Is lovely Chris Hughton the loveliest man in football?

Matt Stead

This week, Johnny’s positive look at our managers and how they perform on telly and radio visits one of the most respected and well-liked men in British football. He’s doing an amazing job at Brighton, Hove and indeed, Albion too. That’ll be Chris Hughton, then.


Who Are Ya?
Christopher William Gerard Hughton is 60 years old. Yes, 60. How is that even possible? Despite the greying barnet, there’s even now a slightly boyish quality to him. Looks at least 20 years younger than he is and in good enough nick to play 45 minutes for the first team.

Played for Spurs for 13 years as a full-back and won a UEFA Cup and two FA Cups. Later won Division Three with Brentford. Turned out 53 times for Ireland too, being the first mixed-race fella to do so. When his playing career was over, he became a coach at Spurs for 14 years and was so well-regarded that although 11 managers came and went in various degrees of success and disgrace, Chris was kept on throughout, even stepping in as caretaker on a couple of occasions. That was a role he also performed at Newcastle United before getting the job full-time, winning promotion out of the Championship, losing only four games in doing so. The next season he was ridiculously sacked by Mike Ashley and his grotesque jeans. His win ratio during his time at St James’ Park was over 55%!

Has managed Birmingham and Norwich but has now been Brighton boss for over four years, getting them promoted in the process. They look set to survive in the top flight for a second season, a feat that is a tribute to his ability to foster team spirit and make a collective more than the sum of its parts.

When sporting a beard, it gives him the appearance of a philosophy professor or possibly a high-powered negotiator at the UN. Favours the dark smart suit when needed, often with the tight jumper underneath that only the trimmest of gentleman can get away with. But usually goes for sportswear when pitchside for a game. This seems to be out of a desire to be on the same level as the players. Unlike some of his age, it doesn’t make him look like a competitive dad. One feels that at heart, he is still a coach and never happier than when actually coaching in trackies and boots. He is certainly someone who would be proud to be a man of the people rather than a more aloof, boss-like character. Indeed, that is at the core of his success, as he has enjoyed good relationships with players and staff.

Isn’t one to be over emotional. Remains inscrutable much of the time and is never one to over share. However, when he does break into a smile it always feels warm, honest and even slightly impish. One of those men in the game who we just want to do well as he is widely regarded as a glittering diamond of decency in a dishonest and dirty industry.


Cunning Linguist?
Quite possibly the most modest and self-effacing manager in the league, whilst also being one of the best. Put simply and crudely, he doesn’t behave like a self-serving, greedy, egomaniacal twat.

Simply never gets caught up in pointless spats with other managers, nor washes dirty linen in public. If you listen to him for any length of time, what becomes clear is he cleverly uses understatement rather than arrogant bluster to make his points. Brings an exceptional calm to any job that he’s had. Anyone who can succeed at Newcastle and emerge from that absolutely fetid and immoral sh*tstorm smelling of roses is a remarkable talent.

Speaks in a polite, rather light, Forest Gate, Essex accent that somehow sounds like it belongs to a different post-war era. This isn’t the Only Way Is Essex, Essex voice. This is a tremendously well-mannered chap that rarely speaks in a way that isn’t measured and decent.

Perhaps surprisingly, given he was raised in ’70s and ’80s football, there’s not an ounce of old mannishness, ‘in my day’ about him at all. You don’t hear him being contemptuous of the modern player or game. But equally, there’s nothing faux, plastic or fashionable about him either. One never has the impression that he’s seeking the limelight or trying to impress us with anything other than the performance of his team. Indeed, it wouldn’t surprise me that outside of English football he was the least-known manager of any. And yet, if you think about it, he’s in charge of a team that is holding its own in possibly the most high-profile league on earth. That is a tribute to his quiet, undemonstrative style.

In that regard, he seems almost uniquely entirely without ego. To say this is refreshing would be a massive understatement. It’s also worth saying that his ability to never court controversy, whine or moan means he doesn’t get as much exposure as some of the more bilious blowhards. If you’re looking to Chris for some outrageous statement about a player, or the club, or to indulge in self-pity, you’ll be waiting a long time.

