Friday 28 April 2017

Things are looking up for Hughton

Likeable Brighton boss has all the attributes to manage in top flight again - and he'd be a perfect fit to succeed O'Neill in Ireland hot-seat

Chris Hughton has his sights firmly set on leading Brighton into the Premier League.
Chris Hughton has his sights firmly set on leading Brighton into the Premier League.

Brian Kerr

It was approaching tea-time on a cold, Wednesday evening in January when my mobile rang. Scanning the screen to see who the caller was, I immediately broke into a smile.

Chris Hughton has that effect on a lot of people. In an industry filled with insincerity, he is one of the good guys. It shines through to the degree that you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who has a bad word to say about the man.

Hughton with Brian Kerr during their time together with Ireland. Picture credit; Pat Murphy / Sportsfile
Hughton with Brian Kerr during their time together with Ireland. Picture credit; Pat Murphy / Sportsfile

What's more, it'd be just as difficult to find the person who doubts whether he has the ability to become a future Ireland manager.

Quite possibly he could even be our next one.

Why not? Having said in the past that he would like to be considered for the role - providing of course the planets are aligned and he is free for work at the time when the vacancy arises - I have no doubt he would do an outstanding job.

Notwithstanding the fact there are very few Irishmen working as a No 1 in English football right now - Mick McCarthy (Ipswich), Kevin Nugent (Barnet) and John Sheridan (Oldham) are the only others among the 92 Football League and Premier League clubs - what really makes Chris' CV appear so appealing is the quality of his work wherever he has been.

Significantly, he was voted the Championship's manager of the year last season, even though his Brighton team were beaten in the play-offs, and Middlesbrough, Hull and Burnley were the sides who won promotion.

What factors swayed his fellow managers in the electorate to vote for him? No doubt they remembered that when he came in, midway through the 2014-15 season, Brighton were in danger of slipping into League One.

Eighteen months later, they were unfortunate not to go up, and this year, punching above their financial weight, they could be on their way to the top flight for the first time in 34 years.

So the question isn't whether Hughton would be good enough for Ireland. It's whether Ireland will be lucky enough to get a man whose experience is matched by his knowledge and whose touchline calmness disguises the fact he is a passionate and energetic communicator of information.

Awareness

Although he is already richly qualified, he's also the type who seeks to further his education.

He was among the first batch of coaches, back in 2000, to obtain the UEFA Pro Licence; and after losing his job at Norwich, he immediately enrolled on a business management course to deepen his awareness and knowledge of how to manage above as well as below.

His work ethic is extraordinary, something I was a grateful recipient of when he was my assistant during my term as Ireland manager, when our exhaustive studying of opponents' tactics and set-pieces helped ensure we were always properly prepared ahead of every international.

And those traits are still evident to this day, which was how we came to be speaking on this January evening, with Chris driving to a game, the night after his Brighton side had defeated Cardiff 1-0.

That's just his nature. Even though this season has thus far gone spectacularly well, he's always planning ahead, scouting prospective signings or future opponents, always on the road to somewhere - hopefully the Premier League.

The thing about Chris Hughton is that everyone should want him to succeed, not just the Brighton fans who yearn for Premier League football, and not just Irish men and women, who recognise him as one of our own - but all football people, because Chris, along with men like Carlo Ancelotti, Claudio Ranieri, Bobby Robson offers proof that football management isn't just a playground for bullies.

Think about where he's worked.

At Newcastle, a club in danger of meltdown after they were relegated in 2009, he provided stability and dignity in the months that followed, when Mike Ashley had the club up for sale.

They only lost four matches the season he guided them to promotion, whereas Rafa Benitez, who has a massively bigger budget, has lost eight this season already. But despite positioning them safely in mid-table that first year back in the Premier League, he got sacked.

Birmingham followed. They too had just been relegated and were stripped of all their best players. Chris drove them to the play-offs as well as into the group stages of the Europa League.

Next came Norwich. He kept them up in his first season, and might very well have secured their Premier League status the following season too, only for the board to dismiss him and give the job to the youth team coach.

Down they went. But back bounced Chris.

And that doesn't surprise me. Having worked with him so closely, I was fully aware of the resilience in his character, as well as the deep intelligence he had in being able to dissect an opponent's game-plan, identify their weaknesses and distil that information to the players.

"His training sessions were brilliant," Kenny Cunningham reflected earlier this week as we spoke about a man we both have a lot of time for. "Aside from being a top-class, diligent, enthusiastic and supremely organised coach, he is also a really good guy."

"The good guy," is someone I first met in 1985; by then he was a seasoned international, who had helped Tottenham win the UEFA Cup the year before. I approached him in the foyer of a Kensington hotel the night England defeated Ireland in a friendly at Wembley.

