Chris Hughton: “BAME managers don’t want tokenism, we want an opportunity.”

Why the Brighton manager is much more than one of the nicest men in football.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

If Chris Hughton has any designs on one day landing the Tottenham manager’s job, masterminding a 2-1 victory over Spurs’ north London rivals last weekend will have done him no harm. Goals from Lewis Dunk and Glenn Murray helped Hughton’s newly-promoted Brighton to a win over Arsenal – an upset which lifted them to 10th in the Premier League table, underscoring his credentials as a top flight boss while heaping pressure onto his opposite number Arsène Wenger.

Hughton, who was born in Forest Gate, is the son of a Ghanaian father and an Irish mother. He enjoyed a solid playing career as a full back with Spurs – winning the FA Cup twice – and also had spells at West Ham and Brentford before hanging up his boots in 1993. He has since then steadily progressed from being a Spurs coach – with their under-21s, reserve side and first-team – to more senior management positions with Birmingham City, Norwich, Newcastle and Brighton.

Against an enduring backdrop of very few black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) managers in English football – there are currently just five black managers across the top four divisions – the 58-year-old has stood out as the main torch-bearer for the cause. Wolves' Nuno Espirito Santo, Southend’s Chris Powell, Carlisle’s Keith Curle, and Northampton Town’s Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink are yet to manage in the top flight.

Last month, at a debate surrounding the lack of BAME coaches hosted by anti-racism campaign body Kick it Out, Hughton drove from Brighton to London, on a Monday night no less, to give a ten-minute speech on the topic. He said: “When I started my pathway, black players were often considered to be good wingers, good players, but not captain or management material. It has changed since then, which is pleasing, but we still have so far to go. We [BAME managers] don’t want tokenism, but there needs to be a transitional period that allows us an opportunity. The culture has to change to allow good, worthy coaches to be associated with big clubs and big organisations.”

Despite all the kind words about Hughton – journalists and pundits often praise his professionalism and he is unwaveringly honest in his press conferences – the scarcity with which his name is brought up when discussing big Premier League jobs, suggests there is still a glass ceiling which needs to be shattered. As former Arsenal striker Ian Wright told Sky Sports last year: “When you talk about managers who should be in there [being considered for big jobs], I’m very surprised Chris Hughton doesn’t get thrown in at any time.”

When Everton sacked Ronald Koeman earlier this season, the Merseysiders courted then Watford boss Marco Silva off the back of a fine run of form. The Hornets had won six of their first 13 league games. But the Portuguese, who failed to save Hull from relegation the season before, did not leave Vicarage Road, with the Everton job going to Englishman Sam Allardyce instead. Silva was fired by Watford in January, after a sequence of one win in 11 league games, which they attributed, in part, to Everton’s “unwarranted approach”. Silva’s record in the Premier League to date, then, stands at: 42 played, 13 won, eight drawn and 21 lost. At the time that Everton approached Silva and at the time of writing, Brighton were and are in the top half of the top flight, but Hughton’s odds at getting the Everton job were as long as 66/1.

With rumours circulating, meanwhile, that Spurs could lose the highly-rated Mauricio Pochettino to Real Madrid in the summer, it is Argentina manager Jorge Sampaoli and Celtic boss Brendan Rodgers, who have emerged as the early tips to replace him should he leave. Hughton played 398 games for Spurs in all competitions, scoring 19 goals, and was part of their backroom staff for 14 years, but is unlikely to be in the frame.

While nothing should detract from the fantastic job Pochettino has done at Spurs – he has overseen year-on-year improvement since his appointment in 2014 – it is worth noting that he was hired having never won a major trophy as a manager, and having never managed in a continental competition. A top half finish with Southampton, a feat which Hughton could well match this season with Brighton, was his best qualification for the role.

The gamble paid off, undoubtedly, which is why Madrid might want him, but there’s something to be said for English clubs using inexperience as an excuse misguidedly. It is interesting, for example, that Alan Pardew – who has managed just seven wins in the Premier League since January 2016 – was given the West Brom job, ahead of arguably more capable if less experienced candidates. Hughton, though, whose Brighton team face Manchester United in the FA Cup quarter-finals later this month, has earned the right to be talked about at a higher level than West Brom.  

The Football Association confirmed earlier this year that it would apply the Rooney Rule – a policy which requires at least one BAME candidate to be interviewed – when appointing future coaches within the England set-up. Kick it Out released a statement hailing the decision as a “watershed moment”. But while the decision is in itself encouraging, the reality remains that there are not that many BAME coaches to choose from. If every Premier League club applied the Rooney Rule in their managerial searches, Hughton being interviewed 20 times would not necessarily represent progress.

While he is in favour of the Rooney Rule in principle, former Queens Park Rangers manager Chris Ramsey, who now serves the club in a director’s role, thinks that the more important issue lies in dealing with the barriers of perception which are stopping more BAME people pursuing coaching careers in the first place. At the debate last month, he told me that a high-profile BAME player “might need to be a bit of a martyr” and “speak out publicly” about the situation. He added: “If you’ve got some top black players now, who have got a big economic value to clubs, they’re not going to get sacked for it, are they?”  If the precedent can be set, Ramsey thinks, then more would-be BAME coaches could feel reassured. He said: “It’ll take one or a few. We’d need to see someone [who is BAME] get a big job. Maybe it could be Chris [Hughton].”

Troy Townsend, father of Crystal Palace winger Andros, and education manager at Kick it Out, believes that more BAME coaches will come to the fore so long as “the system” becomes more welcoming. “Boards,” he said, “need to understand the power that diversity can bring to their clubs, not just in terms of understanding the dressing room and fan base better, but also in terms of letting different types of managers try out different ideas [on the pitch].”  

Townsend suggested that a key step in achieving that aim would be to stop holding BAME managers to higher standards. Pointing to Paul Ince’s ill-fated, 17-game spell as Blackburn Rovers manager, he said: “The lack of representation isn’t helped by the quick turnover of black managers. Paul was a former England captain but he wasn’t given time to turn that form at Blackburn round. He’s faded out of the game and that sends the wrong message.” Still, Townsend has not given up hope and could not speak more highly of Hughton.  “We have got a role model in Chris. You’ve got to talk about the man in the way that he is and the way he presents himself. For him to be here tonight and then drive back to Brighton is the mark of a man who cares. That will hopefully send waves through this room and inspire the coaches here.”

Ultimately, Chris Hughton’s reputation as one of the nicest men in football precedes him. And while that is true – he’d risk being caught in rush hour traffic to pose for an impromptu photo with an appreciative Newcastle fan – he is much more than a media darling. He is a very good football manager. Brighton were 21st in the Championship table when he was appointed in December 2014 and since then, quietly and politely, he has brought about a revolution on the south coast.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman

Free trial CSS