Monday 22 January 2018

James Lawton: Hughton emerges as the perfect candidate to succeed Trapattoni

James Lawton

James Lawton

There is maybe no such thing as the perfect appointment in football. Too many stones on which the most impressive credentials have been written have come rolling down the hill at a dismaying speed. However, as Irish international football contemplates a future beyond the indefatigable Giovanni Trapattoni, the case for Chris Hughton seems to grow a little more impressive each new season.

At 54, he is unlikely to acquire the charisma of a Big Jack Charlton or the blazing zeal of a Martin O'Neill and what Old Trap has displayed in such full measure is, of course, the implacable confidence that comes with years of conspicuous success in so many different places.

Yet the more you look at Hughton's career profile and evaluate the understated, but palpable passion he brings to his work, the more you see that if Ireland could persuade him away from his present heroic status in East Anglia they would be embracing a formidable set of certainties.

Hughton, with astonishing consistency and often in the most oppressive circumstances, gets the job done. It is a performance which, at its heart, has an ingredient that any FAI official assessing the football nation's current resources – as opposed to the riches inherited by Charlton – must see as the most compelling of assets.


He has, necessarily, acquired the art of drawing every strand of available talent and, quite as crucially, competitive character, into the make-up of a team ready to perform right up to and frequently beyond its means.

In 53 international appearances for Ireland he proved himself a defender of great reliability and in 13 years as a Tottenham player he was one of those performers for whom the greatest challenge will always be the next one.

It is an attribute that was central to all his work as a coach and assistant manager in the 10 years at White Hart that followed his playing career and then when he so brilliantly managed the institutionalised chaos of Newcastle United – not to mention the experience picked up as assistant with Ireland during Brian Kerr's reign.

At Tottenham, he served under such diverse figures as Ossie Ardiles, World Cup hero, Gerry Francis, captain of England, George Graham, a relentless winner at Arsenal, Glen Hoddle, a beautiful player who always seemed a stride away from distinction as a coach, David Pleat, a notable survivor with an instinct for superior football and the hard-driving Martin Jol.

You might say it was a master's course in the hazards of the managerial office and, no doubt, it informed his reaction to his brutal sacking at Newcastle, a decision which enraged the passionate people of the north-east, not least the iconic Alan Shearer, who had reluctantly concluded the job was just about impossible.

Hughton was at Tottenham when Alan Sugar, who eventually sold his shares at a profit of around £30m, told Francis that the model for a club with one of the most glorious traditions in English football, was Wimbledon.

The key, said Sugar, was buying low and selling high.

Hughton, despite achieving a return to the Premier League in record time and making such vital, modestly priced signings as Cheick Tiote and Hatem Ben Arfa, was fired at Newcastle because they apparently needed a manager of more experience to carry the club forward. Now, two years on, Newcastle slip well below the high-water mark achieved by Hughton's successor Alan Pardew last season as Hughton is hailed for a remarkable reconstruction job at Norwich.

It was an achievement scarcely endangered by last week's defeat at West Bromwich and yesterday's 1-0 defeat by the suddenly rampaging Chelsea, who ransacked Aston Villa by eight goals. This inevitably provoked title-winning talk from interim manager Rafa Benitez, but his mom- entum slowed perceptibly at Hughton's Carrow Road. Indeed, the difference was a moment of inspiration by the impressively consistent Juan Mata.

The fact is, Hughton has pulled his team together with the most impressive flair. After being swamped 5-0 by Fulham at the start of the season, and then cruelly dissected by Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, Hughton went about stunning repairs.

He did so on the foundation of some summer work in the transfer market that is threatening to set a new standard for low-priced opportunism.

Hughton has in place a back-four of vigorous frugality in Steve Whittaker, Sebastien Bassong, Michael Turner and Javier Garrido – they have kept five league clean sheets to date; Alex Tettley has been a ferocious protector of this rear guard and Robert Snodgrass is fast emerging as one of the Premier League's most persistent and dangerous operators. It is also interesting, in view of some of Trapattoni's difficulties with some of his more celebrated help, that Hughton appears to have placated a restless, putative star in Grant Holt.

Hughton's summer haul was eight signings at around £10m, which was not so much a spending spree as an honours degree in productive life on the football breadline.

When an unbeaten run of 10 league matches – which included victories over Arsenal and Manchester United and a spectacular shoot-out at stirring Swansea – finished at West Brom, Hughton was as stoically impressive as ever. He declared: "For a club like ours to go unbeaten in 10 games in a division like ours is a fantastic run. If someone had asked if we would be happy in our position, and with the points we have at this stage, we would have said yes. But then at this point we have to say it really means nothing if it isn't built upon. It is all about continuing to repeat the good things we have been doing."

It could be that Chris Hughton was born for the battle of attrition that faces all those football men required to live above their means, that he thrives best on the day-to-day contact with the professionals whose strengths and weaknesses, and inevitable insecurities, he knows so well.

Yet, in this very process, he has also announced a set of skills, and a degree of patience, ideally suited to the job of nurturing the Irish team.

Certainly it is a possibility that Ireland would be mad to overlook.

Irish Independent

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