Hughton talk of the Toon

Posted by Kristan Heneage

Standing on the platform at Durham train station, there was the usual match-day ambiance. Casually eavesdropping on a group of Newcastle fans conversation as I made my way into the city, I noticed how much discussion was being afforded to the away team's manager - more so than normal. Admittedly that was expected, given it was the return of Chris Hughton, arguably one of the club's modern day heroes.

Chris Hughton
PA PhotosChris Hughton returned to Newcastle on Sunday

That's because, when Newcastle were at the lowest ebb in their recent history, Hughton remained loyal. Switching from coach to caretaker and then permanent manager, trying to find a critic of Hughton on Tyneside would prove a laborious and fruitless exercise.

More than just his blind loyalty, he rebuilt the bridges between the fans and the club. While few at the time had much admiration for the ownership, Newcastle fans fell in love with the club and its players during their brief stay in the Championship; off the pitch, it was difficult not to admire Hughton's diplomatic and respectful approach, regardless of what was going on behind closed doors.

Following promotion, there was much conjecture over whether Newcastle could sustain their form - would their rag tag band be able to perform at England's top table? With an unproven striker, born locally in Gateshead, leading the line, many questioned whether their stay would be a long one, but the doubts soon dissipated.

Perhaps Hughton's proudest day for the Toon came on Halloween of that year. An emphatic 5-1 victory over fierce rivals Sunderland confirmed his place in the club's tapestry and with it the permanent smiles came back to Tyneside. When he was eventually let go by the club in December, the sense of disillusionment at the decision was unanimous, and not because Hughton was one of football's nice guys.

In the wake of his departure, few would have begrudged him a scathing assassination on his former employers, or perhaps a 'woe is me'-themed monologue, but even in defeat he remained humble and dignified.

Many had predicted a huge response when the former Republic of Ireland international emerged from the tunnel on Sunday - but it didn't quite happen, because Hughton refused to let it happen.

Waiting till the last minute, he quietly shuffled into the away dugout, diluting any potential fanfare that might have sprouted. By contrast, his opposite number Alan Pardew was in the stands - a consequence of his push on Peter Kirkup during Newcastle's victory over Tottenham Hotspur, perhaps proving the dichotomy in styles the two managers possess.

As the game began, a chorus of "walking in a Hughton wonderland" bellowed around the stadium. The sky was clear, and the home fans were determined to vocalise their appreciation for their former manager, whether he courted it or not.

By contrast, Sebastien Bassong was met with boos when he touched the ball. The Frenchman was one of the first to leave the club after relegation, making little secret of his desire to quit the club, and it had not been forgotten. He would last just five minutes before injury curtailed his return; Michael Turner, who was a member of the infamous Halloween derby game, came on to replace him.

There would be only one goal, and it would come inside 20 minutes. Hatem Ben Arfa, a player signed during Hughton's tenure, skipped past Javier Garrido before playing a defence-splitting pass to Demba Ba. There was little that could have been done about the goal - it highlighted Ben Arfa's class more than Norwich's shortcomings.

When asked after the game if he felt somewhat bitter that he was not able to call upon the services of Ben Arfa more during his stewardship, Hughton remained as diplomatic and charming as ever. "I'm just happy to see the boy playing again," he replied. Hughton had visited the Frenchman in hospital during his recuperation, another example of his commitment towards his players.

Newcastle should arguably have increased their lead before half-time, but confusion in the box meant Papiss Cisse nestled the ball safely in the back rows of the Gallowgate End. Watching Hughton's Norwich side, you could draw many parallels with the Newcastle side that constructed his reputation. Well organised and well drilled, they were hard working and diligent in their approach - making it far from an easy afternoon for Newcastle.

As the game sputtered on, Norwich became more direct in their approach. Hughton had often done similar when at Newcastle, with his figurehead Andy Carroll providing a good focal point for an aerial bombardment, most notably at the Emirates, when Newcastle were able to eke out a single-goal victory against Arsenal thanks to his combination with Joey Barton.

That fixture was also Hughton's last Premier League win. He's had ten attempts since, and while a victory may seem elusive, you sense, watching his side play, that it may be close provided luck can shine on the Canaries. Unfortunately that fortune would not be present against Newcastle, and despite a frantic last few minutes, Alan Pardew's men were able to secure the three points they so desperately wanted.

Waiting for his post-match press conference to begin, you could be forgiven for feeling a touch of deja vu. Admittedly, the manager who once wore a tracksuit was now adorned in a crisp suit and yellow tie - at the request of his father, who described his previous look as 'scruffy' - but much had remained the same, most notably his humility in defeat.

Hughton revealed that Sunday's game was his first return to the city in any capacity since that fateful day in December. He remained positive, though, raising a wry smile as he answered the question. However, perhaps the most telling sign of the impression Chris Hughton left on Tyneside came when he finished his press conference.

A collection of local journalists, who can often be a manager's biggest critics, waited patiently to shake his hand and wish him well for the season - further proof that the admiration for Chris Hughton in Newcastle will be around far longer than he was.

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