As the Premier League title appears to be heading back to Stamford Bridge from the King Power, Conte’s men will continue to morph this season into a procession. So rather than attempt to be interested in the relegation battle, knowing that it will undoubtedly consist of numerous heinous abject performances from Palace and Sunderland in particular, I thought it might be refreshing and somewhat less painful to look down a step, into the Championship and see who is pulling out the stops and making a go of hitting the automatic promotion spots.
Let’s start at the top. Being a Benitez fan is an easy gig. Probably somewhat easier than being a Newcastle fan I guess? At a glance it Rafa seems to have managed to lead the Barcodes into playing some half decent football while keeping Mike Ashley as far from the operational running’s of the club as is humanly possible. He is a bright man after all. There’s not much to dislike or be frustrated with when it comes to Rafa. His sides have always played with a plan in mind. Quite simply he is an excellent tactician who can navigate most technical issues he is going to face in the Championship bar the occasional lumpfest with a lower placed ‘battler’. Rafa has added some genuine talent to the club in the form of Gayle, Yedlin, Diame, Ritchie & Atsu (although the latter being on loan) who all came in after the departures of Wijnaldum, Sissoko, Townsend and Janmaat. He is also getting a tune out of the likes of Mitrovic from time to time which ranks up there with getting Balotelli to give a shit about anything else but himself. He has stabilised the core of the side and miraculously secured that ever so leaky defence that many of us have been all too familiar with in seasons gone by. I think to be fair we all knew Rafa was going to deliver at the Magpies with the resources and skill set he has. The key will be can he keep them up next season?
I, for one, will be happy to see him back in the top flight with that cheeky little grin of his. Actually change that we should all be pissing ourselves with delight to have Rafa back when you look at the detritus we’ve all be subjected to from the likes of Sham, The Ginger One, Pardew, Bruce, Pearson, Alex Neil & Pulis in recent seasons.
The side that has taken a lot of folks by surprise this season is Brighton. But I’m not exactly sure why. Chris Hughton has got to be the most underrated coach/manager in the UK currently. His pedigree as a player was as tip top with nearly 400 appearances in all competitions for Spurs. Moreover, I’m sure the players he had the pleasure of working with such as Clemence, Archibald, Perryman, Ozzie and Glenn to mention a few, had a substantial creative input in shaping Chris the coach. His sides have always entertained by playing football on the turf but have all had the ability to mix it up as required. This is perhaps down to the fact he paid his due in numerous coaching roles under a host of different managers before getting the nod to take the driving seat. He also has more badges than Baden Powell and is dedicated student of our beautiful game. Looking back into the early years of his coaching CV he came back to Spurs having made progress with his badges, and took control of the youth set up before being rewarded with assistant coach roles. It was under Martin Jol that arguably he made his name on the sidelines. The two dovetailed fantastically well and Spurs had two back to back 5th place finishes (05/06 & 06/07) before being offered the exit when Jol was pushed. He gained yet more prominence and praise when he re-surfaced six months later at Newcastle United. Now how anyone managed to navigate this next period whilst remaining mentally viable at the ‘barcodes’ deserved a medal for human endurance and perhaps a formal tribute for not killing his employers. He was employed primarily to join Keegan’s coaching staff which in itself was a bold move given Kevin’s ability to melt down at any moment. He should also have predicted the mental ongoings at the club as he was appointed by the 5ft Hooligan himself, Dennis Wise. You may recall this was a period where everyone bar Hughton associated with the club was either a subnormal and/or entirely inappropriate & underqualified to fulfil the role they held. Mike Ashley sure knows how to run a business. Reassuringly he was treating Newcastle the exact same way he was abusing Sport Direct employees.