At Brighton he seems to have finally found the perfect club to manage and one that appreciates his unique qualities. Perhaps with the exception of his tenure at Norwich, he’s been successful at every club he’s managed but because he isn’t the sort to indulge in self-promotion, he is overlooked in the pantheon of excellent modern managers.

Famously wrote for the Workers Revolutionary Party in the 1970s, a fact that has been overplayed somewhat since. But while he may not be the Che Guevara of the Premier League (not that it would be a bad thing and I think he’d look cool in a beret), as a member of the Labour Party he certainly is, maybe unusually for football, left-leaning. But from the sound of it, not in a dogmatic way. “I’ve always had strong views on social issues such as hospitals – I think we should have a good health system – and the education system, too.” Mind you, this would probably be painted by our current hapless governmental slackjaws and the right-wing press as dangerous Trotskyism: a typically wayward and stupid judgement that would, I’m sure, quietly exasperate Chris and only reinforce his convictions.


Media Hit or Miss?
I always have the impression that Chris is well-liked in the media. Indeed, how could he not be, given the way he goes about his business? When they do post-match interviews with him, it’s always very good-natured and reasonable stuff.

Trouble is, we live in a block capitals era, so anyone who speaks in lower case doesn’t get talked about as much. This is partly due to the low-profile nature of Brighton, but is also a sad testament to the fact that some branches of our media are only really interested in conflict, negativity and dispute and much less in the quiet, the thoughtful and the intelligent. I’d love to hear 5 live or talkSPORT do a big interview piece with him to talk at length about his experiences in football, his ideas and thoughts. But Chris almost certainly does not want to be the centre of such attention and is absolutely too modest to amplify his own considerable achievements.


Proper Football Man Rating: 10%
In the PFM world, Chris qualifies as “a good young English manager” whose avenues are being blocked by foreigners, despite his 53 caps for Ireland and being 60 years young. The sort of manager who “never gets talked about, Jeff”.

Grew up in the glory days of kick and stamp and shorty-short-shorts, so should be a natural PFM ally when standing shoulders back, legs apart at the bar, one hand in a trouser pocket jingling change and car keys, cursing snowflakes, the game’s gone, you can’t say anything these days, it was a compliment, luv, you’re alright, it’s the rest of them that are the problem.

But Chris seems to keep his distance from such nonsense. The Proper Football Man also loves nothing more than self-aggrandising, dressing up failure as success and claiming to be far better than there is any proof of. Another defining characteristic is to be absolutely certain he is right without any reason whatsoever. So basically, Mr H is the exact opposite and never seems inclined to engage with them, hopefully seeing them as the small, poisonous cabal that they are.

The left-wing thing doesn’t play well with them either. Not so much because of the politics – they wouldn’t know Keynes from Keys – but more because they like being incredibly well-paid for doing as little as possible while shamelessly painting themselves as victims of a PC culture, so are naturally more inclined towards supporting political parties which endorse such weirdly inward, narrow behaviour and outlook on life.

So he gets 10% for being “a good up and coming good English manager who doesn’t get a chance, Jeff”, but this is largely lip service to a man they simply don’t understand.


What The People Say
I knew a lot of fans liked Chris but what was so pleasing was just how many people who had come into contact with him in the course of their work and were also very impressed. The words ‘dignified’ and ‘respect’ were among the first that came to the collective mind. We should all wish to be so well thought of.

‘Outstanding person. We used to talk about apartheid & Mandela way back when he was publicly vocal about it as a Tottenham player. Always comes over for a chat when I cover Brighton. Enquires about my welfare and that of my family…. and appears genuinely interested in the answers!

‘He has respect for everyone, no matter their status or age. Brings the game into repute!’ – Pat Murphy,  BBC.

‘Fantastic manager and doesn’t get the credit he deserves. Always open for a chat before a game as well to help out with prep’ – Danny Higginbotham.

