x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Hughton rises above cynicism with real class

Shorn of a colossal ego or a fondness for controversy, Chris Hughton's actions suggest the gulf between career coach and professional manager is gaping.

Chris Hughton, the Newcastle United manager, is believed to be the lowest paid manager in the Premier League, despite being one of the best performing in terms of results.
Chris Hughton, the Newcastle United manager, is believed to be the lowest paid manager in the Premier League, despite being one of the best performing in terms of results.

The cult of the manager is pervasive. It breeds expectations, of large figures with larger-than-life personalities, of auras and an ability to intimidate, of a quick wit and a short fuse. It suggests they are a breed apart.

No wonder Chris Hughton appears an odd man out. Short of stature, polite and courteous by nature and resolutely unquotable while many of his peers chase the headlines, he is the antidote.

Shorn of a colossal ego or a fondness for controversy, his actions suggest the gulf between career coach and professional manager is gaping.

Perhaps that is why Hughton's reign at Newcastle United has the feel of an extended interregnum. Perhaps that is the consequence of the club's addiction to big names, something they had seemed to be weaned off in the past 15 months. Perhaps it is the result of the rumours that have swirled around Tyneside in recent weeks that he would be sacked.

The unconvincing statement released, but not signed, by the Newcastle board after Wednesday's Carling Cup defeat to Arsenal said that Hughton's contract, which expires in the summer, will be renegotiated later this year. It should be a matter of urgency after the 5-1 derby win over Sunderland on Sunday.

Unusually for managers deemed under pressure, Hughton is popular with both players and supporters, who chorused his name at St James' Park. Atypically, too, there are few reasons to dismiss him.

By objective assessment, Hughton is one of the best-performing managers in the Premier League. He has taken the promoted club to seventh in the table, two points ahead of Liverpool, one behind Tottenham Hotspur and three adrift of Manchester City, each owners of a significantly bigger budget and rather higher aspirations.

His side have a fine away record and have already won 6-0 and 5-1 at home. They are the fourth highest scorers in the division, so the paying public are being entertained.

Look at the traditional measures of a manager and he is delivering. One of his signings, Cheik Tiote, has been outstanding in the midfield. Another, Hatem Ben Arfa, began promisingly before breaking his leg.

Hughton has designed a system and a style of play to suit the personnel at his disposal. An aggressive approach and an aerial attack aids Andy Carroll and Shola Ameobi, the hulking strikers. Moving Joey Barton to the right flank from his usual berth in the centre of midfield has ensured that a fine crosser is providing an excellent supply line. Most remarkably, the limited Kevin Nolan is, after his derby hat-trick, the joint top scorer in the Premier League.

There is a sense of unity and a common work ethic at a club that used to be noted for the fractiousness and the failings of the overindulged. That has been consigned to the past. As Hughton is thought to be the lowest-paid manager in the division, it is hard to argue his employers are not getting value for money.

The mystery lies in the workings of the Newcastle board. Mike Ashley, the invariably silent owner, tends to camouflage his intentions which, at the moment, is spreading uncertainty. Yet while the Newcastle supporters were long accused of harbouring delusions of grandeur, there is a realism on the terraces about Hughton's understated excellence.

If it is replicated in the boardroom, a new contract will be swiftly proffered, long-term and lucrative. Common-sense Chris may be the voice of normality in Premier League management, but that is about as normal as taking a five-goal lead in a local derby. It is all the more reason to cherish him, rather than undermining him.

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sports@thenational.ae