With Brighton & Hove Albion almost certainly needing to win only one of their remaining eight games to ensure their Premier League safety, Chris Hughton’s stock is as high as it has ever been. But having been sacked by two of the previous three clubs he has managed, Hughton knows as well as anyone how quickly things can change.
When Hughton was appointed Brighton manager in December 2014 the club was fourth from bottom in the Championship, outside of the relegation zone on goal difference alone with less than half the season remaining.
The Seagulls had made the play-offs in each of the previous two years but won just six of 26 games in all competitions under Sami Hyypia, who they’d appointed that summer, and looked as far as ever from ending an exile from the top flight which had began in 1983.
After leading them to safety in his first half-season, however, Hughton inspired a remarkable turnaround in his first full campaign in charge in which Brighton missed out on automatic promotion to Middlesbrough on an inferior goal difference of just two goals.
They were subsequently beaten in the play-off semi-finals for the third time in four years but were not to be denied in 2016-17, when a club which did not even have their own stadium 20 years previously finally realised their dream of reaching the Premier League.
It represented the second time Hughton had led a club to automatic promotion from the Championship having previously done so with Newcastle United in 2010.
On that occasion he was sacked by the Magpies 16 games into their first season back in the Premier League, despite the team sitting comfortably in mid-table in 11th.
It was a decision which drew widespread condemnation, but it served in providing Hughton with a philosophical attitude towards this crazy world of football management.
Even now, with Brighton on the verge of securing their place in the Premier League for another season, the 59-year-old acknowledges it may not take too much for his position to come under threat.
In fact, he speaks of an inevitability that he will be sacked again at some point, but he isn’t about to start complaining.
“If you don’t like it, then do something else with your life,” he says.
“None of us like the demand for instant success, but we know what we are getting ourselves into when we come into it, so I suppose we can have no complaints about the way the game has gone.
“I remember being in a shopping centre at 3pm on a Saturday shortly after I left Newcastle and I didn’t like that. When you are part of this game, you want to stay in it for as long as possible and I guess that is why we keep coming back for more.
“We all know that we will get the sack at some point in this job, and when that happens, it is a case of dusting yourself down and going again.”
The demand for instant success, as Hughton puts it, means that apart from those newly-promoted from the Championship, every club in the bottom half of the table has changed managers this season.
One of the managers sacked, Mark Hughes, was back in the Premier League in a little over two months. No wonder Hughton speaks of the prospect with so little fear.
“When a manager got the sack in my days as a player, it tended to be after a sustained run of poor results,” he says. “It used to be a big decision to change a manager, but not any more.
“There was something of a stigma attached to a manager when he got the sack 20 years ago because he was associated with failing, but that has gone.
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“Now, you takes on a job knowing that sooner rather than later, you will be out of that club.
“The speed that a ‘crisis’ develops in now is so rapid. Every manager is three or four games away from being under pressure and leaving a club.
“That build-up is not nice when the pressure mounts and I suppose it is embarrassing when you are sacked and everyone see it unfolding in such a public way, but that is the business we are in.
“We are at a stage in our game here that you are no longer surprised when a manager loses his job. You are not given time to put your ideas into a team, which is a shame, but this is not going to change.
“We have a lot more foreign owners in the game now and they might now always have a view that stability is positive at their club.
“They want to see them winning next weekend and changing a manager can be seen as a way they can change things.”
Pressure, of course, does not go away for a manager even when the team is performing well, particularly at the top level where the difference between finishing 17th and 12th, where Brighton sit currently, is worth around £10million.
Hughton, like most managers, speaks of that pressure impinging on his family life, but it’s a commitment he believes every manager must accept to enjoy and succeed in their job.
“It is a relentless profession that doesn’t give you a minute to switch off, but we know what we are getting ourselves into when we come into management,” he says.
“The pressure and stress you put yourself through is probably not good for you. Can I switch off when I go home at night? Not really because there is always something to do, always a phone call to take, always a problem that crops up.
“You can be out with the family having dinner and something will happen that needs your attention. That is part of the job. It is a 24 hours a day occupation and you have to accept that or you can not enjoy your work.
“The pressure this season is ramped up a few levels because of the huge money for staying in the Premier League, but if you work in this game, you want to be involved in the Premier League, to pit your wits against the top clubs, to try to defy the odds and get something from games like we did against Arsenal a few weeks back.”
And after his experiences with Newcastle and Norwich, who sacked him when five points clear of the Premier League relegation zone with five games to play in 2014 only to then be relegated, Hughton is relieved to be working for a club with what he describes as “realistic ambitions”.
“I am enjoying my time at Brighton,” he says, “the owners are great to work for. I was keen to work with owners who had realistic expectations.
“Stabilising in the Championship was the first ambition, then we came very close to promotion to the Premier League and had to deal with disappointment at the end of that first season.
“The players did well to bounce back from that setback and we went into the Premier League this season, once again with realistic expectations from the owners and the fans.
“We have struggled against some of the bigger teams at times, but we have picked up results in games we needed to win against the teams around us and the target of staying in the division is still there for us.
“It has been a great time for the club. We had the stadium built, the infrastructure of the club was in place, and we needed to have a team that was ready for the Premier League. Hopefully we are working to get that final piece into place.
“We have an honest group of players here who are doing their best to get results in an environment that is very difficult for us to succeed in, but the satisfaction you get when you succeed is even more thrilling than it would be if I was at one of the top clubs.”
Hughton knows he’ll never be too far from a crisis, but until that moment arrives, few deserve to enjoy their success as much.
By Kevin Palmer
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