Sky Sports described Chris Hughton this week as “one of the most respected managers in the Premier League”. But if you looked on social media over the past few months you’ll find some Brighton fans who will disagree.
Hughton spent the best part of his playing career at Spurs, in a period in which he won 3 FA cups, 1 League cup and 1 UEFA cup. He’s described himself as a “an attacking full-back” in a “very offensive team”. A concept that will be unimaginable to many who know him now as a more conservative, defence-minded manager.
He then moved into football coaching, spending a significant amount of time as a coach at Spurs. In his time there, Hughton got a good idea of the unstable working environment that is the life of a football manager, working under 11 different coaches. He will therefore appreciate as much as any person that there aren’t many industries like football, where an employee’s potential sacking is everybody’s business, whilst your work is judged on the basis of what other people do or don’t do.
It has no doubt led to the requirement for those working in the industry to develop a level of stoicism in order to deal with the stresses and strains of the job. And an environment like this naturally leads to stress. Couple this with the increase in international television exposure that comes with modern Premier League football, and this only increases the stressful environment for both managers, their staff and their players. And when responding to stress, this can lead to a deterioration in a persons technique, slower anticipation and bad decision making.
But it appears clear that what Hughton learnt throughout his playing, coaching and management career is the importance to ease that stress on those around him, doing so with his calm and assured nature and enabling everyone to be at their best.
The club clearly recognise this quality and on giving Chris a four year contract after missing out on promotion in 2016, the club said that in doing so it would “offer some stability”. Something Chris provides in bucketloads, as his track record attests to.
Of course, management is more than just creating a productive environment. He has shown on many occasions that he is a likeable man, one that people want to be around and work hard for. Never more so than when Anthony Knockaert’s father died. Hughton cancelled training and arranged for the whole squad to travel to France for his father’s funeral. This wasn’t just an empty gesture for popularities sake, it was one of many that has created the team spirit and unity that the Albion are currently thriving off.
Of course there are many reasons to admire him. Many see him as a figurehead for Black Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) football coaches. It’s something he could be overwhelmed by and shy from. Instead, like many things in his career, he takes it upon himself to fulfil that role. This is no surprise though, especially given his awareness of the importance of the representation of BAME communities in such a high profile industry as football.
Chris Hughton playing career in the late Seventies and Eighties was during a time of great racial tension in Britain, which was very evident in the ferocious environment of a football stadium. Hughton says himself that “I was brought up in a football environment where we saw a lot of racism”.
Times have changed in that regard, but the lack of BAME coaches is still a huge issue in British football. It is one that to his credit he has spoken out about on various occasions. Where many others would hide behind meaningless media trained platitudes he speaks honestly and forthrightly about the issue, recently stating he would like to to see the introduction of the Rooney Rule in the recruitment of football coaches and managers roles in this country.
There are of course many ways football has changed since Hughton’s playing days. One example being the ever increasing status of players at football clubs. Hughton speaks highly of his old Spurs captain Steve Perryman, describing him as “the ultimate captain”. But he also talks of the more vocal changing room in his playing days and how different it is now. This is another example of Hughton’s adaptability and personality. Being able to gain respect from such different people as Anthony Knockaert with his man-management skills. And it’s this kind of work he does off the pitch with his players, that enables him to get the best out of them on the pitch.
Hughton is a man who is admired and liked almost wholesale across the football industry. The manager of this Saturday’s opponents Cardiff, Neil Warnock, said jokingly of Chris Hughton that: “He’s bad for us as managers, he’s so nice! He gives us a bad reputation!”.
And whilst Chris is seemingly liked by all who’ve met him (outside of Norfolk), it’s fair to say Chris has shown his ruthless side whilst at the Albion. As soon as he arrived, he was already judging the current talent, quickly axing long serving players like Jake Forster-Caskey, who were deemed surplus to requirements.
Subsequently he’s rufused to shirk from harder decisions, including last summer releasing and selling some of the players who helped the Albion in promotion to the top division. Including fan favourites Steve Sidwell and Liam Rosienior. It was Rosienior who spoke of Hughton’s ruthless side on Sky Sports the debate recently, suggesting he was liked by so many because he treated others with respect rather than it being a case of him being too nice.
Rosenior spoke of how after releasing him, Hughton sat down with him for 2 hours to discuss his next options. In fact, try to find an interview with Hughton where they don’t praise him personally, I’ve tried and I can tell you it’s hard.
For Chris Hughton though, you can tell whilst the personal acclaim is flattering, for him what matters are his achievements in football. Furthermore, there is a realisation from him of what is still to be achieved with the Albion, despite the already impressive record he can point to. And he has spoken of the work done by Sean Dyche at Burnley and Eddie Howe at Bournemouth as an inspiration of what he can achieve at Brighton.
Brighton’s progression under Hughton has been as impressive, taking a team in danger of relegation to England’s third tier to currently sitting 12th in the top tier. What would be our highest ever league position if we were still there come May. That said, he still get criticised for the style of play and in-game tactical approach.
There is history of this in Hughton’s career too. In hindsight Hughton’s pragmatism whilst manager at Norwich appears to have been undervalued and written off as an overly defensive approach. Something many who have criticised him should remember.
Indisputably, major football clubs are now complex businesses, intrinsically concerned with financial matters, and this means that whilst in Chris’s day he aimed for and achieved a great deal of success in cup competitions, today the league is all that matters and getting the Albion to Premier League safety will be his ultimate and overriding goal this season.
The issue is partly that with more success comes higher expectation. With the Albion starting the season well many fans have become more vocal than ever about what they deem as, ‘Hughton’s defensive style of play’ and how they want to see the team attack more. This pressure is only likely to increase as time goes on and the unrealistic expectations of some fans continue to increase.
But those criticising Hughton need to take a look at his track record and listen to what he says in his press conferences every week. He is a knowledgable and experienced manager who deserves your trust and respect, not your panic driven scorn.