlikely a prospect promotion appeared when Hughton was thrust into a morass largely of the club’s own making last summer.

When Hughton was asked to take over as caretaker manager for the third time inside 12 months – a role which had brought him little success during his previous two spells – the future looked bleak.

Relegation from the top flight at the end of a traumatic season – first-team coach Hughton was one of four men, along with Kevin Keegan, Joe Kinnear and Shearer, to take the reins at various points – represented a humiliation for the club.

Owner Mike Ashley decided for the second time to put the business up for sale after, to the dismay of many supporters, opting not to employ Shearer on a permanent basis.

By the time the summer transfer window closed, the squad Hughton had inherited had been radically trimmed with eight senior players, including the out-of-contract Michael Owen and Mark Viduka, as well as Obafemi Martins, Sebastien Bassong, Damien Duff and Habib Beye, having moved on.

But it was on July 25 last year that the seeds of a fightback were sown.

That day, in the humble surroundings of Brisbane Road, the Magpies were trounced 6-1 by League One Leyton Orient in a pre-season friendly, sparking a no-holds-barred dressing-room post-mortem.

Since then, a commendable sense of unity of purpose regardless of what has gone on off the pitch has fuelled an unstoppable surge back into the big time.

For that, Hughton and his coaching staff deserve huge credit.

The former Tottenham full-back was a reluctant candidate for the job and as speculation mounted that he could be offered the position on a permanent basis as results and a series of manager of the month awards came his way, he was typically diplomatic.

He said at the time: “It’s nice. As with anything, any good publicity is always nice and flattering.

“We are where we are and until we are told anything different, we crack on as per normal.”

When the call did eventually come, as Ashley took the club off the market once again in October and decided to commit himself all-out to the quest for promotion, there were no doubts in Hughton’s mind.

That is testament to the spirit fostered under his guidance with the help of senior players Nicky Butt, Steve Harper, Alan Smith and Kevin Nolan. Hughton for one firmly believes it is the united front which has propelled the club back to where they feel they belong, when many observers were predicting the kind of prolonged demise which has afflicted one-time Champions League semi-finalists Leeds in recent years.

Hughton said: “It has been important, particularly from where we started the season and the uncertainty during the summer.

“It’s always been a big factor around here and something we wanted to promote.”

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