John Brewin: Hughton and Benitez deserve credit for surviving Ashley’s anarchy

The former and present Geordie bosses meet on Saturday evening and there’s nothing clear about either of their futures at the moment.

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Both Chris Hughton and Rafa Benitez are outsiders who would probably never have to buy themselves a pint in a Tyneside pub, should they be so inclined.

“Hughton is a Geordie,” sang Newcastle United fans of a London-born Irish international who had spent decades of association with Tottenham Hotspur.

Hughton, a stopgap appointment who presided over the 2009-10 promotion season, one of the most enjoyable since Kevin Keegan’s bouffant was being blown by the North East winds, won them over, only be offed by the man just about every member of the Toon Army considers a mortal enemy, Mike Ashley.

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The idolatry of Benitez is slightly different. When, in 2016, the former manager of Valencia, Liverpool, Chelsea, Inter Milan and Real Madrid answered Ashley’s call to be manager, Newcastle fans could barely believe a man of such pedigree was managing their club. He was even forgiven for not being able to avert another slide into the Championship.

Since then, in continuing to be on the fans’ side in the turf war with the reviled owner while keeping the team in the Premier League on a shoestring budget, he could hardly be more admired.

Meanwhile, the wider football world has come to appreciate Benitez far more than in his Liverpool days, when his prickliness and single-mindedness did little for his public image. Taking on the Newcastle challenge has made people recognise him for what he actually is, a very decent football manager, and someone whose stubbornness in adversity is to be admired. 

The pair face each on Saturday evening, and both find themselves at a fresh crossroads.

Even if Brighton & Hove Albion stay in the Premier League, and they are probably relying on Cardiff slipping up if they do not get a result at the Amex this weekend, Hughton’s race does appear to be run on the South Coast.

As at Newcastle, he will be recalled fondly, probably even more so since he was the man to end 34 years of absence from English football’s top division and then kept them up last season. And he has done so with a decency appreciated across the football business.

When it comes to nicest men in football tags, Hughton has few peers, though that probably also detracts from the steeliness that brought a black manager, once seen as a sideman, to prominence and wide appreciation.

That said, and like just about every football manager bar Sir Alex Ferguson, he has a shelf-life, a point when the well begins to run dry. His current team looks out of ideas, and the best thing that might be said is that they hang on grimly.

Brighton’s current plight bears a close resemblance to what happened to Hughton at Norwich five years ago, where he had led the team to promotion, then kept them up the following season, only to judder to a halt with his sacking with five games of the 2013-14 season remaining.

All that came after a summer when Norwich had opened the coffers to spend big money; names like Ricky van Wolfswinkel, Martin Olsson and Nathan Redmond were supposed to take Norwich into the airy climes of mid-table and beyond. The first on that list, the Dutchman, became a byword for bad signings in Norfolk, and Hughton failed to get anything resembling a tune out of him.

Down in Sussex, similar is being said of the likes of Yves Bissouma, Alireza Jahanbakhsh, Florin Andone and Martin Montoya, part of a summer outlay of around £60m in the summer. Brighton, who have not scored in seven matches, continue to look to old warhorse Glenn Murray for goals.

It might be said that the last two matches have seen Hughton appear to abandon all pretensions of scoring, with a 0-0 draw gained at Wolves and only being denied by Christian Eriksen’s late winner at Tottenham on Wednesday.

With Newcastle, Arsenal and Manchester City to come, Brighton not scoring another goal this season can in no way be ruled out, so all eyes fall on Cardiff. And beyond that, Tony Bloom, the chairman and financier who spent riches on Hughton’s team only for performances to crash to crisis point.

Any removal of Hughton by Brighton would be a far better piece of PR for Bloom than his sacking by Ashley when 11th in the Premier League table in December 2010, just a few weeks after Sunderland had been put to the sword in a 5-1 win that remains one of the best fans’ day out in years at St James’.

That Ashley is not a sentimental man veers close to being the understatement of the millennium.

After his populist move to bring Kevin Keegan back to the club in his early years in charge ended in rancour and legal action, the fallout hardened the tycoon’s heart. 

Benitez’s contract saga seems to have been dragging on as long as the United Kingdom’s efforts – or otherwise – to leave the European Union, and for some, it is just as tedious. But unlike Theresa May’s “flextension”, this appears to be the endgame.

The latest briefing would appear to be Benitez being unimpressed with the transfer funds being offered to him, should he chose to stay on longer, but there is also a sense he is still conducting negotiations he is prepared to be carried out in public.

Though Ashley is less reclusive than in years past and does talk publicly more often, at least in terms of his business empire’s attempts to take over the Great British high street, very little has escaped his lips on his football’s club’s manager.

It would seem unlikely that Ashley is unaware of the benefit of having Benitez on board; in the last three years the club has been about more than the owner, with the manager’s improvement of the team giving fans something else to talk about rather than their loathing for the Cockney Mafia (Ashley is actually from Berkshire) they want out of their club.

Ashley will also have been aware on his tempting in of Benitez of the Spaniard’s refusal to kowtow to his club’s hierarchy; his relationship with the Liverpool owners of his time there was at best cordial, at worst inimical. But their uneasy marriage happened at a time when it suited the other; Benitez is never less than an arch-pragmatist himself.

Last week’s 3-1 defeat of Southampton saw 40 points and almost certain safety achieved, but it was followed by two players, Ayoze Perez, the hat-trick hero and Mo Diame, who had come on as a sub, both mentioning their expectation that they might be elsewhere next season. Despite another Premier League season being all but booked, and £100m-plus being banked for Ashley, the old uncertainties circle Newcastle.

Should, as seems more likely now than ever before, Benitez takes his leave of Newcastle, he will do so leaving the public wanting more. The same might not be said of Hughton at Brighton, but all good things come to an end.

Nevertheless, the pair of them, both of whom have ridden out the Ashley experience to prosper, deserve to be applauded as and when their departure dates arrive.  

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