While the brilliance of Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City will almost certainly guarantee him both this year’s Premier League Manager of the Season and League Managers’ Association awards, then Chris Hughton surely deserves heavy commendation for Brighton & Hove Albion’s superlative season.
In a Premier League season that has been a race to the bottom for so many clubs below the top-six elite, Brighton’s first top-level campaign since 1983 has been one of giant progress achieved with minimal fuss or fanfare.
Should 12th-placed Brighton get a home win this Saturday against Leicester, that takes them to 37 points, a sum that has, on average, usually been enough to guarantee safety in a 38-game Premier League season.
That would have been reached with seven games to spare. Like so many of Hughton’s successes in his long football career, it will have been achieved with quiet, unspectacular efficiency.
Brighton spent around £40m last summer, and almost all of their eight additions has made a contribution. A well-run club majority-owned by Tony Bloom, the gaming magnate, got their ducks in a row and landed players like Pascal Gross, who at Ingolstadt had created the most chances in the Bundesliga for two seasons in succession, and Davy Propper, an Eredivisie-winning midfielder with PSV Eindhoven, and reaped the benefits.
The club’s back office, where head of recruitment Paul Winstanley leads the analysis and scouting operation has taken significant credit for that, but many a club has celebrated smart-dealing, Moneyball-style transfer coups only for matters to fall flat on the field of play.
Hughton’s management has been the key factor. Several of his players are producing the best football of their careers.
Shane Duffy, such a force for Ireland these days, has improved hugely since working for Hughton on the South Coast, after struggles at both Everton and Blackburn. Late-developer Glenn Murray, at 34, has only Jamie Vardy, Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane above him as goalscoring Englishmen in the Premier League.
And players like midfielder Dale Stephens and Lewis Dunk are thriving in their first Premier League seasons. The Seagulls might be few people’s idea of entertainers but their direct, organised football delivers results while so many wealthier, more established peers have faltered.
Their manager knows all about proving himself, a man who is quiet, considered yet whose polite manner conceals the steeliness he has needed to get to this point. Hughton, the first mixed race player to play for Ireland, has been forced to overcome stigmas throughout his football life.
The Manager of the Month award he received earlier in March for his team’s unbeaten excellence in February was the first ever time a black manager had ever been awarded that prize.
He is the lone black manager in the Premier League, something he has spoken out against with typical sensibility and described as an “incredible imbalance”.
The likes of Southend’s Chris Powell, Carlisle’s Keith Curle, and Northampton Town’s Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, all played in the top division like Hughton once did, but are yet to manage in the top flight. Hughton, who will be 60 this year, had to wait his turn, not getting his chance to be manager of a club until 2009 when given the reins as a caretaker at a typically crisis-hit Newcastle United by maverick owner Mike Ashley.
Until then, he had been lampooned as “Clipboard Chris” as a permanent face on the bench, having served under 10 different managers at Tottenham, the club he served as a speedy, dogged full-back throughout the 1980s, Hughton, though, was exactly the right man for Newcastle, for whom Alan Shearer, overlooked in his favour, had been the third manager of a relegation season after Kevin Keegan and Joe Kinnear.
Newcastle’s 2009-10 promotion campaign was one of the club’s most enjoyable of recent years as players like Andy Carroll, Kevin Nolan and Joey Barton shone under Hughton’s calm guiding hand.
“Hughton is a Geordie”, sang the Toon Army and there is no higher accolade than that for a Londoner on Tyneside.
Ashley, ever ready to embrace chaos rather than calm, eventually tired of Hughton, and the decision to parachute in Alan Pardew was hugely unpopular.
Hughton is at Brighton via spells at Birmingham and Norwich, the latter who he led to the Premier League and then 11th place in the 2012-13 season, only to be sacked in April 2014. Brighton were the eventual beneficiaries, and keeping patience with their manager despite losing in the 2015-16 playoffs has paid the vast dividends the club is reaping now.
Brighton, unassuming yet quietly ambitious and determined to succeed, are built in their manager’s image, and he is contracted there until 2020, when a different opportunity might well come his way after the next cycle of international football ends in that same summer. Hughton, still a regular visitor to Ireland, has said he would “never say never” to the honour of managing the national team he played for on 53 occasions.
For now, he forges on as one of the best managers in English football.