SAFE PAIR OF HANDS HAS EARNED HIS RISE
Brighton’s manager is finally getting credit he deserves after winning promotion to top flight
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’