However, Chris was appointed caretaker manager following King Kev’s unceremonious departure along with Terry Mac at the start of the 08/09 season. But his reign was short-lived as Ashley continued with the ill-advised and inappropriate appointments, and this time it was Joe Kinnear and his exuberant claims that came to town as the Magpies saviour. Not soon after Joe has endeared himself to everyone at the club it transpired that heart bypass surgery was required. For both Kinnear and the club. The turmoil caused over this period lead to an almighty slump and the clubs prodigal son Shearer was appointed to lead the club out of a dog fight. It went down to the wire and it wasn’t lost on anyone that with Shearer more the rebel rousing figurehead leading the charge it was Hughton that defined the last 8 games which saw the club battle their way into the last day of the season knowing a win would probably see them stay up. Alas, they lost. But Shearer didn’t secure the manager role and instead it was Hughton that took charge fulltime to get them back into the Prem.
His first full season in charge saw Newcastle beat every record going. Winning 30 games drawing 12 and losing just four. The fans were ecstatic to return to the holy land so quickly and in such good shape. So it made complete sense for Chris to continue and ply his trade in the Premier League. It also made no sense for top tool Derek Llambas to sack him as the club found itself midtable in December. Everyone with the exception of Ashley and his cronies were outraged at the decision to get rid of the stabilising influence and well-respected coach. This was further fuelled by the insanity of employing perennial piss poor performer Pardew from League One Southampton.
Chris rightly dusted himself down and refrained from gassing off to the press. Instead, he found his way into another proper club in the Championship in Birmingham City. At the time I felt that this was a bridge too far for the quiet man. However, he transformed the clubs fortunes and got them through to the 5th Round of the FA Cup which they lost after a replay to Chelsea. Furthermore, he managed to get the side playing well enough to finish fourth only to be done, over in the playoff Semi by a rampant Blackpool.
From there he was poached by Norwich, which even still feels like an oxymoron. Funnily enough, he was able to keep the Canaries up after some ground breaking wins over Arsenal and Manchester United. To take this mob to 11th in his first full season was about as good as any devotee of the club could have expected, and yet again, sadly he found he was surplus to requirement less than a year later. Ultimately Norwich went down with a whimper as Pulis and WBA pipped them to 17th place. Many pundits and fans alike felt that Norwich’s only chance that year was to stick with Chris but instead they replaced him while he was outside of the relegation spots, only to replace him with Alex Neil. Credit, where credit is due Neil, went on to take Norwich up. And then down immediately the season after. Boing Boing Canary. Sounds like a Delia dish come to think of it.
Norwich will never see Hughton’s departure as a loss because of Neil’s achievement, but his departure was nearly the gain of several other Premier League clubs. Chris was only offered No. 2 roles though and he rightly declined them as he was waiting for the next decent challenge in the hot seat. No sooner said than done and it was to be Brighton that saw sense and pursued their man. Since joining the Seagulls mid-season 2014/15 he embedded a calm player focussed regime that centred around training and tactical awareness. This realised a strong finish to the season and a nail-biting playoff semi-final loss to Sheffield Wednesday. I guess the sign of his quality and the virtues he brings to the club have been witnessed in abundance this season. The sustainability he brings is remarkable as Brighton are fighting the good fight against a plethora of clubs who are enjoying a multitude of parachute payments. So the results he is delivering are truly outstanding, and I’m sure of great personal satisfaction in particular when Brighton gubbed Norwich 5-0 earlier in the season.
At the time of writing Brighton are pushing Rafa’s Barcodes all the way. They have 2nd best GD in the league and have lost the least games (4). They sit a point behind Newcastle and have opened up a decent gap to the chasing pack. I think it would be great for Chris to take the Seagulls up and get the backing and investment he deserves. It would also be wonderful for them to secure auto promotion with a win against Norwich on Saturday 22nd April.
Whatever happens, he is an honourable man who loves to play the right way and behaves as a true role model for players and coaches alike. A man who is accountable and responsible for his actions and gets the best out of the slim resources he has had at his disposal. I am sure the Brighton fans are delighted to have him leading the club now and I sincerely hope that Tony Bloom and Paul Barber, Chairman and CEO respectively, at the club give Chris the time and support he needs as they won’t find anyone better.