Friends reunite on Sunday but Newcastle United will view Chris Hughton's Brighton as just another rival
History has not been too kind to Chris Hughton’s stint as manager of Newcastle United. From the outside, he has never received the credit he deserves for what he did at a very crucial and precarious time for the club; it was very much the same story during his time, despite his role in stopping a disaster which could have set everything back years. Hughton, though, will never have to buy a drink should he step into a Tyneside bar ever again.
Relegation in 2009 was compounded by the worst possible summer in preparation for the Championship. A squad full of big earners with even bigger egos was about to be dismantled and owner Mike Ashley was set to embark on his second attempt to sell the club in two years.
With no money to spend on new players, Hughton was tasked with getting those unhappy players together and ready for a promotion push all while knowing each day could be his last. By October, Newcastle were flying and he was given the job permanently before sealing a Premier League return as champions after amassing 102 points.
Critics will say winning that division, even in the manner they did, was expected. Seasoned professionals Steve Harper, Alan Smith, Nicky Butt, Joey Barton and Kevin Nolan formed a backbone of strong personalities, with a young Andy Carroll, and talented players like Jose Enrique, Fabricio Coloccini and Jonas Gutierrez, who used the reduction in quality to fully get to grips with English football, adding an extra spark. But so toxic was the situation at the beginning, it took a calm, collected and hard-working man like Hughton to steer the turbulent ship in the right direction.
To describe his sacking in December of the following season as harsh would be a huge understatement. Newcastle sat 11th having beaten Arsenal, Sunderland 5-1 and Aston Villa 6-0, and drawing with Chelsea a matter of weeks before he was unceremoniously disposed of.
Ashley, who remained after failing to sell, made the decision most likely on the assumption Hughton was not big enough to take the club to the next level rather than his performance to date. Hughton bowed out much to the outrage, but with the undying respect, of players and fans alike.
Seven years on, and Hughton will once again be in the opposing dugout on Sunday. His Brighton side were promoted alongside Rafa Benitez’s team last season, and were only beaten to the title in the last few weeks of the campaign. Benitez inherited Newcastle in similar circumstances to Hughton, but the context was completely different. He had full backing and control to make changes to the squad that he wanted, although that is in doubt after two disappointing transfer windows.
There is real irony looking back at Ashley’s decision to part with Hughton, a man of few demands who just loved coaching, because that fit his model until Newcastle lured Benitez to St James’ Park.
It is not the first time Hughton has faced Newcastle, having done so in charge of Norwich and Brighton before, but the level of mutual respect between the man and everyone at Newcastle, even the local media and of course the fans, has never wavered. The term legend is used with very little regard these days, and it may be a little rich to describe Hughton in such a way, but his humble nature ensures he would not want to have that tag.
If given the resources, Benitez can unlock Newcastle’s potential, more so than anyone who could replace him. His long-term future remains in doubt after recent events, but his connection to the club is something that goes beyond his past achievements and reputation.
He is someone who demands what the fans do, the best possible opportunity for success, while constantly reminding everyone just what Newcastle United could become. Hughton was perfect for the time, and he didn’t deserve to be tossed aside in such a fashion, but there was a feeling the club would have outgrown him eventually.
For all he has done, he is there to be beaten on Sunday. Newcastle, who have won three games in a row, which is a rare feat at any time but certainly as early as this point in the season, sit fourth and will be playing catch-up against those above them as they all play a day earlier. The organisation and shape that has been a theme of Benitez’s side for well over a year now, helping them win many away games last term, including at the Amex Stadium, and it could add another three points to the total this weekend.
Brighton found their feet in their last home game, winning 3-1 at home to an unusually fragile West Brom side. Benitez will have studied their performance and learnt lessons from Tony Pulis’ mistakes, but if they come into the game fast as expected, the Seagulls could play right into the Magpies’ hands.
There could be another familiar face lining up on the opposing side in Tim Krul, though that is unlikely after he made a loan move to the South Coast permanent this week. Even now, Krul feels like a Geordie, but it was is a sad way to end his ten-year career on Tyneside, especially as he hadn’t played for 18 months due to injury and various loan spells.
But as he goes, the current era kicks up a notch. Victories keep everything positive, and although there will be an element of emotion in remembering Chris Hughton and everything he did for Newcastle, once the whistle blows on Sunday, business will take hold.