Thursday 18 January 2018

Hughton calm as Brighton move within one game of crowning glory

Brighton & Hove Albion manager Chris Hughton. Photo: PA
Brighton & Hove Albion manager Chris Hughton. Photo: PA
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

When the outstanding Anthony Knockaert fires home the insurance goal, Chris Hughton is unmoved.

The Brighton boss knows that Wolves are cooked and his team are one win away from promotion to the Premier League.

But he does not sprint down the sideline. Instead, he walks over to the already-stripped substitute Oliver Norwood and passes on instructions that will see the Championship leaders through the final eight minutes.

He was never going to react in any other way. Brighton's imminent rise will make for a happy Easter on the south coast of England.

Their raucous travelling support were in festive mood at the end of this vital 2-0 victory at Molineux, both goals delivered by Knockaert, the division's outstanding player, because a generation has passed since they enjoyed anything like this.

Brighton have been out of the top tier since 1983 and that four-season stay was their only experience of the highest level.

Their last victory in the Easter break was eight years ago, a triumph at Colchester that proved to be the catalyst for a late rally that prevented them from suffering relegation to League Two.

They comfortably bested Wolves last night, with the home crowd given little reason for cheer. Instead, they returned to the old terrace favourite that is always aimed at a joyous contingent from a new kid on the block.

"Where were you when you were s**t," they sang in the direction of the Brighton masses. The answer, of course, is that they were following a club which wasn't managed by Hughton (above).

When the former Irish international assumed control in December 2014, Brighton were hovering just one place above the relegation zone, incapable of regaining momentum after play-off failure seven months earlier.

Hughton kept them up and then steered the Seagulls to a third-placed finish last term, missing out the golden ticket by virtue of goal difference and then falling short in the knockout drama.

The fear was that they would be winded by the punch to the stomach. But they bounced back stronger.

It is now a matter of when they gain promotion, not if they do, although you will never get Hughton to admit as much. A win in Monday's home game with lowly Wigan will do it; in that event third-placed Huddersfield will only be able to match their points tally but their goal difference is inferior by a margin of 31.

It is put to the 58-year-old afterwards that the promised land is so close, he can almost touch it.

"We all can," he replies. "But my responsibility is to be as calm as possible and make sure that nobody is starting to look games ahead when we haven't reached our targets yet. Until that happens, we have to keep as level-headed as possible."

With Hughton on the sideline, that's a given.

He was unruffled throughout this routine success, with only a couple of minor scares en route to a 21st clean sheet of this campaign.

The only drama came when he was handed the wrong coat as temperatures dropped. An assistant was dispatched to find the right fit.

But when the brilliant Knockaert opened the scoring, he strode serenely to the sideline to bark instructions to his centre-halves.

The strength of his unit shone through; it's a well-oiled machine in a disciplined 4-4-2 with talented all-rounders Dale Stephens and Steve Sidwell in the engine room and creative wingers Knockaert and Solly March interchanging.

They are his tried and trusted.

There is no room for Richie Towell in the squad and he is not the highest profile absentee. Former Celtic midfielder Berim Kayal doesn't make the bench either.

His squad is deep; the injury that ruled Ireland centre-half Shane Duffy out for the rest of the season is the only major setback he has recently endured. They have marched on regardless with a quiet general leading from the front.

The press conferences are never box-office. Brighton's local media were amused on Thursday when the Sky Sports News cameras arrived and a reporter chipped away at their boss looking for the money quote for the rolling news coverage. He did not oblige.

But there is assurance beneath it all; he is asked if it would be sweet to finish the job at Norwich next week, one of the clubs - along with Newcastle - that once decided to sack him.

"There will be no particular joy in doing it anywhere," he replies. "Wherever or however doesn't concern me."

No words are necessary when his team have already made their point.

Irish Independent

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