And then Newcastle United sacked Chris Hughton.
"What the hell is going on?" read the front of the Daily Telegraph's sports section, quoting Sol Campbell. "Betrayal of a decent man" said the Daily Mail. "Inexplicable," mused The Times. "BARKING AT THE TOON," shouted the Daily Mirror's puntastic headline. "More fool you for this," tsk-ed the Express, which wondered aloud if Newcastle owner Mike Ashley might be a Sunderland double agent. "No logic to Ashley's reign," summarized the Sun.
And it wasn't just the newsstand that uttered a universal "WTF?" The hashtag #madmike gained currency on Twitter, radio phone-ins were bombarded by fans furious at one of soccer's nice guys being so shoddily treated, managers queued up to express their horror at a decision they described variously as "ridiculous" (Harry Redknapp), "criminal" (Malcolm Macdonald), "incredible" (Roberto di Matteo) and "sad" (Roy Hodgson and Steve Bruce). Forget Narnia! Stuff Hogwarts. Hobbits? Pff. Here was the real battle of good versus evil.
The papers have been awash with claims about working conditions at St James' Park: that Ashley and managing director Derek Llambias judged Hughton on his ability to predict Premier League scores; that after assistant Colin Calderwood left for Hibernian, the board wanted to appoint Peter Beardsley against Hughton's wishes; that they had administered a dressing down when Hughton "milked" the applause after Newcastle crushed Sunderland in the Tyne-Wear derby.
Ashley has previous poor form: almost everything he's done since buying the club in 2007. His appointments (Kevin Keegan, Joe Kinnear and Alan Shearer) have been so consistently ill-thought-out that it's sensible to think that he got lucky by putting Hughton in caretaker-charge. Focused on selling the club, he didn't so much appoint him as fail to appoint someone else. As recent contract negotiations stalled, Hughton was asked if Ashley had mentioned the c-word. "No, he didn't call me that," he deadpanned, two parts depression to one part chuckle.
But Hughton has never really complained, despite presciently telling friends his permanent appointment would "probably all end in tears". His win percentage (an impressive 59.38) far exceeds those of his predecessors in the last decade and more, and he has chalked up results against Arsenal, Chelsea, Aston Villa and Everton, as well as Sunderland. Most importantly for a club whose reputation was shot, his quiet, workaholic approach brought stability.
Shorn of unrealistic expectations and over-egged reputations, the same squad that had looked destined for a plunge into the league's lower reaches pulled together to run away with the Championship title. An unlikely team spirit emerged at the same time as Hughton drew the best out of players like Joey Barton and Andy Carroll. Just over a year ago, Jonas Gutierrez was desperate for a move away. Monday he tweeted: "Thank you, Chris Hughton, for believing in us when nobody else did."
Therein lies the fundamental lunacy of Ashley's decision: The new manager has lost the dressing room before he even arrives. Not to mention the stands, and the wider goodwill that Newcastle -- a club whose relegation few outside the city mourned -- had attracted so far this season. When everyone thought the new manager might be Martin Jol, perhaps that wouldn't have been the case for long: Jol is fondly remembered from his spell at Spurs. Instead, Ashley unveiled Alan Pardew.
"Revolt," announced the Mirror, as talk that a handful of players might submit transfer requests circulated. "You must be mad!" exclaimed the Mail, echoing the managers who had texted Pardew. "Mission impossible?" wondered the Telegraph.
Sacked by his last three clubs, there is barely a box that Pardew ticks. The board apparently dismissed Hughton to bring in "an individual with more managerial experience," but the majority of Pardew's managerial career has been spent in England's second and third tiers. His greatest feat was taking West Ham to ninth and the FA Cup final (where it lost to Liverpool) in 2005-06 -- not to be sniffed at.
However, Hughton (who spent 14 years as a top flight coach at Tottenham) had already lifted Newcastle to the Premier League. He was on course to stay there, his given objective at the start of the season. Pardew isn't demonstrably better equipped, and has no bond with his new squad -- admitting, himself, yesterday: "I can't think of a player in the group I've managed so I'm going to be something of a mystery to them."
The biggest mystery -- in fact the biggest kick in the teeth for Hughton -- is how Pardew managed to secure a five-and-a-half-year contract at a club that has had eight different men in the job in that time. Even the much-loved Sir Bobby Robson didn't last quite that long. The last man to do more than a five-year stint in the St James' Park home dugout was Joe Harvey (1962-1975).
The board stated that it would give Pardew its full backing, chucking usually well-received words like "stability" around like glitter. Ashley has tried to package keeping Hughton as a gamble, as if appointing Pardew -- sacked by Southampton amid talk of low staff morale -- was a predictably safe move. The new man says he'll get funds for new players. Wouldn't it have made more sense to give all this to Hughton?
It's a difficult situation for Pardew, who insists that he couldn't have lived with himself if he'd turned down the opportunity -- if he were being installed elsewhere, in different circumstances, an entirely different spin would be put on his qualifications for the role. Plenty of his former charges have talked up his credentials. (As an aside, my sympathies are somewhat limited; the only way feckless ownership will recede is if managers do turn down these opportunities, as a matter of principle).
Instead, he cannot win. If he fails, if Newcastle slides down the table, if key players leave, it will be as predicted: bookmakers are offering short odds on Pardew leaving the club within a year. If he succeeds, he may win over a few hearts, but plenty will be unconvinced that Hughton could not have done the same or better. As one of the three-strong welcome party stood outside St James' Park yesterday afternoon told reporters: "Nobody wants him here ... the whole thing stinks."
Someone call for pizza: Arsenal faces Manchester United on Monday. Follow the match live with Georgina's instant analysis from 2.45 p.m. ET on SI.com.