Friday 23 March 2018

Comment: Hughton is everything Wenger used to be before sad decline


‘Chris Hughton (right) would make a very good successor to Arsene Wenger, but he is unlikely to be given the opportunity’. Photo: Getty Images
‘Chris Hughton (right) would make a very good successor to Arsene Wenger, but he is unlikely to be given the opportunity’. Photo: Getty Images

Eamonn Sweeney

As Arsenal completed what must have been one of the worst weeks ever endured by a major football club, all the focus was on Arsene Wenger. It's become a ritual of late.

When the opposition scores or the final whistle heralds another Gunners defeat, the cameras home in on Wenger's tormented visage as the man contemplates the ongoing destruction of his reputation. It makes for painful viewing.

But perhaps it's just as interesting to look at the man who occupied the other dug-out yesterday. At the start of the season Brighton were second favourites to be relegated. It seemed safe to assume that their spell in the top flight would be a brief one.

Yet this morning they sit 10th in the table, seven points clear of the drop zone. And unlike fellow overachievers Burnley the south coast side have achieved their unexpectedly lofty position by playing positive football. The mark of Chris Hughton is all over them.

If there is one word which sums up Brighton, it is enthusiasm. Hughton has produced a team who chase everything and play with a verve and a brio which makes them one of the most enjoyable teams to watch in the Premier League. They are the epitome of a team whose manager is getting absolutely everything from his players.

Take yesterday's man of the match Glenn Murray, a 34-year-old who looks more like the managing director of a craft beer company than a footballer.

Murray has spent most of his professional career outside the Premier League and must surely have thought his chances of making it at the top level had passed after unsuccessful stints with Crystal Palace and Bournemouth. Yet he has been outstanding this season and tortured the Arsenal defence at the Amex Stadium.

His manager is also familiar with the ups and downs of the game. Hughton's two previous Premier League gigs, at Newcastle United and Norwich City, ended with two of the more mysterious sackings in recent times. Yet what he has achieved with Brighton underlines yet again that he is one of the most under-rated managers in the game.

In fact Hughton would actually make a very good successor to Wenger, even if he is unlikely to be given the opportunity.

That there will be a successor before too long now seems inevitable. There is an end-of-empire feeling about Arsenal's performances, a decadence which shows that things are falling apart and the centre is not holding.

Whereas the likes of Murray are being inspired to new heights by Hughton, Wenger's players give the impression of knowing that their manager is a busted flush.

Ozil, Wilshere, Xhaka et al play as though determined to prove the cliché of the heartless and overpaid modern footballer true. The indolence of their performance was in sharp contrast to the home team's gung-ho attitude.

Arsenal have now reached a tipping point, the decline of the last few years having achieved critical mass. They are paying the penalty for the steady downgrading of ambition in recent seasons.

Having ceased to be title contenders Wenger and the club contented themselves with an apparently perennial slot in the top four. Even last season they seemed to believe that an FA Cup final victory represented some kind of vindication of the manager. Yet they have been slipping for so long that the past week was in a sense predictable.

There is a certain tragedy about the club's plight. Had Wenger decided to depart after last year's FA Cup win it would have been possible to gloss over the underachievement of the past few seasons. The possibility was there for a sentimental farewell befitting the service he has given to the club.

Now the atmosphere has turned toxic and it seems likely that Arsenal's greatest manager will depart with his reputation in tatters. It is an old story. The great ones go on too long. Ali's career was rung out by a cowbell in the Bahamas, Jack O'Shea departed after a defeat by Clare rather than some Croke Park glory day.

Maybe the very self-belief and drive which enables players and managers to be the best also makes it impossible for them to admit a decline in their powers.

In Wenger's case it seems particularly sad. A man who once exuded nobility and intelligence now appears peevish and deluded.

He appears unable to believe that the fans could turn on him yet it is his own obstinacy in remaining in the job which has made this conclusion inevitable. He cuts an appallingly diminished figure these days and his insistence on his right to remain in the job seems quixotically stubborn rather than courageous.

Over the past seven days we have witnessed the crumbling to dust of the house that Arsene built. There will be no coming back from this.

Yesterday's game had the feeling of a death knell. At this stage you just long for Wenger to be put out of his misery. Even the stylish football the club has been renowned for is absent. Brighton played better stuff than Arsenal yesterday, Manchester City are much more technically accomplished and Liverpool more exciting.

For Brighton, though, all is jubilation and bonus right now. We can fantasise about the job Hughton might do as Irish manager, and the football he would have the team playing, but it's likely that he'll have bigger fish to fry in the future.

Chris Hughton is getting it done. With his creativity, his honesty and his intelligence he represents everything good about football.

Irish Independent

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