When it comes to assessing the qualities of a successful football manager, it probably shouldn’t really matter that Chris Hughton is a nice guy but the fact that he is universally regarded as such only serves to make his sacking at Newcastle United seem all the more brutally unjust.
Not that we should confuse niceness with being soft. You don’t get to go mano a mano with Ruud Gullit in the European Championship finals without having proved your credentials in a thousand pitch battles. You don’t get to be Brian Kerr’s right-hand man in the Irish dug-out without being a figure of substance. And you sure as hell don’t get to survive a year and a half in the managerial ejector seat at St James’ Park unless you’re possessed of a keenly intelligent brain and a spine made of steel.
Eighteen months might not seem very long in the real world but at a club as dysfunctional as Newcastle United, it virtually counts as a lifetime. It’s an astonishing fact that Hughton’s year and a half makes him Newcastle’s longest-serving manager since Bobby Robson. Since then, the gaffers have been turning over at a rate of knots: Graeme Souness (17 months), Glenn Roeder (15 months), Sam Allardyce (eight months), Kevin Keegan (eight months), Joe Kinner (six months) and Alan Shearer (eight weeks).
After Shearer had shown he was no miracle-worker, Hughton stepped in as caretaker of a relegated and demoralised side, and promptly took care of things to such revolutionary effect that he managed to turn the laughing stock of the Premier League into the top dogs of the Championship in the space of one season.
This year they might have lacked consistency but as a newly promoted club, survival in the Premier League ought to have been the first order of the day and, with Newcastle currently in 11th place, Hughton was well on the way to achieving that critical goal.
A win against Arsenal and a memorable triumph in the Tyne and Wear derby against Sunderland were among the highlights but, with the club persistently refusing the opportunity to negotiate a new contract with Hughton, even the great days couldn’t quite disguise the sense that he was always regarded by the board as something less than officer material.
SUNDAY’S poor performance and defeat by West Brom provided them with a chance to plunge the knife.
Who knows, had they waited any longer Hughton might have led his side back to winning ways and what would the poor plotters do then?
Hughton is smart enough to have known that the blow would inevitably come one day but perhaps not quite as soon or as suddenly as this.
Indeed, he had his back turned and his face where it should be — looking at his players — as he held an hour-long inquest in the away dressing room at the Hawthorns. And one can only assume that the nice guy wasn’t handing out warming cuppas for 60 minutes.
Afterwards, with his customary flair for avoiding theatrics, he told the waiting media: “At the moment we are going through a difficult patch. What we have to do is make sure we learn from it. We have the personnel to come through this spell.”
Not now they don’t. Newcastle have lost their main man, someone regarded with respect and affection in equal measure by both players and supporters — and, beyond Tyneside, widely hailed for the professional, dignified and determined way he went about restoring credibility to a notoriously unstable club.
But none of that mattered enough to Mike Ashley, the Roman Abramovich of the north, yet another football club owner in thrall to instant gratification, a man who appears to confuse power with wisdom.
The weasel-worded statement issued in the aftermath of Hughton’s sacking spoke of the need to get a “more experienced” manager to take the club to the next level. It seemed to escape Ashley’s attention that experience is exactly what Chris Hughton was gaining on the job — and, sometimes, the most valuable lessons are those learned in adversity.
Which is to say that it’s entirely conceivable that Hughton and his team would have emerged stronger from a sequence of results which, at worst, can be regarded as a modest blip.
But we’ll never know now. Instead, it’s likely that Newcastle will play host to the latest bells and whistles arrival of another marquee name who has been kept discreetly under wraps while Chris Hughton has been dangled on a string.
No matter how things turn out at St James’ Park, yesterday was a bad day for Newcastle United, a bad day for football, and a bad day for one of the good guys.