It seems odd to be thinking about Chris Hughton now. Yes, he's coming back to St. James' Park, but its not his first return trip. He led Norwich City into Newcastle last year and he received a nice response from the fans. But, I find myself playing the "what-if" game a lot with Hughton. It's a dumb game to play, I admit. You can go far down the rabbit hole. And yet, after the season that Newcastle had last year and the craziness of this season, it isn't hard to play it. And when the rumors swirl that Alan Pardew may be out the door at any time (rumors that have subsided for now, but give it a shock loss or two), its not hard to look to Carrow Road for the answer to the question "whose next?"
Lee Ryder pens in the Chronicle that we owe a lot to Hughton. Not just for getting the club back to the Premiership, but for how he did so. Ryder's piece does read a bit nostalgic, a journalist longing for the days when he was allowed in the stadium, but he makes some good points. The club culture was drastically different then. Premier League level players were convinced to stay on, to follow the plan, to interact with fans, and to take being in the lower league in stride. Ryder says Hughton brought "dignity" to Newcastle. Given the disaster that the relegation year was, any stabilizing force would have been seen as welcome.
Hughton's sacking was a bit of a shock. While Newcastle weren't league beaters when they came back to top flight, they did pull off some impressive results. They netted six goals against Aston Villa, won at Everton, beat Arsenal in London, and what would Alan Pardew give for a 5-1 win over Sunderland right now? After the 1-5 loss to Bolton, Newcastle found themselves in 10th place. Hughton was out the door, Alan Pardew was in. Newcastle hovered around mid-table, before settling into 12th on the campaign.
Of course, the next year was a magical one. Pardew led Newcastle to a fifth place finish and a spot in Europe. Hughton signed on at Birmingham City and nearly achieved promotion again before losing out in the promotion playoffs. He signed on with Norwich the next year and has been in the relegation fights ever since. This year, the Canaries sit in 15th, but only one point above the drop zone. A year ago, two wins to end the season saw Norwich finish in 11th place in what was a congested bottom half of the table.
Hughton was a popular manager in Newcastle. Fans pronounced him a Geordie upon promotion. One may wonder what he would be capable of if given the resources, though Newcastle hasn't been all that generous when it comes to giving managers resources in recent years.
Still, when the cameras pan to the touchline this weekend, many will be wondering what if Hughton had been allowed to stay. Would we have found our way to Europe still? Would last season have been as rocky? Would this season be as maddening? I probably won't be the only Newcastle fan hoping that Huhgton's lads drop another match, but quickly find their footing in the weeks to come. I want Hughton to succeed, because he promptly brought Newcastle back to the Premiership. Whether you believe that was him or the players depends on how you view football I would suppose. I personally don't feel that Hughton got a fair shake after what he did for the club, but football is a very fickle sport.
It's not hard to play the "what-if" game, and given Newcastle's relative uneasiness since Hughton's departure, he makes for an interesting variable to plug into the equation. What do you think? Did Hughton ride a talented squad in a lower league or was he the driving force to the Magpies success?