Monday 18 March 2019

Stephen Hunt: Chris Hughton an Ireland boss in waiting

When you think of a Chris Hughton team, first and foremost you think of organisation and a side that is hard to beat. Photo: PA
When you think of a Chris Hughton team, first and foremost you think of organisation and a side that is hard to beat. Photo: PA

Stephen Hunt

As another qualifying campaign reaches its conclusion, inevitably we start to look at who will be the Ireland manager moving on to the qualification for the Euro finals in 2020 and beyond.

My personal feeling is that Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane will still be in charge for the foreseeable future - two years at least and maybe even the next four, or six. We can still qualify for the World Cup and we are still in with a fighting chance going into the final qualifying matches, which I think we would have taken at the start of the campaign.

But looking ahead to when O'Neill decides to leave the post, there are four main candidates for the job as it stands: Roy Keane, Mick McCarthy, Sam Allardyce and Chris Hughton.

The obvious choice would be Roy Keane, who is sitting in the wings and perhaps being prepared for a smooth handover from O'Neill. That might make the most sense for the FAI.

Mick McCarthy would love another crack at the job, I am sure. The public perception might be that he is past it, but he is far from it and after so many years in club management now, he might feel his next move would be back into the Ireland job.

And it seems Allardyce wants another, longer crack at international management now and I am sure he has his eye on all the 'home nations' jobs (apart from England) as we come towards the end of this World Cup campaign.

Which leaves Chris Hughton, the only Irish manager in the Premier League and a coach who is doing an excellent job at Brighton and Hove Albion. When, or if, he decides he is ready for the Ireland job, he deserves to be considered.

Wherever he has worked, as a manager or a number two, Chris has always just got on with his job in a professional and hard-working manner. He doesn't crave the attention, rant and rave or react and get involved in controversies. He must be a nightmare for the media sometimes because he very rarely gives anything away. But that's not his job. His job is to get results.

I am sure he has his moments in private when he is humorous and relaxed, but in his environment, if you have a conversation with him, he responds to you politely and with interest and he is just a very decent man.

He has succeeded at Brighton, where others failed, because the club have been patient and appreciated the job he has done from the start. That makes him an ideal candidate for the Ireland job one day, if he wants it. He understands Ireland for starters and the FAI structure and he knows all about the mentality needed, as I think Martin O'Neill does now for sure.

The foundations were already in place at Brighton when he took over and they were in the top ten wage-payers in the Championship. But you have to spend the money correctly when you have it, because it is very easy to spend badly.

He does his due diligence on players. Steve Sidwell might not have been the most fashionable signing, but Chris looked into him and his character and obviously saw a player who he knew was going to be useful in the Championship.

Clearly team spirit and team morale are important to him, as they are to Ireland, so he will want to sign players who will integrate as characters in the dressing room. He will not want a player who is going to be disruptive if he is in the side one week and on the bench the next and who is unable to hide that he is not happy about it.

That is so often the most important thing any manager will do when they are signing a player because the quality will always come through, but if he is not going be the same person next week, when he is on the bench, then he is going to disrupt the harmony within the club.

When you think of a Chris Hughton team, first and foremost you think organisation and a side that is hard to beat. And that is how they will be in the Premier League this season. It is also a happy camp, which can be enough in the Premier league sometimes. Although it doesn't guarantee success, it is important to have a group of players who are united and won't roll over and die when the going gets tough but who will fight for the manager and the club.

You can tell now that Brighton will not tail off towards the end of the season with seven games to go. They will be in the mix with three or four games left. But it will take a lot of effort and organisation for that to happen. The foundations are there and it is a happy camp, but you do need stronger, fitter and better players to survive.

It also helps if you have the special ingredient of a striker who is going to score 20 goals to keep you up. They only cost around £50m nowadays. Chris knows that is not going to happen at Brighton because he understands the game and the history of the sport.

But even if the Brighton chairman gave Chris £50m, you get the feeling he wouldn't want to spend it all on one player. He is the sort of manager who would prefer to get the right character at the right price, rather than disrupt the camp with a highly-paid, expensive player, who might have the X-factor but could not guarantee success or results. He is a guy you would love to have in charge of your business nine-to-five, seven days a week.

This is Brighton's first season in the Premier League and although they played Newcastle last season, there will be a special atmosphere around the ground today because it is their first live Super Sunday game and it is another reminder that they are in the big league.

Their home form will be vital to their chances this season. As Burnley discovered, if you can win your home games and build momentum and confidence in your home performances, it can go a long way to helping you survive.

The major difference is that the new stadium is built for the Premier League, unlike Turf Moor, or the old Withdean ground. I played there and it was a horrendous place to play, with the pokey dressing rooms, the running track and a gale usually blowing through the place. It was horrible. By contrast, the new stadium is really nice and the fans have a role to play in making it a lively and intimidating atmosphere for visiting teams.

Hughton has won promotion to the Premier League and the big question is, can he replicate Tony Pulis and Allardyce and survive in the top division now? You know it is not going to be pretty sometimes, he knows it is going to be very hard work, but he will give Brighton a fighting chance.

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