The redemption of Chris

Chris Hughton’s Brighton sit top of the Championship. Surely this can’t be true? So we asked Seagulls fan David Gilmore to tell us how Norwich’s most disliked man is feeling the love on the south coast

Do you remember that guy who used to work in your office? What was his name? Tim, or Steve, or something? Doesn’t matter, whatever it was, he was useless. Didn’t understand the job, completely unreliable and he clearly hated it from day one. Dunno what he was doing there in the first place to be honest.

Finding yourself in the wrong job occasionally isn’t a crime, and most of the time it’s something we learn from, even if it’s only to realise what we don’t want. It actually happens quite a lot with footballers. You know the ones. They come into the club and everyone gets excited, but they only make a handful of starts, spend a couple more games on the bench and then get released on a free transfer in the summer. Wrong person for the wrong club – no harm, no foul, forgive and forget.

Where this attitude of forgiveness changes is when it comes to managers. Running our club, choosing who to buy and sell, picking the tactics and the team week-in, week-out is not something fans will permit as someone’s learning opportunity. That’s easy to understand; results matter, points matter, and these are well-paid high-status jobs, not apprenticeships for recently retired footballers.

On top of this unforgiving attitude is our opinion that managers are either ‘good’ or ‘bad’, and that can never change. There’s no room for nuance in football debates; someone’s either shit or they’re a genius. Any other sentiment makes it look like you’re sitting on the fence.

OK. It’s probably time to talk about Chris Hughton.

Firstly, I should say that I have an enormous amount of sympathy for how the majority of Norwich fans feel about Hughton. Losing matches is one thing, but doing so while playing dull, negative football is particularly rotten for the fans who have paid to watch it. Indeed, many Brighton fans suffered a similar fate last season during Sami Hyypiä’s reign of disorganised terror – being forced to watch defeat after defeat while our players committed the one sin worse than playing to a dull strategy: not playing to one at all.

Most of the things Hughton’s quoted as saying in the local paper are poorly constructed fridge-magnet sentences and his post-match press conferences are tantamount to linguistic genocide

I’m sure there was method in Hughton’s madness during his period of terminal decline with the Canaries. He’s a smart guy, but was, nevertheless, clearly doing something very wrong. I often wonder how someone with such close access and control over the day-to-day running of a football club so often fails to identify the problems that so many fans are able to see, and can only assume that this very privilege is also the problem; managers get too close to the action, get blinded by detail, overthink the things that don’t matter and ignore addressing the issues that require urgent attention.

Whatever it was in Hughton’s case, it was clearly beyond his capability to fix these problems while in charge at Norwich and to that end, he had to go.

In all honesty, Hughton’s demeanour hardly filled me with confidence when he first arrived at Brighton. When your team is flitting around the wrong end of the table, it’d certainly help if your supposed saviour doesn’t resemble the haunted dusty caretaker of a municipal building that’s just about to shut for the night. Hughton’s default facial expression is one of immense worry; in photos, he often looks like he’s just remembered that it’s recycling day and he’s forgotten to separate out the glass from the plastics.

Many people refer to Hughton as articulate. He isn’t. Most of the things he’s quoted as saying in the local paper are poorly constructed fridge-magnet sentences and his post-match press conferences are tantamount to linguistic genocide. That said, he’s no fool and while he may fail to express himself adequately, it’s clear that the cogs are turning in there. Plus, he’s a nice guy, and everyone loves a nice guy.

Post-Hyypia, Hughton made things better at Brighton (to be fair, post-Hyypia, a bag of dead moths could’ve made things better at Brighton), but not so much better that Albion fans felt they could erase any remaining doubts. The team spluttered over the season’s finish line, avoiding relegation with a drought of goals and a flurry of defeats towards the end. He’d done enough for us, but only just, and most supporters were still only too aware of what Norwich fans thought of Hughton’s ability as a manager.

Still, we kept faith, because what else can you do, unless you’re the chairman?

Luckily, the summer break (and accompanying spending frenzy) seems to have worked wonders for Hughton and the team. Positive football! Two strikers up front! Wingers! The team is playing with purpose and ambition and sitting five points clear at the top of the Championship after six wins in the opening seven games (yes – I know people say there’s no point looking at the table in August/September, but let’s face it, we do. We all do. What else are you going to do instead of look at the table? Load the dishwasher? Clear the attic? No. You’re going to look at the table and you’re going to look at it for the rest of the week. I’m looking at it right now, and to be perfectly honest, so are you).

It’s still early days for Hughton at Brighton, but he’s made a decent start. How though? Isn’t he one of the ‘shit’ managers we’d already decided on? Well, the short answer is I don’t know. Maybe the club’s set-up here in Brighton favours Hughton’s style more. Maybe he’s built better relationships with the players and backroom staff, or maybe, just maybe, he got better, and he got better because he learned from when he wasn’t good enough at Norwich.

So at some point in the future when you’re in the office and you see Tim or Steve unable to comprehend what you’re talking about, failing to operate the coffee machine or staring at the photocopier like it’s speaking to him in Urdu, stop and think to yourself ‘he might be shit at his job, but for now, maybe he needs to be’.  

You can follow David Gilmore at @DaveLGilmore