From all outward appearances, Mike Ashley is an odd one. Ever since assuming the role of chairman at Newcastle United his behaviour could be best described as "eccentric" and his decision to today oust manager Chris Hughton has, however, moved him from the category "makes strange decisions" to "genuinely malicious".
Chris Hughton was fired this morning by Newcastle management as they sought "someone with more experience". His record notwithstanding, The Understated One had just overseen a 3-1 hiding at the hands of fellow promoted side West Bromwich and perhaps this match had less bearing on the firing than we're now led to believe.
Responses from the team have been a mixture of anger, surprise and bemusement. He was popular: recently all of Kevin Nolan, Andy Carroll and Jonas Gutierrez had publicly supported of their boss' methods. After the events of this morning, veterans Sol Campbell and Nolan led the calls of "Why?". Hughton was effective: after taking the reins a second time, Hughton guided the Magpies to promotion from the Championship in their first attempt - winning the Title in the process - when all and sundry declared them ripe for a Leeds United-type fall into the lower reaches of League One. He also managed nineteen points from the Magpies' opening sixteen matches. He was also a coach, thrust into the top job rather unwillingly at first when Kevin Keegan resigned, and again when it was decided that Alan Shearer shouldn't continue as Toon boss. The fact he wasn't a frontman a la Joe Kinnear and more of a back-room boy commanded the respect of the players and he demanded his charges develop. During his time in charge, he received marked improvement from Nile Ranger, Wayne Routledge, Danny Guthrie and most importantly of all, Andy Carroll.
Response from fans to the news has been almost uniformly negative. The words "disgusted", "dismayed" and "gutted" have been bandied about in chat forums and fans as well as the media have leapt to ask why such an effective manager and stabilising influence was handed his pink slip. Already mildly undermined by contract nearing it's expiry with no signs of it being renewed, it has become staggeringly obvious why that much-talked about new contract didn't appear: the Understated One never had any long term future as boss on Tyneside because Ashley saw him solely as a Temp and thus, when the time came to bid farewell he did so without second thoughts. With fans, the football media and players alike sounding off about Hughton deserving a new deal, Ashley proved once again who's the boss on Tyneside and sent his man packing.
The chief reason Newcastle gave for the firing was their seeking someone more experienced to take the poisoned chalice of Magpies Management. However, the first two names linked with the job were Alan Pardew and Iain Dowie. Surely given his uncanny ability to be linked to every single Premier League job that arises, Alan Curbishley's name will also be thrown about willy-nilly. Pardew has seventeen months of experience in the Top Flight with Charlton Athletic & West Ham, Dowie moreso but also a highly chequered record unenhanced by his recent stints as the brains behind Alan Shearer's managerial career and his role as "management consultant" at Hull FC. That Dutchman Martin Jol resigned today from his position at Ajax should be considered a hope by "gutted" and "dismayed" Toon Army members - as a top class manager he could provide some stability but must ask himself "Why would I come to Newcastle - where stability is rewarded with the sack".
That this decision has come at all makes one wonder how much Mike Ashley actually understands football. In all probability he's that most dangerous of owners: he who thinks he knows the game, but really has no idea what makes a player tick. The 3 - 1 defeat by WBA, although the catalyst for Hughton's dismissal, can't have been the reason: Newcastle were missing both first-choice centre-backs, both first-choice central midfielders and one of their top forwards in Nolan. With no money made available to re-stock, Hughton had to make do with what he had. By sacking a popular manager while the club enjoys its most crisis-free period since his arrival suggests that Ashley demands catastrophe rather than evenness. By saying "Newcastle United have consciously decided to plunge themselves back into crisis", Dale Johnson of ESPN Soccernet reads the situation extremely well. By firing the gaffer in the midst of what should be considered a successful season thus far, Ashley has disregarded the preferences of his players - the guys attempting to keep his club in the Premier League - for his own whims, and therefore risks upsetting the Toon applecart simply to satisfy some personal feeling about the man he installed only a matter of months ago. There can be no doubt whatsoever that the axe has been hovering above Hughton's neck for some weeks: rumours abounded before the 5 - 1 mauling of Sunderland that the Manager was for the chop should Newcastle not perform. That only a matter of a month later he has finally successfully rid himself of this irksome understated manager means that Ashley was simply looking for an excuse to do the dirty.
That Newcastle, although officially off the market, could still be purchased by someone with deep enough pockets and strong enough willpower also bears thinking about. Talk around football water coolers says that Ashley could be convinced without trouble to sell should the money be right, and by first firing an inexpensive manager and subsequently appointing an experience (read: expensive) manager it's likely that any potential sale will be affected by this, given the ease with which inexpensive managers can be replaced. Should The Clown in Charge still harbour ambitions of selling the club, then he's just added another hurdle to that potential sale.
If there was one thing that Chris Hughton bought to Newcastle, it was stability. The players, the media, the fans all knew what they were going to get from him and so must have Mike Ashley. Yet the expectation of the manager at St. James' Park remains unreal to the point of laughter. And if guiding your squad to eleventh position in the Premiership with a threadbare squad earns you the sack, what expectations must Ashley have of a new manager? Whichever new manager Ashley appoints, they can be completely certain that Ashley has ideas above his club's station and for a manager, that is a recipe for disaster.