Humble Hughton happy not being in the conversation for 'big' vacancies in Premier League
Brighton’s stunning turnaround a victory for former Ireland defender’s methods
Nobody mentioned Chris Hughton when Everton were looking for a new leader last October, but everyone can see that the manager of the month for February is above Sam Allardyce in the Premier League table as the sides meet at Goodison Park.
The former Republic of Ireland full-back is in his element at Brighton, who have risen from 21st in the Championship to 10th in the top division since he was hired in December 2014.
The fit is so natural that no one in Sussex worries much about him being lost to a 'bigger club'. With 34 points from 29 games, Brighton could be within four points or so of securing another season in the Premier League after 34 years outside the top flight.
Hughton, who yesterday joined Pep Guardiola, Eddie Howe and David Wagner as winners of the monthly award in 2017-18, has been rewarded for the remarkable improvement shown by Brighton's players since the 4-0 hammering at home by Chelsea on January 20.
From there they won three of their next four games, beating West Ham (3-1), Swansea (4-1) and Arsenal (2-1). Next weekend they face Manchester United at Old Trafford in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup.
If the rest of the league saw only the goals when Chelsea came to visit, the former Ireland defender observed something deeper. He says: "What has helped enormously is that even in the Chelsea game, where arguably we saw one of the best individual performances by a player at the Amex (by Eden Hazard), we were just caught by an exceptional team and found it hard to get back in.
"But the general sense was that we didn't play too badly, and I think that helped, because it meant the confidence levels weren't shattered. The team have not been embarrassed by the division. We've been in almost every game."
But the upswing was remarkable, with 10 points from 12 and a surge away from the relegation zone.
Hughton picks out "continuity" of selection and the spirit in his squad: "It's also the influence of the players who are not playing. That group has been good all season - and that helps. But it is hard work.
"We're having to raise our game for every game, and it's demanding, but the players so far have shown a real aptitude - and a real desire to make sure we're in this division next year."
Hughton was always alive to the bigger picture. He has lent his support to football's prostate cancer awareness drive, noting that while white males are being diagnosed at a rate of one in eight, the ratio rises to one in four for black men. He calls the current diagnosis numbers "frightening".
His roots are in an older, more caring culture, but he is more and more at home in today's game. He pays tribute too to his assistants, Paul Trollope and Paul Nevin, and sports science and medical departments.
Ben Roberts, the goalkeeping coach, is credited with "most of the good work" in helping Mat Ryan to become a dependable Premier League goalkeeper.
Of Trollope, Hughton says: "He knows very much how I work, and he is one I would also listen to. One thing that will never change as a manager is that there is so much game stuff and management stuff to deal with that you want good information.
"Paul Nevin, who I brought in, worked with us at Norwich, and has come in as a first-team coach and has been a wonderful addition."
I ask about some of the players who have improved through the campaign, starting with Glenn Murray, who has 11 league goals. "I think he's hungry," says the former Ireland assistant manager. "He spent time of course at Bournemouth and didn't play as much as he'd have liked. He's hungry to play."
And Lewis Dunk, who is not far away from England selection, though Burnley's James Tarkowski and Leicester's Harry Maguire may be ahead of him. "Yes. Alfie Mawson at Swansea is another good young player," Hughton says. "Dunk is certainly good enough to be in that company."
And Pascal Gross, the playmaker: "He's very flexible. He works for the team. We played predominantly a 4-4-2 the last couple of seasons. It's very difficult to play 4-4-2 in this division, but the ideal one for us is a player who can press high, but predominantly is a No 10.
He's a hard-working player and a very football-intelligent player as well. Good background, good family background, and it didn't take him long to settle in."
Davy Propper is another who has impressed Hughton.
"We had a feeling about Davy, but you just don't know. He'd played in a couple of different positions. They (PSV Eindhoven, his former club) played a three in midfield.
"Certainly if you're playing in a two in midfield in the Premier League it's a different kind of role."
Propper plays alongside Dale Stephens, of whom Hughton says: "Dale is one player who, if you'd asked me at the start of the season, do I think he can play in the Premier League, I'd have said yes."
Jose Izquierdo has benefited from patient handling. Hughton says: "He's a good story. He came in for what was a big fee for this club and has developed, by his hard work. He's desperate to do well."
Ezequiel Schelotto has also progressed. "He came here as a very experienced player who's played at some good clubs. And of course he had Bruno ahead of him."
To see his name missed off the list of candidates for 'big' jobs is of no concern to Hughton, who says: "No it doesn't bother me. My managerial drive has always been about doing the best job I can. At the moment I'm taking great satisfaction from what we've built up here.
"The most pleasing thing is to think about some of the players who've come through. Lewis Dunk, who I can remember watching two or three years before I got to this club: a centre-half, playing at the Withdean (stadium), making the odd mistake, but full of enthusiasm. Dale Stephens, Solly March, Anthony Knockaert. They're the bits I enjoy. So no, it doesn't bother me. It's not something I think about."
To tell him in August that he would reach early March with 34 points, in 10th position, would have pleased him. He smiles.
"Absolutely. I would have been delighted with that one."
© Daily Telegraph, London