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Dec 6, 2010

Newcastle slump back into disarray

Just when it seemed as though Newcastle United had decided to become a proper football club, without the drama and distress which beset their last Premier League campaign, they've made the conscious decision to plunge themselves back into the abyss.

Mike Ashley and his cohorts have been patiently waiting for the opportune time to jettison the man who rescued the club from possible implosion by leading them to the Championship title last season. But it could easily have gone the other way with Newcastle stuck in the lower divisions as has happened to so many before them who have slipped through the Premier League trapdoor.

Newcastle could have struggled to bounce straight back with the demands of being such a big fish in a small pond, but Hughton galvanised the squad and won the league by a massive 11 points with 102 in total. Newcastle were unbeaten at home all season and lost just four of 46 matches, and were also top scorers with 90 goals. The fans could not have wished for a better season.

So how does the club repay the manager? With months of speculation about his future, culminating with the sack after a Monday morning training session.

The players were quite rightly bemused, with Sol Campbell telling ESPNsoccernet that "the players are sure to be asking themselves 'what the hell is going on' ... it has come as a shock, and it will affect the dressing room there is no doubt about that".

Considering Newcastle are only four points above the relegation in the tightest Premier League season in years they are worrying words. Hughton was a popular figure among the players and, if Newcastle now make the wrong appointment, such as Alan Pardew, they could find themselves back in the second tier in May.

Newcastle may have picked up only two points from their last five fixtures, including heavy defeats at West Bromwich Albion and Bolton Wanderers, but they did claim an excellent 1-1 draw at home to champions Chelsea. Factor in the loss of talismanic, goalscoring captain Kevin Nolan as well as Hatem Ben Arfa and Steve Harper to injury, the suspension of first choice centre-backs Fabricio Coloccini and Michael Williamson plus Joey Barton. Hughton has had to play without more than half of his first-choice team for the majority of that poor run.

Rumours first started about Hughton's future in October, but any plans the board had to replace him were derailed by the 5-1 thrashing of local rivals Sunderland at St James' Park and the terrific away win at Arsenal - which completed a run of three successive Premier League wins to send the Magpies up to fifth in the table.

There are two distinctly laughable parts of Newcastle's statement following the sacking. Firstly, they were big enough to thank Hughton "for his considerable efforts during the club's transition from Championship to Premier League football". What about winning the Championship at a canter and saving the club from oblivion? Did that not deserve at least a modicum of celebration?

Even worse, Newcastle explain the removal of Hughton as they believe "an individual with more managerial experience is needed to take the club forward".

This is the 52-year-old Chris Hughton who was a coach and then assistant manager at Tottenham from 1993 to 2007, and served as assistant to Brian Kerr in the Republic of Ireland set-up for two years. Hughton leaves Newcastle with 17 years experience of coaching and as a more experienced boss than the one appointed after Alan Shearer and Iain Dowie walked in the summer of 2009.

That Newcastle stalled on offering Hughton a new contract all season despite his personal achievements proves he never had the confidence of the board.

Newcastle fans are already apoplectic with Ashley for sacking the manager who had given them their pride back. Now the anger aimed at a man few believed is in touch with the Geordie public could soon be back in earnest if the new man is as uninspiring as the horrendous decision to bring Joe Kinnear back from the footballing wilderness after Kevin Keegan was elbowed out in that relegation season two years ago.

And that's the big problem with Ashley: there is the very real chance that a manager such as Pardew will be the man he goes for, a man who was sacked by League One Southampton in August and has previously managed in the Premier League for a grand total of 17 months in short spells with West Ham United and Charlton Athletic. Would that seriously make him more qualified than Hughton, with 16 years experience of coaching the top flight, with just that one Championship season with Newcastle outside of it?

Such a diabolical decision from the powerbrokers in the North East make it likely that crowds will dwindle once again as an already frustrated fanbase is sent back into that pit of disillusionment, horror and despair they have come to know so well under Ashley's stewardship. With home games against Liverpool and Manchester City to come - plus a trip to Tottenham Hotspur before the year is out - there is enough to suggest that Newcastle face a rocky road without the man who put them back on the map.

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