Well-liked title-winner unexpectedly available

EIGHTEEN months ago Chris Hughton was handed what seemed a poisoned chalice. Left in charge, almost by default, of a football club that had self-destructed.

Not only did he detoxify the vessel, he raised the club straight back to the big time from which it had fallen.

Eighteen months ago no-one would have given Newcastle United a hope of promotion back to the Premier League at the first time of asking. A further relegation looked more likely.

Yet Hughton made tightened purse-strings and the loss of all the club’s big names an advantage.

With team spirit that had so long been so lacking, his revivified side lifted the Championship in style.

In the last six weeks, Hughton has led his side to a thrilling 5-1 win over their bitterest rivals; beaten Arsenal – now the league leaders – on their own turf; drawn with Chelsea, the Premier League champions. And been sacked.

Mike Ashley, the club owner, was just beginning to be accepted on Tyneside. He obviously wanted to reclaim his status as Geordies’ Enemy No.1.

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It is fairly remarkable that we reached December before a Premier League manager was axed. That hadn’t happened since 1995.

Less surprising that when the blade inappropriately fell it should be at Newcastle.

A week ago you couldn’t have seen the Toon facing any danger of relegation this season. Now that danger suddenly looks very real, thanks to Ashley plunging them back into the disarray from which Hughton had extricated them.

Ashley says he wants a more experienced manager (so not Alan Shearer, then).

The experience of winning the Championship, and of keeping such wayward spirits as Joey Barton and Andy Carroll functioning well, was obviously not enough for him.

(Barton’s one indiscretion this season – thumping Blackburn’s Morten Gamst Pedersen – was arguably a major factor in Hughton’s downfall. Newcastle’s worst results were during Barton’s suspension.)

Hughton is almost universally liked. His players worship him. Maybe more important, they understand him.

He has good tactical sense, a strong sense of a team’s shape and direction, and above all fostered a powerful sense of team identity and spirit.

He has, in fact, all those qualities currently lacking at Ipswich Town.

If I were Marcus Evans, I’d be moving swiftly now to invite Hughton to Portman Road.

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I LIKE Ken Clarke. An honest, decent Tory if ever there was one.

In principle, I like his ideas for shaking up the penal justice system too.

Just a couple of excerpts from the introduction to his Green Paper ‘Breaking The Cycle’ should show why.

“We will work with the Department of Health to divert more of the less serious offenders with mental illness and drug dependency into treatment rather than prison, as long as the safety of the public is not compromised.”

Sounds like a winning policy all round.

“We will simplify and reduce a great mass of legislation.”

After the Blair years of law-making gone mad, that can only be a relief.

The trouble comes when you get down to the detail.

Not that there’s anything very wrong with it. Just that there’s not much of it. And what there is smacks strongly of wishful thinking.

Here’s another quote, from the section on rehabilitating offenders: “There should be fewer crimes, and therefore fewer victims.”

Great idea, Ken. But how are you going to go about it?

Oh, and giving victims more chance to have their say in court sounds like a popular move. But not necessarily one calculated to improve the quality of justice. Or decrease the number of crimes.

As I say, I like Ken. People do.

But why do I get the sneaky feeling he likes to be liked just a little more than he likes to put in the work to make things work?

His world seems nice and cosy.

In the real one, crime is strongly linked to social injustice. It would be astonishing if it didn’t increase under the present government. Whatever Ken would like to think.

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ARE you over it yet? The disappointment of not winning – sorry, staging – the 2018 World Cup.

The idea of winning a 22-man vote settled behind the closed doors of expensive rooms was always a pretty poor substitute for actually winning the trophy on a football field. Where injustices sometimes happen, but at least everyone can see what goes on.

Wheeling out a few old footballers and a prince to grin grins and press flesh for the last three days of PR – long after all the votes had been settled – was always going to be a waste of time. But essentially harmless.

Why David Cameron had to get involved is harder to explain. Probably he expected some glory to rub off.

So another miscalculation there then, David.

But you might think he’d have more important things to be getting on with.

Mind you, keeping him away from them might not be such a bad idea. Pity his Zurich jolly was only for three days.