People often forget that Chris Hughton kept Norwich City up. It’s sad, really.
Despite his commendable efforts in engineering an eleventh place finish in the top flight, leading City on that memorable ten game unbeaten run and toppling the might of Manchester United, Manchester City and Arsenal, he will always be remembered as the man who took Norwich down.
Hughton’s City may have divided supporters. What positive results his side gained were so frequently undermined by ostensible performances of conservatism, a lack of enterprise and the absence of any offensive verve. By April 2014, anti-Hughton sentiment had become almost universal, manifesting itself so palpably in that miserable affair against West Brom. He had to go.
But Hughton deserved better. His fifteen-month regime did not have to end with the unedifying sight of our candid manager being struck on the head by a flying ‘clapper’. Regardless of your thoughts on City under Hughton, his tenure did not need to end in such undesirable circumstances.
City enjoyed the good times under Hughton, times when we could all unite and believe vivaciously in our beloved yellow and green cause. Hughton was at the helm for so many of our most unforgettable conquests of recent times, ambushing Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal and Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United on atmospheric Carrow Road evenings before vanquishing United’s parochial rival at the Etihad.
And we will never forget Jonny Howson’s dazzling dribble through a mesmerised City defence.
But things soon turned sour. After a mid-table finish that pipped the brilliance of Paul Lambert the previous season – albeit with three fewer points – Hughton’s fortunes in the City hot seat deteriorated.
Early defeats to Hull, Aston Villa and Fulham were to prove fatal, providing insufficient grounding for a successful survival campaign. Norwich under Hughton lacked the dynamism, fearlessness and character of the Lambert epoch, instead being characterised by unnecessary caution and vigilance. The fans turned.
This was not the large-scale, vocal and visible campaign for the ousting of a manager we have seen so recently in NR1, but instead one that had its roots less embedded in results than it did in the performances being witnessed.
We became tired watching our side equip themselves with such a lack of endeavour, failing to entertain the loyal masses who flocked to away games at Cardiff, Southampton and Newcastle. Our grievances were justified.
But Hughton’s distasteful departure is not how he should be remembered. Yes, he did play a considerable role in terminating City’s three-year odyssey in the Premier League and yes, he did so in an unequivocally unattractive way, but incompetent recruitment – again – and the relentless augmenting of disillusionment on the terraces did little to foster an environment conducive to achieving Premier League safety.
David McNally’s impetuous remark concerning the prospect of replacing Hughton in February 2014 was equally unhelpful.
Hughton is a man of dignity, integrity and principal. He never shied away from providing the fans with honest, sincere and forthright answers in times of adversity. In a long term sense, things didn’t work out for him at City. I – like many others I’m sure – wish things had ensued differently.
Which is why I’m so delighted to see what he has achieved at the Amex. Hughton inherited a Sami Hypia-led side near the foot of the division lacking in belief, ideas and quality, transforming them into a united group of second-tier champions elect through an effective synthesis of intelligent recruitment and tactics.
Owing to Hughton’s work, the Seagulls are flying once again.
Anthony Knockaert has been superb, illuminating the league with unparalleled quality going forward and his clinical finishing. Glenn Murray and Dale Stephens have been equally efficacious, while the excellent Lewis Dunk and goalkeeper David Stockdale – I hesitate to say – have provided substantial stability at the back.
City’s defence should take note.
Hughton’s influence has been profound, not solely signing but also successfully motivating his terrific group of players and pioneering a run of results superior to even the faltering Newcastle United’s.
If there are those who argue that this Brighton squad have overachieved, they only go to further the degree to which Hughton has proved himself as a first-rate Championship manager. The outstanding job he has conducted was embodied in ninety painful Norwich City minutes in October last year – a five-star Brighton performance. Grim.
So Hughton’s efforts necessitate a benevolent Carrow Road welcome. His work 174 miles south aside, not many managers in City’s recent history can claim to have kept us up in the top flight. Alternatively, if you do consider Hughton’s second season of misery to be a fundamentally unforgivable encounter, remember Hughton the man, not Hughton the manager.
He tried. He cared. He deserves better than receiving a chorus of hostility when he returns in front of the Sky cameras on Friday night.
In a week when City won away and the prime minister called a surprising snap election, who knows what the evening’s football will bring. What remains certain, however, is Hughton’s credibility, decency and likeability as both a man and manager.
That, in my mind, is how he should be remembered.