SAFE PAIR OF HANDS HAS EARNED HIS RISE

Brighton’s man­ager is fi­nally get­ting credit he de­serves af­ter win­ning pro­mo­tion to top flight

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - SOCCER - COLIN YOUNG

EIGHT years ago, New­cas­tle United, re­cently rel­e­gated to the Cham­pi­onship, lost a pre-sea­son friendly at League Two Ley­ton Ori­ent 6-1. With the club al­ready in tur­moil un­der Mike Ash­ley’s own­er­ship, their plight looked ter­mi­nal. Ash­ley had put New­cas­tle up for sale, ef­fec­tively sacked Alan Shearer and ap­pointed Chris Hughton as care­taker man­ager.

When Hughton emerged from the dress­ing room to meet the press, he looked shell-shocked and even more se­ri­ous than usual. As he talked into a cam­era by the side of the pitch, one dis­mayed Toon Army foot soldier shouted: “It doesn’t mat­ter what you say Chris — we were crap.”

Hughton knew it. But he also knew, that just min­utes ear­lier, he had left a New­cas­tle squad con­tain­ing play­ers like Kevin Nolan, Fabri­cio Coloc­cini, Alan Smith, Joey Bar­ton, Andy Carroll and Damien Duff in no doubt about their per­for­mances and their fu­tures.

They had a de­ci­sion to make. If they weren’t up for the fight back to the Premier League, they should leave the club, im­me­di­ately. Duff was among those to de­part, re­turn­ing to London and join­ing Ful­ham for £4mil­lion af­ter play­ing just one league game.

Hughton, who won Cham­pi­onship man­ager of the month in three of the first four months of the sea­son, was not given the job per­ma­nently un­til Novem­ber 2009. Seven years ago this week, his New­cas­tle team won pro­mo­tion.

Steve Harper missed the Ori­ent de­ba­cle but also missed just one game as New­cas­tle’s goal­keeper that sea­son. Although among many of the se­nior play­ers given the credit for their brief stay in the Cham­pi­onship, he knows that, with­out Hughton’s guid­ance, New­cas­tle would not have been so dom­i­nant.

“We used to call him Kofi An­nan,” re­calls Harper, “be­cause, not only is he not a bad ringer for him, but he re­ally could run the UN with the way he keeps con­trol and han­dles peo­ple. He is that sort of per­son.

“The job he did at New­cas­tle was in­cred­i­ble given ev­ery­thing that was go­ing on at the club. He didn’t re­ally get the credit that he de­served for get­ting the club out of the Cham­pi­onship be­cause there was a lot of tur­moil at New­cas­tle at the time but he found a way of handling that, of keep­ing that away from the dress­ing room and just ab­sorb­ing it so we could con­cen­trate on the foot­ball.

“There is noth­ing volatile about him on the sur­face, although I will say that when it is needed, he will let you know what he thinks. He makes big de­ci­sions. There is this mis­nomer that the play­ers picked the team that sea­son and ran things but it is a load of rub­bish. Chris dropped Joey Bar­ton, Kevin Nolan, Nicky Butt, Alan Smith. He made those big calls, but he would ex­plain things to lads when he was leav­ing them out and it was backed up by results.

“The days of man­agers rant­ing and rav­ing at play­ers are gone. Play­ers are get­ting paid more and more money, yet they are prob­a­bly more frag­ile and you have to treat them ac­cord­ingly as a man­ager. He is the per­fect mod­ern man­ager, in that he knows how to han­dle egos and char­ac­ters and shy lads and get the best out of them.

“We were consistent and when he needed to be, Chris was calm and com­posed and he gets the same from his play­ers. He keeps ev­ery­one on a level play­ing field. He doesn’t get car­ried away when things are go­ing well and he doesn’t get too down when there is a blip.”

Within six weeks of thrash­ing Sun­der­land 5-1 in the Premier League, in the last Tyne-Wear derby win at St James’ Park, Hughton was sacked, to wide­spread con­dem­na­tion. It was one of the low­est points of the Ash­ley regime. And there have been plenty of those. While Hughton main­tained his dig­nity and si­lence, fans protested at the ground be­fore the next home game, chant­ing his name.

He re­turned in June the fol­low­ing year at Birmingham City, an­other bigc­ity colos­sus with a trou­ble­some owner. They may have won the League Cup the pre­vi­ous sea­son but it had been fol­lowed by rel­e­ga­tion. Hughton guided them to the group stages of the Europa League and a cred­itable fourth place in the Cham­pi­onship. Birmingham have just ap­pointed Harry Red­knapp and are cur­rently 20th and sat just three points from safety go­ing into yes­ter­day’s games.

