Chris Hughton is Brighton’s humble figurehead leading the fight against second-season syndrome

The night before Chris Hughton’s first day as Brighton manager, he went for dinner with the club’s chairman Tony Bloom and chief executive Paul Barber. A press conference was scheduled for late the following morning, and as the meal wrapped up Hughton was asked what time he wanted to meet at the training ground. “He said about 7.30am,” recalls Barber. “So I asked why so early. He said he wanted to meet all the staff – security guards, people in the kitchen, receptionists – to introduce himself. It made a huge impression on our staff and he’s been that way ever since.”

This was Hughton’s entrance, arriving like a kindly president on a state visit, and over the subsequent four years leading Brighton from the Championship’s relegation zone to the start of their second Premier League season at Watford on Saturday, that human touch has left an indelible mark. One story emerged following the death of Anthony Knockaert’s father in 2016, when Hughton cancelled training and arranged for the whole team to travel out to the tiny town of Leers on the France-Belgium border to attend the funeral. “I still don’t know even now how to thank them,” Knockaert later reflected.

Those compassionate qualities translate into the way Hughton handles his squad. “Above all else he’s honest with players,” says Barber. “You have two very difficult conversations as manager of a Premier League club: dropping players and telling them they are being replaced. And in all my years working with Chris I’ve never had a player come running to me to complain. That’s a measure of how he deals with them: with dignity and respect, with fairness and honesty.”

The mantra that nice guys finish last was levelled at Hughton a long time ago. After he was sacked by Newcastle United, with very little explanation from owner Mike Ashley despite the club sitting 11th in the league, the chairman Freddy Shepherd said: “I like Chris Hughton, he’s a great guy. In fact I’ve not met anyone as decent as him. But where Chris is concerned, maybe he’s too decent. He’s too nice a guy and that was his downfall.”

Yet Hughton has never let that humility waver. He still talks passionately about his upbringing in east London and how “lucky” he was to grow up in a time when you could play football on the street until dark. He discusses Newcastle with reverence, the club which gave him his first footballing experience outside London, and talks about Ashley not with bitterness but with a gratefulness that the owner later admitted his mistakes. “Instead of holding grudges, it’s better to learn from the bad experiences,” Hughton said. “Your ability to do the job with a clear mind is best served if you are not weighed down by resentment or axes to grind.”

Far from his downfall, Barber believes humility is his manager’s biggest strength, and has driven him to become more than only a training-ground coach. “When I first appointed him he said he was disappearing off on an LMA course which focused on managers and the board room: how to work with a chief executive, a chairman, a board and so on. He’d spent most of his career out on the grass and he wanted to learn how to better manage his relationship with myself and the chairman. It was to his huge credit and is typical of the man. He has this desire to be better. It’s a great lesson for everybody.”

The desire to better himself has helped Hughton make an impact beyond only first-team duties. He arrives at 7am each morning and is usually still in his office 12 hours later; he attends Brighton’s technical board, discussing footballing operations for hours at a time with chief executive Barber and the heads of recruitment, medicine and the academy. All transfers begin and end with Hughton, who assesses Brighton’s detailed recruitment reports before signing off a new addition. “We’ve never signed a player Chris didn’t want and we never would,” says Barber.

But it will always be on the training ground where Hughton comes alive. He is hands on with training and involved in most sessions himself, while his meticulous tactical preparation is often overlooked. After winning promotion playing predominantly 4-4-2, he made a subtle switch to 4-4-1-1 with 4-3-3 as first alternative, an approach vindicated as Brighton finished their debut Premier League campaign 15th, seven points clear of safety. They were organised but not rigid, well-drilled but always carrying a creative threat, with best player Pascal Gross switching between No 10 and wide positions to keep opponents guessing.

Gross is the best example of Brighton’s detailed recruitment strategy – a £3m signing with exceptional statistics in the Bundesliga which translated into points in the Premier League – and the club have again looked to significantly strengthen this summer, spending more than £60m on players mostly yet to reach their peak. “We’ve certainly brought down the average age,” said Hughton this week. “Bernardo is 23, (Alireza) Jahanbakhsh is mid-20s, (Florin) Andone again is mid-20s, (Yves) Bissouma is 21. This is nothing detrimental to any players we’ve had in the past, but I think we’re a stronger squad.” He is wary of second-season syndrome and has insisted there is more pressure on the squad this term, given their outlay. Yet there is no one better to manage those expectations. “Would I take 17th? Probably the bigger part of me says yes because my role is a responsibility to make sure this club is in the Premier League the following season.”

Read or listen to several Hughton interviews in a row and it quickly becomes noticeable just how often he is asked about being that rarity in the English game, a black manager. It is a cause he is passionate to champion but the relentless theme depicts him as a man who holds the skeleton key to this complex problem, as if he found a way to repel these giant societal forces and somehow should know all the answers. It is football’s burden to overcome, not Hughton’s, but if the game’s institutional bias finally wants enlightening it could do worse than look to the man on the touchline at the Amex.

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