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Thoughts, news and notes from the sports staff of The Saratogian newspaper, located in historic Saratoga Springs, New York. The gang in the corner office on Lake Avenue give you the post-game wrap-ups, news and notes from the games we cover and opinions about the sports we read about every day.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

New king in Newcastle and Week 14 NFL picks

My favorite English club team, Newcastle United, recently fired their manager, Chris Hughton, and it couldn't be worse for my psyche.

I found out about the sacking while compiling the Around the Block, Around the World segment we do on The Starting Gate -- a page we do early in the night -- and it was all I could think about for the rest of the day.

Hughton had been a successful manager since coming in as a caretaker, leading the club into the middle of the Premiership after a dominant campaign in the League Championship. It's more than we could ask for after the last few seasons of transfer miscues, front office mistakes and and on-pitch failures. His departure was never called for by the fans this season, and his performance had been written about in good light. If Chris Hughton could be fired in his first real managerial gig despite success and the backing of fans, what decent coach would ever want to take up the position, especially given the club's history of this type of behavior?

Since I started following Newcastle in 2006, the club has gone through many managers. In fact, they were going through a managerial change, Graeme Souness to Bobby Roeder, at the time I picked up the club. Since then I have watched Sam Allardyce, Joe Kinnear, Kevin Keegan and Alan Shearer try their hand as Newcastle manager before Hughton got his chance. That is seven managers in under six seasons. Even the Yankees in their Steinbrenner/Billy Martin heyday and the wretched Detroit Lions cannot claim such a carousel of managers.

"By God, we will be unstoppable!"

Granted, some of these managers have been on an interim basis. Bobby Roeder was just a place-holder, as was Joe Kinnear until something better came along. But even managers that were chosen for the long-term have been unable to produce. Sam Allardyce was hand-picked by owner Mike Ashley, but succeeded to only talk a big game while his squads failed to back it up on the pitch.

Kevein Keegan was the manager back during Newcastle's last run of success in the early 90s, when the team climbed out of what was then called Division 1, and finished second, sixth, second and secondin the Premiership from 1993 to 1997. He abruptly resigned after that run, only to return in 2008 to take over for Sam Allardyce.

I was watching a live broadcast of Newcastle's game against Manchester United (I even kept a live blog of the game) when it was announced that Keegan would return as manager, and I remember the elation and expectations that came with the return of King Kevin.

I was the fella on the left, and I think I imagined the two on the right

He lasted less than a year after disagreements with owner Mike Ashley and Director Dennis Wise over transfers, the aftermath of which turned fans against the owner and Keegan from the club.

Nine months later. Not our proudest moment.

Alan Shearer's tenure was nothing more than a huge tease to the fans. Shearer was the face of the franchise as a goal scorer until his retirement in 2006. He then came in as manager to save a sinking ship that was doomed to relegation, and almost succeeded. Fans thought he was the savior we needed to steer us back to the Premiership. It would be just like the old days.

In our heads we thought, "Well, management ran Keegan out of town and sold our best young player for pennies on the dollar, but so long as Shearer is at the helm, I will stand by this team forever".

"You'll never turn on me again, right, Mauley McBear?"

Yet, in another staggeringly brilliant public relations move, Shearer was cut down, held in limbo over the job throughout the offseason, and finally not re-fired. When Newcastle failed to lure back Keegan, the job went to Chris Hughton as a caretaker until they could find their longterm manager. We looked dead in the water, and doomed to mire in the second tier of English football.

And then something wonderful happened. Hughton did an immaculate job as manager during the club's year in the League Championship. Newcastle dominated the league over the course of the season, and stormed their way back into the Premiership. We were contenders again, and I felt a sense of pride in the team that I had not felt since the initial honeymoon of choosing them in the first place.

The current year has had mixed success, but has still been better than many fans had predicted. The fact that there have been any ups has more than made up for the downs, and following the team has never been more fun. We were shut out in the opener by Manchester United, but came right back with a 6-0 win over Aston Villa in the next match. We kicked powerhouse Chelsea out of the Carling Cup only to lose to Arsenal in the next round. Andy Carrol has emerged from our youth team as a constant scoring threat, but talented Joey Barton cannot stay out of trouble with officials and the law. We upended rival Sunderland with a five-goal barrage and crept past Arsenal after losing in league matches, only to find ourselves playing our last four games without a win.

It's been that kind of season, except the manager was thrown off on the corkscrew.

Yet those last four games have been the deciding factor of the future for Chris Hughton at Newcastle. What? Mike Ashley, who took over ownership of the club soon after I began following them, and has been as popular with fans as an acid and salt rinse after a root canal, decided the team needs to be managed by someone with more experience.

On paper, it's a justifiable move, along the lines of 'if the team is doing this well with some nobody as manager, think of how well they'd do with an accomplished manager.' It would be like the New Orleans Hornets -- who are exceeding all expectations by starting the season 11-1 with rookie head coach Monty Williams -- firing Williams because of their current 2-5 skid and replacing him with perennial also-ran Don Nelson, because Nelson has been a coach longer. Except whoever the soccer version of is Don Nelson was not available, so they hired a journeyman manager
in Alan Pardew, or the P.J. Carlesimo of soccer coaches.

Will Joey Barton be the Latrell Sprewell of soccer?

Can Newcastle difinitively say they are in a better position than they were in before they fired Hughton? No. At best, they can say they broke even on this move

In reality they have burned the bridge of every personnel member the team ever wants to sign in the future. Who will sign with a club that will unceremoniously fire you even if you overperform? Why even risk it?

Pardew told the BBC that other managers had sent him text messages saying that "he must be mad to sign there", and I am inclined to agree with them. Even with his 5 1/2 year deal, how long does he expect to stay with a club who fired their last manager after he exceeded any and all expectations? With Newcastle's managerial history, how did the club even generate any interest in the position from career-oriented managers?

This move may not affect the team this season, but it will in the long run, and not for the better. And to think I let them get my hopes up.

Week 14 NHL Picks

This Week: 0-for-1
Last Week: 12-for-16
Overall: 99-for-178

(5-7) Cleveland Browns at
(2-10) Buffalo Bills -1.5

(8-4) Green Bay Packers at
(2-10) Detroit Lions +6.5

(8-4) New York Giants at
(5-7) Minnesota Vikings +2.5

(2-10) Cincinnati Bengals at
(9-3) Pittsburgh Steelers -9.5

(7-5) Tampa Bay Buccaneers at
(5-7) Washington Redskins +2.5

(10-2) Atlanta Falcons at
(1-11) Carolina Panthers +7.5

(6-6) Oakland Raiders at
(7-5) Jacksonville Jaguars -4.5

(6-6) Seattle Seahawks at
(4-8) San Francisco 49ers -4.5

(6-6) St. Louis Rams at
(9-3) New Orleans Saints -8.5

(10-2) New England Patriots at
(9-3) Chicago Bears +3.5

(6-6) Miami Dolphins at
(9-3) New York Jets -6.5

(3-9) Denver Broncos at
(3-9) Arizona Cardinals +3.5

(8-4) Kansas City Chiefs at
(6-6) San Diego Chargers -6.5

(8-4) Philadelphia Eagles at
(4-8) Dallas Cowboys +3.5

(8-4) Baltimore Ravens at
(5-7) Houston Texans +3.5



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