Miles Starforth: Chris Hughton's Championship warning should set alarms bells ringing at Newcastle
A few months ago, I went to see Chris Hughton.
And Newcastle United’s predicament got me thinking about one thing particular thing he told me.
Hughton isn’t a man prone to exaggeration or hyperbole.
But he was adamant that the Championship is tougher, far tougher, now than it was when he guided Newcastle out of it at the first attempt in the 2009-10 season.
Speaking last November, Hughton said: “I think it’s tougher now.
“If you’re looking at the league table at the moment, it’s absolutely no surprise to see a big group of teams that are at the top end of the table when you look at the quality. There are, generally, no easy games.
“You’ve got to have a team and a squad which can cope.”
Hughton should know, having experienced it with United, Birmingham City and now Brighton and Hove Albion.
I was speaking to Hughton at Brighton’s gleaming new £30million Mash Barn Hill training ground a couple of days after Newcastle had beaten Bournemouth further along a blustery south coast.
The 1-0 scoreline at the Vitality Stadium, which lifted the club out of the Premier League’s relegation zone, flattered United, who had been second-best.
Head coach Steve McClaren, eventually sacked four months later, should have been gone by the end of the month.
Newcastle were beaten 3-0 by Leicester City and 5-1 by Crystal Palace in their next two games.
The manner of the second of those two defeats was particularly worrying.
There was none of the promised “progress”, despite a £53million summer spend.
Had there been a decision, and not indecision, from managing director Lee Charnley, then the club could well have pulled away from trouble, though Rafa Benitez, then in charge of Real Madrid, was not available at the time.
United could be back at Brighton next season, though I hope the club, beaten to the second automatic promotion place in the Championship by Middlesbrough at the weekend, reach the Premier League through the end-of-season play-offs.
Hughton’s team, on a long unbeaten run, were doing well at the time.
But after the last ball of the regular season was kicked, Middlesbrough’s goal difference was better by two goals. Just two goals.
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It’s always been an unforgiving division, but the money that has filtered down over the past few years, and the desperation of clubs to reach the Premier League and its riches, has made it an even harder division to get out of since Newcastle’s memorable Championship-winning campaign.
What came across speaking to Hughton, at a facility which puts United’s training complex to shame, was the character he had in his dressing room.
And it still wasn’t enough for automatic promotion.
Character is one quality United have lacked on and off the field this season.
“The character in the changing room is always important,” said Hughton.
“It’s (about) making sure when things are not going well, you can still keep that strong group, strong team identity and strong atmosphere in the changing room.
“This season we’ve had some very good individuals in the changing room, and we’ve had a really good team spirit. We’ve had to fight for everything. I think that draws people together.”
Newcastle’s own fate could be decided tonight, when Sunderland take on out-of-form Everton at the Stadium of Light.
Sam Allardyce’s side need to win just one of their two remaining games to be certain of survival, and bookmakers don’t give United a chance of staying up.
Should the club go down, it’ll be interesting to see what chance the bookies give Newcastle of going back up.
The class of 2016 lack the character of both Hughton’s Brighton team and his title-winning Newcastle side of 2010.
Alan Shearer, caretaker manager for the club’s last relegation, had it right in his newspaper column this week.
He said: “At this stage, it is too difficult to say how Newcastle would fare next season if they are in the Championship. Ask me again when I know who the manager is and what players they have.”
Shearer also insisted that the squad needed “ripping up”.
The likes of Moussa Sissoko and Georginio Wijnladum aren’t going to get out United out of the Championship. You just can’t go missing in the division.
Not that they would want to stay, of course.
But too many players, on too many occasions, have let the club down.
This season has been a massive let down.
But is the only way now up for the club?