If ever there was going to be a calming influence in the aftermath of the Republic of Ireland’s World Cup play-off calamity, there was always a possibility it might come from Chris Hughton, a man who has built his successful managerial career on the kind of understated common-sense approach which encourages a steady ship.
The Brighton manager has, almost unnoticed by the football media, guided his side to eighth place in the Premier League after securing promotion from the Championship. Just as he did in 53 caps as a reliable full-back for the Republic, Hughton has given his employers the kind of consistency most clubs can only dream of.
He will, of course, be mentioned as a potential replacement for Martin O’Neill should the incumbent, piqued by the criticism of his decision making against Denmark, decide not to continue as Ireland boss; but even then, his name isn’t being shouted with the same kind of verve and passion reserved for the likes of Roy Keane.
The good news, however, is that although this may be too early for Hughton to consider an international role — he has so much left to achieve at club level — he certainly retains a huge passion for the Boys in Green and thinks deeply about the kind of problems the game in Ireland is facing.
“It was an emotional night for me against Denmark,” he admitted. “Especially with us taking the lead and Shane Duffy, who is one of my players at Brighton, scoring. It was very disappointing in the end, of course, but Denmark were very good, you have to remember that.
“I saw the game and listened to all the reaction since, and it’s normal. Amongst the disappointment of not qualifying there are obviously going to be lots of opinions. That’s normal stuff. Generally people expect and accept that.”
What Hughton means, perhaps, is that decisions made in the emotional turmoil of a play-off defeat need to be thought through and properly considered; and he is keen to inject some reality into the discussion as fans and pundits discuss myriad ways to transform the game in Ireland.
“I think it’s fairly simple,” he said. “ You have a team which works very much as a team, but a time when the squad isn’t blessed with the world-class players that other countries might have. It’s not the first time that’s been the case. We’ve been through a long period when we relied on Robbie Keane to inspire us or come up with goals. Goal-scorers have been hard to come by.
“When you take all that into consideration, when you look at where the team finished in the group and remember that they reached the play-offs, the situation is pretty good. You look at other big teams and big countries that didn’t even get to the play-offs. So I think they’ve done great, no matter what the debate is now.”
Asked what the FAI need to do to improve the team’s chances, Hughton gave O’Neill his backing. “We have to be realistic because it’s going to continue that way,” he said. “It will still be about getting the best out of a really good squad of players who are probably short of top players. All I can say is that I think Martin has done a great job.”
As for Hughton’s own chances of becoming manager of the Republic one day, he is hardly the kind of character to throw his hat in the ring, not with a colleague still in the job. So his reaction to comments from Mark Bowen, the coach of Stoke who face Brighton on Monday, can be the only guide. Bowen, who played alongside Hughton at Spurs, lamented the fact his friend was totally overlooked for the Everton job and expressed surprise he is not linked more often with bigger roles.
“I know Mark very well but what he’s said is news to me,” said Hughton, his face revealing almost nothing. “Anything positive that is said about the work you’re doing is always nice to hear — but that’s all it is. It’s not something that you can afford to think about.
“You have to think about the job you are doing. If people feel you are doing a good enough job there’s some nice recognition that comes with it. But that’s all it is. All I can think about is that we have a big job to do here. We’ve done a big part of it last season by getting to the Premier League. Now it’s about developing this team and this club to be a club that stays in the Premier League.”
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