When Premier League Nor­wich City came call­ing at the start of the 2012-’13 sea­son, Hughton couldn’t wait to get out of St An­drew’s. The Ca­naries fin­ished 11th in his first sea­son, but he lost his job in April 2014. Although fans had de­manded his sack­ing af­ter a home de­feat to West Brom, they were in 17 th, five points above the rel­e­ga­tion zone. Neil Adams was ap­pointed as his re­place­ment, Nor­wich won one point in five games and they were rel­e­gated.

Nor­wich City are cur­rently eighth in the Cham­pi­onship and their 2-0 win over Hughton’s Brighton and Hove Al­bion on Fri­day night leaves them seven points from the play-offs with two to play. It may have dented Brighton’s ti­tle hopes but re­gard­less Hughton has been pro­moted to the Premier League again.

Since he took over from Sami Hyypia, less than eight months af­ter leav­ing Car­row Road, Brighton have been on a path to the top flight and this time, the board­room trou­bles are gone. Brighton have only just sur­vived their tur­moil.

Twenty years ago, in their last sea­son at the Gold­stone Ground, Brighton re­tained their league sta­tus on goal dif­fer­ence, send­ing Here­ford United to even­tual ex­tinc­tion. They had to play 70 miles away at Gilling­ham for two sea­sons be­fore re­turn­ing to a con­verted ath­let­ics track.

Their luck changed in 2009 when life­long fan and poker-play­ing mil­lion­aire Tony Bloom, nick­named The Lizard, in­vested £93 mil­lion in the club and a new sta­dium. Progress to the riches of the top flight has not been with­out its set­backs how­ever.

They have suf­fered two play-off semi-fi­nal de­feats in the last four sea­sons un­der Hughton and Gus Poyet but Bloom’s pa­tient back­ing of Hughton, af­ter miss­ing out last sea­son, has been a ma­jor fac­tor in Brighton un­der­min­ing New­cas­tle’s inevitable re­turn to the Premier League un­der Rafa Ben­itez. They have slowly built a team which is ready to go up.

Harper, now a goalkeeping coach at New­cas­tle, spent a spell on loan at Brighton un­der Poyet. He knows only too well the role Hughton has played in de­liv­er­ing Premier League foot­ball to Brighton’s fer­vent sup­port for the first time. The for­mer Ire­land in­ter­na­tional and his team will be a wel­come ad­di­tion. He just hopes it is for the long term.

He said: “New­cas­tle was not an easy club to man­age but Chris did a fan­tas­tic job to get us pro­moted, and then, when he needed back­ing from the board for all those ef­forts, he got the sack.

“Birmingham was an­other dif­fi­cult club to man­age, he did a great job didn’t get the back­ing when needed, then he had a tough time at Nor­wich, was harshly treated again and didn’t get the back­ing he needed and de­served.

“He has had two fan­tas­tic sea­sons at Brighton and, again, done a fan­tas­tic job. I just hope the board and the sup­port­ers truly ap­pre­ci­ate the job he has done and he gets the back­ing he needs, when he needs it.

“Hope­fully the fix­ture list will be kind to them, es­pe­cially at the start, so they can hit the ground run­ning. There will in­evitably be dif­fi­cult pe­ri­ods in the Premier League and, as a pro­moted club, of course they will suf­fer peaks and troughs and go through a spell when they can’t win games. But I hope Brighton stick by him be­cause if they back him, they will stay up.

“They’ve had the ben­e­fit of knock­ing on the door of the Premier League and know­ing what is needed to get there. New­cas­tle were favourites but they have thrown some un­ex­pected and strange results away. Brighton lost twice to New­cas­tle but they have been consistent, which is key to get­ting you out of this league.

“They should have gone up last year and to miss out on 89 points was a freak sea­son. But they will be bet­ter pre­pared for the Premier League be­cause they have had that ex­tra sea­son in the Cham­pi­onship, win­ning games and be­ing suc­cess­ful.

“It is a good club, a nice part of the world and there are some great peo­ple be­hind the scenes. It just has a nice feel about it. From the minute I walked in, to when I left, it seemed like a happy club where peo­ple just wanted to help you and ev­ery­one was pulling in the same di­rec­tion to get into the Premier League. I can see why they have done it and I am so pleased, and they have the per­fect man in charge.”

‘But I hope Brighton stick by him be­cause if they back him, they will stay up’

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