Wednesday, October 14, 2009
Irish eyes are smiling for Hughton
On the face of it, an all-Irish managerial head-to-head between Chris Hughton and Roy Keane looked set to be something of a mismatch when the Championship season kicked off back in August.
As Keane set out with a bold master plan for instant world domination at Ipswich, Hughton was left to wonder whether Newcastle's first game away from the Premier League would, in fact, be his last as caretaker-boss of a club that seems determined to attract disaster more than any other.
This long-time assistant was only filling in as Newcastle's stand-in boss because he was contractually obliged to stay at a club no right-minded manager would have contemplated joining - even if discredited owner Mike Ashley had been pointing a loaded pistol firmly at their temple.
Meanwhile, Keane was determined to tell anyone who would listen that his Ipswich team would quickly emerge as Championship promotion favourites, with his persistently outspoken claims winning him the sort of publicity he seems to revel in.
You could not have wished for a more contrasting set of circumstances to begin a season and yet a curious anomaly has occurred in the first two months of the campaign. The second international break was reached with Hughton's Newcastle sitting atop the Championship standings and Keane's winless Ipswich rooted to the bottom.
As if to confirm these two ex-Ireland heroes are heading in opposite directions, a rampant Newcastle thumped Ipswich 4-0 last month and the always-charming Hughton has typically sympathetic words to offer one of his victims.
"It has been a difficult start for Roy and he may be suffering from the reality that his mere presence at Ipswich raised expectations massively from day one," begins Hughton. "Roy has the effect of changing the mindset of a football club and expects to get teams winning quickly, so it has probably come as a bit of a shock to him that it hasn't happened right away in this job.
"What everyone in this game has to realise is football management jobs are tough. Whether you are working at a club with big expectations like Ipswich or one in a more uncertain position like Newcastle, the challenge is enormous.
"Things may have been very different for Roy if he had got that first win on the board in quickly, but it that victory has not come and he now he finds himself in a difficult position. It is looking difficult for him at the moment, but I'm sure he can come through it. I had a chat with Roy after our game at Portman Road a few weeks back and he seemed in good form.
"There is no doubt Roy has the potential to be a top manager as he did a great job in getting Sunderland out of the Championship so quickly. He probably felt he could get things going at Ipswich just as fast, but it hasn't happened as yet and I'm sure he is beginning to wonder where the first win is coming from. There have been signs that his team will turn a corner soon in their last two games, so hopefully he gets them going soon."
At this early stage in the season, Keane is looking like a brash loudmouth who is bringing little more than an undeservedly inflated profile to Ipswich, yet the quiet and measured Hughton has gone about boosting his already immaculate reputation in the game in typically modest fashion.
Successive Championship Manager of the Month awards to start the campaign have served to confirm his unlikely success story and yet this former Tottenham and Ireland assistant coach cannot look beyond his immediate challenge, the Magpies' next game against Nottingham Forest.
"None of us know what is going to happen next week or the week after, so it allows me to focus on each individual game as if it will be my last," says Hughton, whose Newcastle side have been installed as the odds-on promotion favourites. "I'm enjoying doing this job, but there is no permanent position to apply for, so there is no point in worrying about the future.
"My position is likely to alter if the ownership of the club changes, but that has been the situation for some time. I'm comfortable with the way things are just now and with the results going well, it has been an enjoyable experience so far.
"You read things in the newspaper every day about what might or might not happen with the owners, but I cannot worry about it. To be honest, they don't have to tell me what is going on off the field because I am employed to work as a coach at Newcastle and to try and get results on the field. What happens off the field is none of my business.
"Am I surprised by how well we have done? I didn't really know what to expect when we started pre-season training in the summer, but I felt things were moving in the right direction by the time we played our first game at West Bromwich Albion.
"It was good to start in a high profile game against a fellow relegated side as it meant the dip in the level we are playing at didn't seem quite so big, but the test was always going to come against the hardened Championship sides. So far, we have done okay in those games, but we all know there is a hell of a long way to go.
"It feels great to be sitting on top of the table, but the amount of games in this league means these are still very early days. I could be forgiven for thinking I'm doing okay at the moment, but someone mentioned we still have 35 league games and 105 points still to play for. On that basis, being top in October doesn't mean too much. We have to keep our feet on the floor and make sure we don't think we have cracked it just yet."
Even if his eventful stay at Newcastle ends tomorrow, Hughton has done more than enough to confirm he would be a worthy candidate for a full-time management position and he admits the bug of the top job has bitten him.
"I have this caretaker tag before my name, but I have started to feel like the Newcastle boss in the last few weeks and the results we are getting cannot have done my reputation as a manager any harm at all," he adds.
"Being the top man at a club is a stressful position and I have found the workload pretty intense at times, but I have started to enjoy it more and more as the results have come for us. The rewards for a victory are fantastic when you are a manager and hopefully we have plenty more of those to look forward to over the course of this season. Who knows how long I will stay in this job, but I'll enjoy the ride while I'm here."
Honest humility has taken Hughton a long way in this game over the years and it is a quality his compatriot Keane would be wise to learn from.