Chris Hughton: Low key, highly regarded
The Birmingham manager talks to Martin Hardy about his 'unjust' sacking at Newcastle and how he is a perfect fit for Birmingham, the 'no airs or graces' working-man's club
Chris Hughton left school when he was 16 and started a four-year apprenticeship to be a lift engineer. (It was a decent job, with its ups and downs). For four years he combined it with playing for Tottenham Hotspur's youth team, fighting to prove Spurs were wrong not to give him a contract when he initially finished his education. He put a fallback option in place, even turning down professional terms so he could complete his learning. When he was a qualified engineer, he signed a contract at White Hart Lane, and three games into the following season, made his debut.
On 7 December, 2010, Hughton woke up, and for only the second time since his early days, found himself without employment. "Unjust," is as profound as Hughton gets when talking about the dismissal he suffered as Newcastle manager, but then, it was 15 months ago, and much water has flowed under the Tyne Bridge since.
"You miss getting up in the morning and you miss having a place of work to go to," he now says of the aftermath. "It's always a difficult time because you're used to working and you're used to working hard every day. It was a difficult time, yes, it was very difficult.
"It would probably have been more difficult if the circumstances were different. When I left Newcastle we were in 10th place. Although it came as a shock to most people, the fact I was able to leave there knowing I'd done a fairly decent job helped. Of course, I was aware of most people's thoughts when I left and the support I got helped. That softened the blow, but of course, it does not change the situation.
"Was it unjust? Yes, and that's how most people felt at the time. We'd just got promotion, I had brought, contrary to other things I've heard, Cheick Tioté into the club. I was very fortunate because I'd also brought in a chief scout, in Graham Carr, who knew him as well and he was a great support for me.
"We had brought in Tioté and we had brought in Hatem Ben Arfa, who unfortunately broke his leg. Almost,apart from that, it was the squad that came up. We were in 10th place and at the time my feelings were the same as most people, but everybody moves on and I was very positive afterwards. Although, if I had a choice, I'd have preferred to be there, but I got a lot of support and the best solution was to be positive."
Low-key suits Hughton, as a man, and as a manager. It his way. It worked at St James'. It is working at St Andrew's.
"The limelight is not for me," he adds. "I've always been that way. I can only manage the way I manage. Yes, it is a stressful job. It is a pressurised job but, when that whistle goes, I can change some tactics, but you can't do any more, The players have to be motivated enough when they go over the line to get a result. You have to manage around your personality. If you're trying to do something different, people will see through you. My personality is my personality, that is the way I prefer to manage and it is the only way I can manage. It is good to have relationships with players and when I say that I don't mean getting too close, but enough so that you're able to talk to them. If I need to berate a player, I can do that. If I need to dig a player out, I can do that.
"It's not about what you see on a match day. It's what the manager does all week; his relationship with the players, how he gets on with them, being able to trust them."
Trust, a work ethic, honesty and, of course, togetherness. They are the ideals that breathed life into Newcastle United when they lay, gasping for breath, in the aftermath of a self-inflicted relegation. They are the same characteristics Hughton took to Birmingham last year, when another big club was in the second tier of English football, apparently out on its feet. "You have to stop the slide at a club, you have to make people see that it will turn," he says. "You do that on the training ground. For every negative there is a positive. For Barry Ferguson or Scott Dann going there is a Steven Caldwell or a Chris Burke that comes in. You have to put more effort into trying to promote the positives than focus on negatives."
At both clubs, Hughton has had to deal with more than just players. At Newcastle, there was chaos wherever he looked. At Birmingham, seven days after he was appointed, the club's president Carson Yeung was arrested on suspicion of money-laundering. "The situation [with Carson] hasn't been difficult at all. I've been aware of everything that's happened or what is going to happen. As for what the future holds with regards the hierarchy, I don't know. I've been very much allowed to get on with the job. That is good for a manager."
From that vacuum, Birmingham's players have bought into Hughton's philosophy with telling effect. He has engendered a spirit that fired Newcastle from their doldrums. "There was not a Leyton Orient moment here [where Newcastle's players sat in the dressing room and asked who wanted to stay after being badly beaten in a friendly]. When I took the job here I was aware of the players who would be leaving. Peter Pannu, who has been the person I've dealt with most since I arrived, sat in front of me and said, 'Look, these are the players we are going to lose.'
"Newcastle had very much a core of the team that wanted to stay, and probably that is a testament to the regime of Derek Llambias and Mike Ashley, who could have had an absolute fire sale. We lost a lot of players but there was a real good and important core of the team that stayed, and, of course, most of them were very good players.
"Nothing will change my mind about whether I think I should have lost my job. I don't, and I still feel the same way, but there is no bitterness. The players at Newcastle needed some guidance and some motivation and probably they needed an arm around them to get them back to playing to the abilities we knew they had."
Such understatement drew phenomenal loyalty in the Newcastle dressing room. Sacking Hughton was not easy. Players met management to clear the air. He has engendered a similar spirit at St Andrew's. Twelve players from a side that won the Carling Cup and got relegated in the same season were sold before the transfer window closed. More went in January. Somehow, Birmingham made it to the group stage of the Europa League, where they finished with 10 points but did not qualify for the knockout rounds. They took the Champions League semi-finalists Chelsea to a replay in the FA Cup and, despite playing so regularly this season, have come up on the rails in the race for a promotion play-off place.
"It's probably not beyond my wildest dreams but that's because I didn't know what to expect," he adds. "Where we are now is probably the best-case scenario. We knew, with the volume of games we had, it would be very difficult to get automatic promotion. It was really about, 'Could we be competitive going into the last six games,' and we have done that.
"It's been manic and we've almost got used to it. We have played a game on average every 4.5 days. We played Cardiff on Sunday and Doncaster last Friday. It felt like a week with no games between them. That actually felt quite good. It was probably the first time we'd had time off in nine months.
"I said when I took the job at Birmingham it was almost the working man's club. That's what I felt. It has a real tradition of hard workers and supporters who support this club for years, with no airs and graces. They see it as it is and they say it as it is. It's really nice to be involved in that. The no airs and graces suits me. This is what it is. You have to work around what the circumstances are. You want people around you to work hard. I have a lot of down-to-earth people at this football club."
No airs, no graces, instead hard work, for the working man's club.
It all feels apt for Hughton, 37 years on, with more ups than downs since he became a working man himself. And fewer poor jokes about lift engineering, it has to be said.
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