{mosimage} 10 December ~ The removal of Chris Hughton as Newcastle manager was inevitable, if you believe virtually everyone commenting upon it in hindsight. They are all much better at second guessing Mike Ashley's intentions than I am, if they are telling the truth. The decision appears incomprehensible by any standards of logic, Hughton having made a good start to ensuring Premier League survival while running the kind of cut-price operation that was surely guaranteed to be appreciated by the penny-pinching owner.

The appointment of Alan Pardew as Hughton's replacement seems just as strange at first glance. Ashley's explanation of requiring someone more experienced than Hughton is hardly borne out by giving the job to someone who has spent the bulk of his managerial career in the lower divisions. Neither can it be a good idea to place a man whose last sacking was cited as being due to concerns over staff morale in charge of a squad whose relative success is all about team spirit.

But that is to ignore a major factor in the choice – the pool of applicants willing to take the post. A club run by an owner who insists on a major role in transfer dealings, who has an over-inflated opinion of his own knowledge of the game, who has a history of humiliating and undermining managers and of rash, fickle sackings does not attract the highest calibre of managerial candidates. When you are also aware of Ashley's penchant for employing personal friends at all levels of the organisation, with no consideration of their suitability to perform the tasks expected of them, the appointment begins to make perfect sense. Pardew matches the profile of the type who would accept the job: unsuccessful, unemployed and desperate for another chance. He is also a personal friend from hours spent in the casino formerly run by Newcastle's managing director Derek Llambias, another recruited solely on the basis of cronyism.

Pardew was not so long ago thought of as one of the latest wave of promising young English managers. His sacking by Southampton earlier this season met with overwhelming disapproval in a survey of fans by a local paper, performances on the pitch evidently not contributing too much to the decision. He never managed to overcome the initial unpopularity of his appointment at West Ham among fans and was unable to halt the slide of a Charlton side that had looked doomed long before he arrived. So he's used to a struggle, sometimes unfair unpopularity, and conflict within a club. He will meet with all of those at Newcastle, especially if he is held responsible for January sales. Newcastle's main strengths are team spirit, a talismanic centre-forward and a tactical set-up that plays to his strengths. All three could well be gone by February.

Ashley long ago stopped caring about the opinion of fans, but he may find that support is conditional, not guaranteed, despite what he's been led to believe by the evidence of the last two seasons. Crowds are down this season from last, despite general satisfaction with progress up to now. Current attendances are bolstered by holders of three-year season tickets bought during the optimistic summer before Kevin Keegan's latest departure, tickets which will be up for renewal in the next six months for the first time since Ashley's tenure turned bad. Financial difficulties make tough decisions a lot easier, and next season could see a noticeable fall in both attendances and revenue. Mark Brophy

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