Hughton's Sacking Put Newcastle In Danger

Is this the stupidest managerial sacking in recent memory? Instant reaction to the news that nice, honourable, decent Chris Hughton has been sacked by Newcastle has tended to centre on the they-shot-Bambi angle. There is another side, though. He was also successful Chris Hughton. Champions of the Football League in May, Newcastle have been a sprightly presence in the Premier League. Six weeks ago they outplayed West Ham at Upton Park. Five weeks ago they beat Sunderland 5-1. Four weeks ago they won at Arsenal. Last week they drew with the champions. This week – is this really right? – they sacked their manager.

It is the most self-destructive of axings and Newcastle may pay dearly for underestimating their ex-manager's grasp on his players. Hughton's success lay in uniting a potentially volatile bunch: Andy Carroll, beset by legal process and tabloid sting, might have disappeared off the radar this season. Instead, through careful husbandry, he has flourished. Even Joey Barton has for the most part seemed agreeably focused. This has been a tactfully engineered balancing act. Whoever steps in next ... well, good luck with all of that.

Right up before the sacking, Newcastle did not look like a club in any imminent danger of sliding down the table into serious relegation trouble. It is hard to be quite so confident now. There is no doubt Mike Ashley is some way short of a footballing oracle, but surely even Ashley would have grasped the truism that sacking your manager in finely-poised mid-season rarely has a positive effect.

There had been indications elsewhere that the mania for aspirational managerial sackings, the twitchy, grass-is-always-greener, sacking-for-sacking's-sake, might have abated. Hughton is the first Premier League sacking of the season. It seems an ignominious thing, not just because Hughton's Newcastle were an engaging team playing to their potential; not just because he is a nice man curating a difficult group of players with an engagingly light touch; but because it provides a reminder of the enduring block-headedness of a certain species of Premier League chairman.

Presumably Mike Ashley has an alternative lined up. There has already been some talk about Martin O'Neill, the usual Alans (Curbishley, Pardew, Shearer) plus – Martin Jol. The club has indicated it requires more managerial "experience". And perhaps Ashley, rather than simply wanting to stay in the Premier League long enough to sell the club, really has bought into grandiose misconceptions of sleeping giants, massive football clubs, Geordie nations et al and believes 11th in the table, one spot above Liverpool, is underachievement.

O'Neill, already among the favourites, would be a sound appointment for pretty much any club in the Premier League. But it is still hard to see Newcastle finishing this season above where they are now; and even harder to avoid the feeling that a period of careful retrenchment has just been rather mindlessly truncheoned into tiny pieces. Certainly football looks a little bit stupider – not to mention unerringly self-destructive for Newcastle, at this moment.

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