‘Took the Birmingham job at the most volatile time post-relegation, a turnover of 40+ players in and out as part of the board’s fire sale…and yet reached the play-offs and got 10 points in the Europa League Group Stage, somehow without qualifying. Put the club back on its feet with no help. Miracle worker and an incredibly likeable and personable guy to go with it’ – Ian Danter.

‘Worked with Chris at Norwich. As a manager, he was dedicated and diligent. More importantly, as a person he always made time and his approach never changed with the press team, whether speaking after a win to secure survival or a 7-0 loss to Man City. There’s a lot of arrogance in football but with Chris, there was never any hint of ego or selfishness. Because of this, he was liked and respected by every member of the press corps, and especially so by the local reporters who worked with him every week. Just a top, top bloke.’

‘Worked with him a couple of times at BT Sport where he was an excellent pundit. Bumped into him a few months later in Westfield. He did the ‘stop and chat’ because he’s a friendly and quality human being. Said he had the hint of a job, which turned out to be Brighton.’

‘I can’t think of anyone I admire more in football. Dignified, humble, has a quiet authority and seems to possess great emotional intelligence.’

‘Excellent man, not just a very good football manager. Hasn’t forgotten the basics of life. When he was Birmingham City manager and flying out for a European game ( yes, Brum in Europe!) he came over to me at the airport and asked if I needed him to do an interview for a preview piece. Again, when he was manager of Brighton and was about to do an interview with a few reporters ,he waited until I’d finished a player interview before starting. Class act.’

‘Interviewed him for the first time years ago up at Newcastle. Asked what I was up to after, said I was nipping in on my Nan. He asked how she was numerous occasions after. Also – Brilliant Manager.’

‘The job he did at Newcastle in the face of Mike Ashley’s contemptuous ownership was outstanding. He harnessed a squad with some very strong ‘personalities’ perfectly. Dignity, integrity and class are the words that come to mind and he will always be so well thought of on Tyneside.’

‘There will come a point where we (Brighton) and him will part ways but currently there isn’t a better fit between club, manager, fans, and city than Chris and Brighton. There will be a statue somewhere when he’s finished. He’s a good manager but an even better man.’

‘Got Blues into the playoffs with a threadbare squad and when few believed we could. I was always happy to have him represent our club and was really sad to see him go to Norwich.’

‘Should never need to buy a pint in Newcastle, should never have been replaced by Fraudew. Favourite memory of him is from Jesmond Dene House with the Mrs, he was at the next table over, the looks of absolute exasperation he kept shooting at Joe Kinnear. One of us.’

‘Was on the cover of the World Cup ’90 album, his thighs have made me question my sexuality many times. Irish people are generally begrudgers but we’re quietly proud he is one of ours.’

‘Was the man that NUFC needed so much that his hair was black and white. Also something overlooked is that he took Jonas Gutierrez on loan when he was recovering from cancer, after Newcastle had shown no support to him.’

‘Dignity in human form. Loved in Ireland. Excellent full back, in Ireland’s greatest ever team (Euro 88). Only looks late 40s so still believed to be a ‘one for the future’ manager.’

‘He’s the most dignified manager in the Premier League. No touchline histrionics, rarely complains about poor decisions, never singles out players for criticism. A hugely likeable bloke who Newcastle should never have binned off all those years ago.’

‘Can be relied upon to remain dignified even if complaining about decisions by officials. HOW you do something matters, that’s why he’s so well thought of.’

‘A gent.’


How Long Has He Got?
You’d hope even if relegated, given the massive achievements of promotion in the first place and then sustaining top-flight status, would give him so much credit in the bank to keep his job for another push at promotion. Managers as reliable, decent and just outright good as Chris don’t come along very often. Sometimes being the grown-up in the room casts a profound light on some of football’s more infantile, default behaviour.

In his favour is the fact that everywhere he’s gone he’s made friends and garnered respect, so should never be out of work for long. Very few are held in as high regard as a coach, a manager, a player and better yet, as a man. That will ensure there is substantial hat doffage towards him for the rest of his natural, something he more than deserves.

John Nicholson