"I don't let myself get weighed down by self-doubt"
From apprentice lift engineer to the manager of a Premier League team, Albion boss Chris Hughton, who is receiving an honorary degree at winter graduation, talks to Jacqui Bealing about his rise to the top.
As a young footballer in the 1980s Chris Hughton had no expectation that he would become management material, let alone take a team struggling at the bottom of the Championship into the Premier League.
Although always conscientious, he says he was one of the quieter players, unaware that he had the natural attributes of a leader.
It’s also true to say that being of mixed race (with a Ghanaian father and an Irish mother) during a period of overt racism – the sort you could “feel” as soon as you entered some stadiums, he says – the odds were stacked against him.
How far he has come. Since taking over as manager of Brighton & Hove Albion in 2014, Hughton has been lauded both inside and outside his industry for his dedication to the continuing success of the team who, just a few years ago, were homeless with an uncertain future.
Even now, he says he is “surprised and humbled” to be honoured by the University of Sussex, and pays tribute to the loyal fans “who have been on the whole of that journey”.
He has also been praised for doing his bit in raising the profile of black and minority ethnic (BAME) players, coaches and managers, and for supporting anti-racist campaigns such as Show Racism the Red Card, and the Kick it Out Campaign.
Although 25 percent of players are from BAME backgrounds, there are just a handful of black or mixed race managers in professional English football clubs, and he is the only one at the helm of a Premier League team.
“There was always the perception that black players were good wingers, good centre forwards, but not management material,” explains Hughton. “Those stigmas are hard to lose. They will be lost, I have no doubt, but to what degree? That takes time.
“We have seen a change in the number of black and ethnic coaches involved in schoolboy level, academy level, and that has been promising. But the change from that level to senior management and CEO has been nowhere near significant enough.”
Hughton, now 60, made his professional debut with Tottenham Hotspur at 20, and went on to play for West Ham, and Brentford – as well as representing the Republic of Ireland – until at the age of 28, with retirement as a player looming, he considered moving into coaching.
“I didn’t know if I had the qualities. It’s usually the more talkative ones who see themselves as coaches. Our game is very much about getting the opportunities, being in the right place at the right time, and making the right choices.”
Nevertheless, he stayed coaching Spurs for 15 years under seven different managers (an achievement in itself, he points out) before moving up the management ladder, first at Spurs, then taking on roles at Newcastle City, Birmingham City, and Norwich.
Recognising that the profession is full of highs and lows, Hughton remains positive about his sackings from clubs when the team’s fortunes took a dip.
“You’re always conscious of those who gave you your first break, irrespective of how you left. After I lost my jobs at Newcastle and at Norwich, all I wanted to do was look forward. My initial response was to work hard. Even through those times, within a week I was out watching games.
“The moments of self-doubt are always there,” he adds. “It goes through my mind: Where could I have done better? What were my mistakes? But I don’t let myself get weighed down by those thoughts. I try to be the same when things are going well as when they are not.”
This level-headedness is key to his personality. A schoolboy player for Spurs since the age of 13, he was offered a chance to play professionally for them at the age of 18. But rather than leap at the opportunity, he decided to first finish the four-year apprenticeship he had already started as a lift and escalator engineer.
Although he has never needed to fall back on his engineering skills, he says that whenever he gets into a lift he invariably looks to see if it was made by his former employer, Kone (formerly Marryat & Scott).
He also attributes his good sense to his upbringing. His parents, both still alive (his dad is 90, his mum is 85), are “incredibly down-to-earth and humble”, and still live in the same house in Upton Park, East London, where Hughton grew up. “Every time I want to do something to the house, it’s hard work to give them stuff.”
While proud of his achievement, his parents were never pushy. “We weren’t a football household. My father had no real interest in it. They were aware that me and my younger brother [Henry, who was signed by Leyton Orient] were doing well in school teams, but not really of the magnitude of it.”
There are, he acknowledges, many different styles of management. The players who go straight into it from the field may be able to cope because they are “strong individuals”. Hughton recognises his own strength comes from his long apprenticeship as a coach.
“I have learned to adapt,” he says. “I’m much calmer now. The decisions that I have to make now would have given me sleepless nights earlier.”
Nevertheless, the job takes priority in his life. “To do it right, you have to be confident and comfortable that you are giving everything to it.”
How does his wife, Cheryl, deal with that? “She’s used to it,” he laughs. “It’s a way of life.” But when he does get a break from his busy schedule, he tries to spend time with his family of four grown-up children and seven grandchildren.
“The greatest joy is having children,” he says. “I tell all my players that, every time they have a little one.”