It’s difficult to argue too much with Newcastle’s recent decision to appoint Chris Hughton as their permanent manager. After all, Newcastle are two points clear at the top of the table, averaging two points per game and are undefeated at home.
Yet if I was a Newcastle fan I would have deep concerns about the decision. When Middlesbrough finally took the plunge and ditched the clearly struggling Gareth Southgate, they did not mess about. They appointed Gordon Strachan, a man with genuine experience and a history of success. He has won Championships. He even took Southampton to an FA Cup Final.
Newcastle, meanwhile, appointed Chris Hughton, who has never taken sole charge of a team until this season. I’m not sure how much debate this caused in Geordieland, but whatever discussion it may have generated has surely been totally engulfed by the latest embarrassment to crawl out of a once proud club. When Newcastle take on Peterborough this weekend, you may have read, the two teams will no longer be running out into the historic cauldron of football known as St James’ Park. They’ll be running out into something called ‘sportsdirect.com @ St James’ Park’.
Without a doubt, the stupidest, nonsensical and downright insulting renaming of a football ground in history.
But let’s get back to my point. The Championship is now beginning to settle down and while Newcastle still lead the pack, only an extremely blinkered fan would suggest they are certainties for promotion. By all accounts their victory against Sheffield United this week was rather fortunate, as was their draw with QPR and their narrow victory over lowly Doncaster.
At the moment, the quality that United have in the likes of Kevin Nolan, Jonas Gutierrez and Steven Taylor is seeing them through. They do have good options up front, but this season will only get tougher as Championship sides figure out ways to counteract their play.
While things are going well Hughton may be able to keep a steady hand on the tiller. But when they hit their inevitable sticky patch, does Hughton really have the nous, the personality or the experience to drag his team through it?
Last season, Birmingham City pretty much achieved promotion through an edge in quality and the bloody-mindedness of manager Alex McLeish. They were never particularly impressive, certainly never as effective as Wolves, but they grabbed the points when it mattered. As the winter months draw in, will Hughton be able to withstand the pressure of expectation?
True, Newcastle are top, but just six points separate 1st place from 10th position (in contrast, eight points separate first from fourth in the Premier League). It is a tiny gap that could easily be breached in a matter of weeks. Several clubs are beginning to find their stride as well. QPR have been looking like an awesome attacking force. Leicester City are incredibly difficult to beat and have genuine quality up front. Cardiff have enough firepower to defeat anybody. West Brom just put five past Watford. Even Swansea are improving at a frightening rate under Paulo Sousa after a difficult start.
Can you imagine how these teams would have felt if Newcastle had chosen Strachan or Alan Curbishley or if they’d managed to tempt someone like Claudio Ranieri? Appointing career number twos very rarely works – something Sunderland found with Ricky Sbragia. You have to be more than a good coach.
Cardiff fans know only too well that a quick start in this league can mean very little come the end of the season. Newcastle may regret their inability to appoint a stronger, proven manager – or even a talismanic figure like Alan Shearer – when next May comes around. If we’re honest the appointment of Hughton would have been unthinkable even six months ago, and that’s no disrespect to a man who is undoubtedly a good coach and a genuine football man.
These days, very little at sportsdirect.com @ St James’ Park surprises anyone anymore. Good luck to Chris Hughton – he’s going to need it.