Thursday 26 April 2018

Chris Hughton poised for his finest hour as desire to keep learning pays off

Chris Hughton (Getty Images)
Chris Hughton (Getty Images)
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

In the days before his belated testimonial at Lansdowne Road in the summer of 1995, a game which pitted Jack Charlton's Ireland against a Liam Brady-managed Premier League selection, Chris Hughton was asked about his plans for the future.

He gave the stock answer for a player adjusting to the reality that comes with hanging up the boots. "I'm 36," he said. "And I'd like to think I'd be involved in the game in 20 years' time."

It's a line that the former pro often utters in hope rather than expectation, but the Londoner has beaten the odds by surviving in the trade, and that's before taking into account the dearth of black managers in the upper echelons of English football.

This morning, as he stands 90 minutes away from promotion back to the Premier League, he has ample reason to be proud of his journey.

When he outlined his 20-year target, Hughton was already on the ladder as a member of the back-room team at Spurs. Two years earlier, Charlton had invited him to join his staff in the preparations for a World Cup qualifier with Lithuania.

Higher-profile members of Ireland's golden era flirted with life in the management before drifting away, but the retired full-back had always demonstrated a willingness to learn and a quiet assurance that set him apart from peers.

In Ireland's Euro '88 squad, Mick McCarthy and Hughton were the top-level managers of the future.

While McCarthy threw himself straight into the firing line, Hughton took the patient route, starting with the reserves at Spurs before serving under a variety of managers at first-team level until he left his boyhood club in 2007 when Martin Jol was ousted.

Along the way, he also served as an assistant to Brian Kerr when he was Ireland manager and that broadened his education.

Hughton emerged from the shadows at Newcastle when Dennis Wise extended an invitation to join the coaching ticket and that eventually led to a spell as caretaker boss when turbulence became the default setting.

Joe Kinnear and Alan Shearer then got a crack of the job ahead of the Irishman before he was given the reins in 2009.

Hughton managed to unify a relegated dressing-room and put the building blocks in place to ensure the Toon Army bounced back at the first attempt; they were 11th in the Premier League when he was sacked midway through the following campaign. That was his real introduction to life on the front line.

He departed with his reputation enhanced and a year at Birmingham was a stepping stone towards an attractive gig at Norwich City which gave him another Premier opportunity.

That also ended on sour terms as a promising first campaign was followed by a disappointing second term, with Norwich relegated.

It was a testing period. Fans criticised what they considered to be a one-dimensional approach; he largely favoured a 4-4-2 system at a time when it was almost a dirty word. Wes Hoolahan was squeezed out and goals dried up, with expensive failure Ricky van Wolfswinkel used as a stick to beat him with.

Still, the reaction to a sacking illustrates how an individual is viewed within the profession. Hughton was immediately floated as a candidate for other roles, with his stock seemingly unaffected, yet he chose to embrace the situation by evolving his thinking.

Through the PFA, he signed up for a course on corporate governance in an attempt to understand how the other side of the business works. Perhaps the experience of receiving a P45 on a couple of occasions heightened his curiosity, although it's hard to imagine the Newcastle model conforming to any norms.

"The reasons I did it are because the game has changed," he explained last year. "For a manager, the responsibilities with the team and the relationship with the team hasn't changed. But we're now in an era where board level has changed and the make-up of boards and ownership has changed.

"It's important you can have relationships with those who are, in effect, your bosses. It gave me an insight into the workings of the board. And you never know, once you've finished managing and decide you want to stay in the game, there are other areas that might be appealing and open to you."


He was back in work before he finished the course, though, with Brighton recognising in January 2015 that a man with Hughton's skills was needed as they faced into a relegation battle.

The replacement for Sami Hyypia achieved the initial target without leaving the impression that his first full season in charge would culminate with a promotion push. They started off as 33/1 outsiders.

Brighton are an ambitious outfit that have invested heavily in the youth department, with a Category 1 status academy and top notch facilities that have helped the recruitment process.

That said, they would be moving ahead of schedule if they win away to promotion rivals Middlesbrough today to join Burnley in hitting the jackpot. Their hosts only need a point.

There was a point after the new year where Brighton appeared to be in danger of missing the boat completely with a 3-0 loss to Boro instigating a mini-meltdown. Instead of ripping up the template, Hughton steadied the ship without drastic changes.

He still favours a 4-4-2 formation - no longer an oddity thanks to Leicester's exploits - and the January addition of Czech Jiri Skalak and Frenchman Anthony Knockaert has strengthened his options in wide areas.

This campaign has tackled the theory that Hughton is too conservative - Brighton are the Championship's top scorers - but what this group share in common with his previous sides is a stability that comes with his measured brand of authority.

"He never comes in shouting," explained goalkeeper David Stockdale last week. "He knows he doesn't have to do that."

Controlled emotions will be vital in a lunchtime showdown that could result in his finest hour.

Middlesbrough v Brighton, live, Sky Sports 1, 12.15pm

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