Tuesday November 2nd, 2010

There are times when football makes no sense. Two weeks ago, the initial reports that Newcastle United manager Chris Hughton was under pressure sounded absurd. Even more so when they were accompanied by rumors that owner Mike Ashley might be considering turning back to Joe Kinnear, an abrasive and unpopular relic of the 1990s who had been forced to leave the job in February 2009 after heart problems.

After a win over West Ham United and, more important, a 5-1 victory against Sunderland in the Tyne-Wear derby Sunday, the most emphatic scoreline in the fixture since 1956, those reports sounded even more bizarre, and the perception is that Hughton's job is safe -- for now.

Yet even had Newcastle lost those two games, Hughton deserved time. His first spell as a caretaker, which followed the mess of Kevin Keegan's resignation as manager in September 2008, resulted in four defeats in four games, after which he was replaced by Kinnear. After Kinnear's heart problems, Hughton was in charge for six games. He took five points -- not too bad a return given he faced Manchester United and Arsenal in that stretch. Like many Newcastle managers before him, he operated under the shadow of Alan Shearer, except on this occasion the former England striker didn't just drop dark hints about returning in glory to lead his people, but actually did it. He was comically awful, manifestly out of his depth; Newcastle won only five points in its remaining eight matches and was relegated.

When Shearer decided he didn't fancy the job in the Championship, Hughton was left as caretaker manager. Ashley was openly trying to sell the club. Several layers, including Michael Owen, Obafemi Martins, Sebastien Bassong and Damien Duff, were off-loaded and replaced with a bunch of free transfers. It could all have gone wrong very quickly. There were real fears of following the example of Leeds and tumbling from the Champions League to the third flight in a few seasons.

But Hughton rallied the team, which was still very strong by Championship standards. He was named manager of the month in August. And September. And November. Newcastle's board, finally accepting that there was no quick sale likely, at last gave him a permanent contract. Newcastle went on to win the Championship with 102 points, 11 points clear of its nearest challenger and unbeaten at home.

In a sense, Hughton was a victim of his own success. Because his side made promotion look like a formality and created the impression that the season in the Championship was an aberration, he never really got credit for the achievement. Yes, he had a squad that probably should have been promoted, but countless relegated sides have found that downward momentum is hard to arrest. Getting Newcastle promoted was not a great feat of management, but it was a feat and at the very least it entitled Hughton to a decent run in the Premier League. He may not be one of the larger-than-life personalities to whom football -- and particularly football on Tyneside -- is in thrall, and his public utterances may amount to little more than variations on the phrase "great bunch of lads," but he has molded a highly motivated, well-organized side.

And he has, already, achieved one of Newcastle's prime aims this season. Realistically, the targets were to stay up and to have the better record in the two games against Sunderland. Unless Sunderland produces its best result in the derby since 1930 in the return in January, Newcastle will be able to revel in winning the battle in the northeast. More than that, a 5-1 win is the sort of result that will reverberate through history, just as Sunderland fans still delight in the Derby in the Rain, a 2-1 victory at St James' Park in 1999 that precipitated Ruud Gullit's departure as manager.

For once, this was derby in which Newcastle had something to gain. Between 1992 and 2007, Newcastle was clearly the top team in the northeast. Sunderland delighted all the more in its wins at St James' in 1999 and 2000 because it went there as underdog, while the many Newcastle successes, even the 4-1 win at the Stadium of Light on Easter Monday in 2006 (after Sunderland fans had celebrated being relegated with a 0-0 draw at Manchester United on Good Friday because it meant it wouldn't be Newcastle that put them down), were routine. This season, with Sunderland in its fourth consecutive year in the Premier League and winning plaudits for its performances against the division's grandees, primacy in the region is far less clear.

That said, as critical as the derby is for two sides that have won one domestic trophy between them in the last 50 years, it's important not to get too carried away. In 2008, when Roy Keane led Sunderland to its first derby victory on Wearside since 1980, it was widely perceived as shifting the balance of power in the northeast. But Sunderland lost seven of its next eight games, leading to Keane's departure and a hapless relegation fight in which the club survived only because three teams -- one of them Newcastle -- were even worse.

Sunderland shouldn't panic, though as manager Steve Bruce admitted, the scale of the defeat means there is a lot of rebuilding to be done. Its away form -- one win in 14½ months -- is pitiful, but it remains one point better off this season than in games against the equivalent opposition last year. Stopping the top sides from playing is one thing, but it still struggles to convert that stubbornness into results against mid- and lower-table sides. Sunderland faces Stoke, Tottenham and Chelsea next -- most fans would probably accept four points from the three games as a reasonable return -- but then comes a run of Everton, Wolves, West Ham, Fulham and Bolton, a five-game stretch from which it really needs to take 10 points if this is not to be another season of lower mid-table fretting.

For Newcastle, the owners aside, the prognosis is far brighter. Though the odd defensive question mark lingers, 14 points is more than a third of the way to safety three games before the season is a third over. Andy Carroll is still raw and his off-field issues remain to be addressed, but on it he has proved at times uncontainable. Kevin Nolan is back in the sort of form that saw him on the fringes of the England team in his days under Sam Allardyce at Bolton. Joey Barton, for once a step ahead of controversy, is reminding people of just what a fine footballer he can be.

The squad still lacks depth, and one point from three home games against Blackpool, Stoke and Wigan suggests a vulnerability that is likely prevent Newcastle finishing above mid-table, but that in itself would be a notable achievement. Whether Hughton would get the credit he deserves for it is another matter.

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