Tuesday 20 March 2018

'He's up with Wenger and Mourinho'

Chris Hughton, Manager of Brighton and Hove Albion Photo: Getty
Chris Hughton, Manager of Brighton and Hove Albion Photo: Getty

Amy Lawrence

To the outside world, a manager's decisions are the only way to judge their work. But to the inner circle, to the players and staff that make up the daily life of a team, it is not just the decision but the way it is imparted that tells you so much about a person's true management style.

Steve Sidwell was hitting his 35th birthday, with a long and varied career behind him, when he was called in to have a chat with Chris Hughton. Sidwell's frustrating season - he broke an ankle in a freak accident just as he was almost fully recovered from surgery on a prolapsed disc - was about to take another hit. Hughton sat down with the midfielder and began to talk.

"He pulled me in before the transfer window shut and said: 'I am looking to bring a striker in and if I do there might not be a space for you,'" Sidwell recalls.

Being withdrawn from the Premier League's 25-man roster, in effect cutting off any chance to play once he finished his latest rehab, was a blow, even if Sidwell fully understood the logic behind a decision in the club's best interests.

The midfielder responded with the honesty and courteous professionalism that Hughton had shown him.

"The way you get treated determines how you react," he explains. "In those meetings there was truthfulness and he confided in me. It might have been easy to throw toys out of the pram if I had been treated badly, but that wasn't it. So I offered to do anything off the pitch, in the dressing room, around certain individuals, going to watch matches for him. It is just about playing your part as best as you can."

The exchange gives an insight into the atmosphere at Brighton under Hughton. Having been out of English football's top flight for decades, having fought for their very existence, it would have been understandable for Brighton to have got a bit too excited, or felt a bit too anxious, about this season in the big time. But Hughton likes his football environment to be as measured as possible.

According to Liam Rosenior it has served Brighton extremely well. "The manager sets the tone for the culture of a football club," he says. "As a person he is just a very consistent guy. He is very honest and humble. When you have those qualities they automatically transfer to your work. He doesn't treat everybody the same but he treats everyone with the same amount of respect - whether that is tactical, off the field things with our lives, how we conduct ourselves.

"Throughout the week he will speak to people one-to-one, that is one of his strengths. When you are playing for someone like that you don't want to let them down. The way he motivates is not to shout or single players out for mistakes or having a bad game. He has the foresight to know he can lose a player. He is always looking at it from an improvement point of view. He never gets too upset if we lose a game or too happy if we win. There is a real calmness throughout the squad and that is down to him."

Brighton take on Arsenal today on the back of their most upbeat sequence of the season - four wins and two draws in all competitions have helped them to move upwards after a difficult couple of months. They feel buoyant but also cautious, knowing that their run-in brings a series of high-profile opponents. This period of the season is key to survival. Everything is well organised and confidence is being maintained.

Sidwell is impressed with how Brighton have adapted to Premier League life. "When we got promoted there was a lot of excitement, a lot of nervous energy," he says. "The first handful of games was a mixed bag and it hit the lads how hard the Premier League is. They took picking up wins most weeks for granted in the Championship.

"The steadiness all comes from the manager. He never lets us get above our station or lets us panic or worry when things get tricky. While the majority of the time he is very calm, when he needs to give us a kick up the backside we have seen that. It is not the chucking of teacups but it is not nicey-nicey either. It is a controlled aggression.

"For a small person he puffs his chest out and lets you have it. When he does, because it isn't commonplace, you sit back and think: 'Wow.' You know you have to buck your ideas up. His honesty is fantastic. His door is always open - and I have been at other clubs where the manager says the door is open and you go to knock on it and it's 'come back another day'."

The combination of human and footballing qualities has struck a strong chord. Sidwell argues that Hughton is underrated because he does not like to make a managerial noise. Having played for the likes of Arsène Wenger, José Mourinho, Martin O'Neill and Gérard Houllier, Sidwell regards Hughton's match-day preparation as the most enjoyable he has come across.

"I have been lucky to work under some of the best managers this country has seen, and I would put him up the top with them.

"Because he doesn't scream and shout from the rooftops and doesn't like the spotlight on him, that goes against him. People are starting to take note. If he continues at the top level who knows if a bigger job, or even the England job, will come?"

Whatever does come will be treated with the same measured, thorough, understated values.


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