One year ago today, Chris Hughton was sacked. The day before, Newcastle had suffered an embarrassing 3-1 defeat to West Bromwich Albion. Reno reviewed the match that day, and this is what he had to say for the performance:
Fundamentals were flawed, leadership was lacking, execution exited the building, passion took a pass, the offense was (pardon me) offensive, the defense deplorable. Our Magpies couldn't pass, possess, shoot, cross, clear, tackle, or keep the ball out of their own net. Other than all that they didn't play very good football either.
Following the match, Hughton held a closed door meeting with his players that lasted almost an hour.
I wish I could have been a fly on the wall for that meeting. Did Hughton do most of the talking, or did he step aside and let his infamous Players Committee take charge? Did he know that he was about to be axed?
That Players Committee was a hallmark of Hughton's tenure on Tyneside. Described by Louise Taylor as "a committed Labour Party member," Hughton believed in giving power to his underlings. That practice would ensure the success of Newcastle's campaign to win the Championship and therefore promotion in 2009-10, but it would ultimately be his undoing. Mike Ashley and Derek Llambias, capitalists as they are, reportedly had an intense dislike for Hughton's methods.
In Hughton's brief time in the Premier League, Newcastle understandably didn't enjoy quite the success they had the year prior, and his team's results were marked by inconsistency. In November, they beat Arsenal at The Emirates 1-0, then the very next week lost 2-1 to Blackburn Rovers at home. Questions were asked of the preparedness of the squad, especially when they played the so-called lesser teams of the Premiership.
Uneven results in the top flight aside, Hughton was a beloved figure in Newcastle. He had taken one of the team's (and the city's) most embarrassing moments and turned it into a triumph, winning promotion back in such a way that nobody doubted they belonged. Perhaps most importantly, he oversaw a 5-1 drubbing of Sunderland, an accomplishment that would surely cover over a multitude of sins - though management didn't see it that way. Llambias reportedly had already been in contact with replacement Alan Pardew 10 days before Hughton's removal was made official, and Pardew was the manager nobody wanted anyway, having failed most recently at League One side Southampton. That he was given a five and half year contract suggests that Hughton may have been a lame duck anyway; that this move had been in the works for quite some time but they could never find the justification to pull the trigger. The loss to WBA at the end of a 5 game winless streak was all they needed.
To his credit, Pardew handled the situation well, saying all the right things, and has produced results in the meantime. In many ways, supporters see him as one of their own - he seems to get just as exasperated with Ashley and Llambias as the rest of the world. He's had his missteps, such as promising to bring in a striker on the last day of the summer transfer window and then failing to do so, but for the most part, he has taken the club in a positive direction. The board will no doubt chalk up the replacement of Hughton with Pardew as a victory, but it's a foolhardy practice to judge a move on results rather than the process.
Hughton was a calm presence who had the gift of transferring that level of comfort off to his players. He brought in Cheik Tiote and Hatem Ben Arfa, among others, and he convinced several players to stay when they were relegated. Sol Campbell was so upset with his departure that he basically went on strike for the rest of the season.
It was a harsh decision, and I'm thankful we're not looking back pointing at this moment and saying, "This is where it all went wrong." It sure felt like that would be the case at the time. Hughton now plies his trade with Birmingham City, where he is once again fighting to bring a relegated team back up to the top flight. The results have been mixed so far, as they sit in 14th place. I'm rooting for Chris Hughton, and I hope he gets another chance to manage at this level. He deserves it.