Straightaway, he showed an interest in the fact I had been assisting Liam Tuohy with the Irish Youth team and despite the stark difference in our statuses - Chris being one of Europe's best full-backs, me being an assistant manager with Drogheda United - there was no hint of sporting snobbery.

Quite the opposite, in fact. The warmth and down-to-earth nature of his personality was continually evident any time I'd subsequently meet him, either in Ireland, where he continued his international career until 1991, or in England, where our paths tended to cross at youth or reserve team matches.

One night in particular stands out, from February 1997. A month earlier, I'd started my new role as the Irish Youth team manager, and the first trip I took to England was to watch Spurs reserves against Bournemouth in St Albans, a tiny non-league ground, with dimly lit floodlights and an old tin roof covering a terrace, where the rat-a-tat-tat noise of the rain provided the soundtrack for the evening.

I was there an hour before the match - one of four spectators who had paid in at that stage. "Am I at the right place?' I wondered, until I spotted Ross Darcy, a centre-half, and Simon Webb trot out - two players who I was considering for the U-20 squad that would travel across to Malaysia for the World Youth Cup.

Then, across the mist, a familiar voice called out.

"How are you, Brian?"

"Ah, Chris, how's things?" I said.

After telling him about my new job, and hearing him generously say that I was free to ring him at any stage, I somewhat sheepishly asked if there was any chance he could give me a spare teamsheet.

"No problem," Chris replied.

Yet it was a problem. This was a different age, and St Albans was not the type of club who had a photocopier positioned in the referee's dressing-room before games. Nonetheless Chris dropped his bag of footballs in the centre circle, disappeared for about five minutes, and re-emerged with the names and numbers of both teams immaculately handwritten onto a sheet of paper.

Gobsmacked by his thoroughness and desire to help, I quickly noted that he hadn't an entourage with him to make his life any easier.

He may have been Tottenham's reserve team manager but the only people he had to assist were a kitman and a physio. It was almost as if he was running a League of Ireland B team. And still he found the time to do a good turn for someone who, at that stage, was an acquaintance.

As the years passed, we became closer, to the extent that by January 2003, as I was enduring the seemingly endless process of becoming the next senior international manager, I was conscious that if I was going to get the job, I needed someone with me who would have not only be respected but who would have already formed relationships with clubs and managers in England.

Not only did Chris tick that box but he was also someone who, from a coaching perspective, was top class, whose credentials were exemplified by the fact he would loyally serve 10 different managers in a 14-year period at Tottenham.

Still, I wondered if he would say yes, aware of how reluctant clubs were to allow their staff work elsewhere on a part-time basis.

What helped was the fact that Glenn Hoddle was the Spurs manager at the time, because he, like the other former international managers (Alex Ferguson, Bobby Robson, Gerard Houllier) I dealt with during my time as Irish manager, had an awareness and respect for my position.

Glenn insisted he'd put in a good word with Daniel Levy. And as soon as the Tottenham chairman gave Chris his blessing, we had him on board.

And I loved working with him. Quite apart from his likeable nature and infectious enthusiasm, there was a depth of knowledge there that enriched the set-up. Right from the get-go, you could tell how much it meant for him to be involved again with Ireland.

"I would love to do the job," were the seven words he said to me when I asked him to work beside me, largely because of the pride he felt in his Irish roots and awareness he had of his mother's Limerick background.

All of this I saw in July 2004 at his daughter's wedding - an amazing day at a country hotel just outside London, where this wonderful cultural fusion of Irish, English, Caribbean and African guests mixed so easily among the great and the good of the football world.

Pat Jennings was there, Garth Crooks, Ray Clemence, Steve Perryman and so many more from the great Tottenham team of the '80s, and yet amid the diverse crowd, you could sense an Irish intensity to the most special of occasions.

And that sums Chris up for me. There was never any pretension about his Irishness. It was there. He felt it and if I was to choose a model professional in relation to immigration and awareness of social issues, he is that person.

He was the first black player to be capped by Ireland and played in an era in the '80s when racism was prevalent.

To this day, it's still there, in an implicit as well as explicit way. Think about it, there are only three black managers in the English League, a disproportionately small number in relation to the quality of coaches around who are seeking work.

And make no mistake, Chris oozes quality. He's a smart tactician, highlighted by the effective use of Brighton's comparatively meagre resources, which leaves them neck and neck at the top of the Championship along with Newcastle.

A pragmatist, he isn't afraid to vary his approach depending on the opposition. At times he is willing to operate off what essentially is a 4-2-4 formation. For away games, like this evening's one at Elland Road, the midfield is inclined to be more compact, with an emphasis placed on counter-attacking.

Is he too nice to succeed? Well, bear in mind that during his first season as a manager, he had Joey Barton, Alan Smith, Nicky Butt and Andy Carroll in his dressing-room.

To a man they played for him because they respected him.

Everyone does.

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