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Apr 19, 2010

Hughton dancing to own Toon

As Chris Hughton was handed the unenviable task of steadying a rocking Newcastle United ship back in August, few gave the Irishman much hope of navigating a route to calmer waters.

• Newcastle take the title

Bookmakers may have rushed to install Newcastle as Championship favourites as one of English football's most famous names were thrown in at the shallow end against the snappy minnows of Doncaster and Peterborough, yet their tip was based on reputation rather than logic.

In truth, most observers suspected a seemingly shattered Newcastle would 'do a Leeds' and stumble all the way down to the third tier of the English league ladder, with caretaker boss Hughton dismissed as a lightweight who was only in position because no one else would accept the poisoned chalice of English football.

However, Monday night witnessed an occasion Newcastle could barely have dreamed about a year ago. Promotion back to the Premier League at the first time of asking had long been assured, yet the icing was applied to the Geordie cake as a win at Plymouth confirmed a Championship title party will take place at St James' Park this coming Saturday.

Hughton's attempts to claim this Newcastle revival has been a team effort rather than a triumph he would take the credit for should fall on deaf ears, as this likeable and respected coach should attract more than his fair share of plaudits for reviving a club that was on its knees this time last year.

Many a big name from Alan Shearer to Sam Allardyce, Ruud Gullit to Kenny Dalglish melted under the heat of the Newcastle hot-seat, yet the man previously famous for being a No.2 to several Tottenham managers and with the Republic of Ireland national team has quietly and efficiently got on with his job while shying away from the sort of publicity his 'celebrity' predecessors attracted.

"It has been a wonderful few weeks for Newcastle United and the events of Monday night will live with me for a long time to come," reflects Hughton. "I'm not normally the emotional type, but you couldn't help but be swept away by it all as we celebrated our success and winning the title really was the final task of the season.

"I feel great pride that I have been able to bring this magnificent club back to where it belongs, but my role is only a part of the reason why we are here. A lot of people have made this happen, from my coaching staff to the players and we have to mention the owner as well. He has not always been so popular with the supporters, but his support has always been there for me.

"Everyone associated this club was written off last summer and no one had too much faith in our ambition to get straight back into the Premier League, but the belief has been in my dressing room from day one and the momentum has gathered. We may have reached a point where there is nothing left to shock us any more at Newcastle and that has helped us to concentrate on football. Whatever the reason, thankfully the tide has turned for us."

Amid the joyous scenes of obese Geordies shamelessly displaying their excess skin on the pitch as the title party got underway following the win against Plymouth on Monday, it was easy to forget the plight this well-supported, if eternally unsuccessful football club found itself in a year ago.

With despised owner Mike Ashley desperate to sell the club in and a team heading for the Championship with its reputation in tatters, few would have wanted to take on the job Hughton inherited almost by mistake.

He was the last man standing in a coaching staff that has lived through a turbulent two years that saw the likes of Kevin Keegan, Allardyce and Alan Shearer come and go, leaving the long-time understudy to try and patch up a scene of devastation.

"Newcastle had been through so much in my time here and at the start of this season, we were in a position where we didn't know who the owner of the club was going to be, whether I would stay as manager for the long-term and which players would stay," he reflects.

"So my job in the first few weeks was merely to try and deflect attentions away from all the political stuff that had the potential to affect the players and it quickly became apparent that I had a dressing room fully focused on the job in hand.

"One of the keys to success this season was we had a group of lads who made the conscious decision to play their way back into the Premier League rather than looking for a quick route back by leaving. It has not been easy because every Championship team looked on the Newcastle game as their cup final this season. We were the scalp everyone wanted and teams have raised their game against us, so we have done well to overcome that."

There have been ludicrous suggestions that Hughton's task at Newcastle was in some way made easy by the squad of quality players at his disposal, with the likes of Kevin Nolan, Nicky Butt, Fabricio Coloccini and Alan Smith a class apart from their Championship rivals. However, the big-name managers of recent times failed to get these same players playing for the cause in the way they have this season and Hughton's biggest achievement must be turning around the mentality of a club that has been used to losing for far too long.

Despite his stunning success, rumours abound that owner Ashley is flirting with the notion of a wander down the celebratory-filled memory lane that has yielded nothing but misery for the Toon Army in recent times, with Shearer being linked with a return to his 'spiritual home' this summer.

Such a romantically misguided 'second coming' would leave the hard work Hughton has put in over the last year to smoulder on the bonfire containing the charred the remains of so many burnt out Geordie dreams, and those notoriously passionate supporters would be wise not to fantasise about the return of their hero when they have a big winner on their side already.

"This is a club that I want to stay at and as I still have a year left on my contract, my future is not something that is a massive concern for me right now," is Hughton's response to the uncomfortable rumours about his future.

"Clearly this season has done my reputation no harm, but we have to focus on is what is best for the future of this club and I don't see any reason why I will not be here when we start in the Premier League. I think myself and my staff have shown we are doing a good job and I'm sure that will continue. I, for one, want to be here for a long time.

"The main thing for me is I'm sitting here now talking about Newcastle as a Premier League club once again and when you think back to the gloom everyone felt a year ago, the turnaround is quite amazing."

Throughout Newcastle's numerous woes of the last two years, one figure has remained loyal to the cause and the success he has engineered in the face of improbable odds should encourage all on Tyneside to end their misguided fascination for former heroes.

The days of a local deity dancing around the touchline at St James' Park and living on their reputation rather than their coaching ability must end as Newcastle have unearthed a successful formula at long, long last.

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