■ English League Championship: Norwich City v Brighton and Hove Albion, Friday at 10.45pm GST
It is a tale of two rises from the depths.
Twenty years after Brighton and Hove Albion drew at Hereford United to stay in the Football League, they secured promotion to the Premier League.
Two and a half years after Chris Hughton took over a team in danger of relegation to League One, he has piloted them into the top flight.
Win at Norwich City on Friday and Brighton go up as champions.
A more egotistical character might take the chance to gloat. Hughton was dismissed by Norwich three years ago, hounded out by supporters who afforded him too little credit for an 11th-place finish and blamed him for a descent towards relegation.
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Hughton’s preference is to deflect attention. After Brighton guaranteed a Premier League place on Monday, when they beat Wigan Athletic and Huddersfield Town were held by Derby County, he focused instead on the fans.
“I’ve been here for two years and four months but there are supporters out there who have been through all the difficult periods,” he said.
The role of Hughton has not been forgotten by the club’s owner Tony Bloom though, who said: “Chris has done a magnificent job.”
While the self-effacing Hughton might not say so, others had come to the same conclusion. Jurgen Klopp namechecked him as a possible Manager of the Year, citing in particular the way Brighton showed the character to recover from play-off heartbreak last season, when Albion only missed out on automatic promotion on goal difference after securing 89 points.
Hughton has forged a team who are formidably hard to beat.
No side in the Championship have suffered fewer defeats. They began last season by not losing any of their first 21 league games. They went 19 without a loss earlier in the current campaign.
Brighton have spent – their gross debt, partly because of a new stadium, stands at £170.6 million (Dh803m), the biggest in the division – and Bloom’s investment amounts to £251m.
Yet in another respect, their promotion has come comparatively cheaply. They only have the ninth biggest wage bill in the division. Hughton has used his resources intelligently.
Anthony Knockaert, the 15-goal winger named the best player in the Football League at the competition’s award ceremony, was acquired for just £2.2m.
Incremental improvement has come from strengthening sensibly, one window at a time. Last summer brought Shane Duffy to form arguably the division’s best centre-back partnership with the homegrown Lewis Dunk. Top scorer Glenn Murray rejoined Albion then, initially on loan.
Murray may seem the embodiment of this Brighton squad. He is an outstanding Championship performer. His two spells in the Premier League have produced mixed returns.
If he has a point to prove at a higher level, so does Hughton.
He builds outstanding Championship teams: committed and consistent, blending solidity with quality, offering energy and reliability.
It is more of a moot point if those skills are transferable to the Premier League. A few clubs – Leicester City and Burnley in particular – have profited with the 4-4-2 blueprint Hughton favours.
Yet it left his Norwich side outnumbered in midfield and, if they bolstered that department, short of goals in attack.
Newcastle United dismissed him when they sat a respectable 11th, a few months after going up with 102 points.
It prompted an outcry from their supporters. Quiet, measured, low profile, Hughton felt the opposite of some of the managerial hopefuls, real and imagined, appointed on Tyneside, but his exploits engineered a loyalty. Now he is showing it towards his charges.
He is planning for the Premier League with them. “I think what you are not able to do is make absolute wholesale changes,” he said.
Revolution is not the Hughton way. Quiet evolution, on the other hand, has proved very effective, as Brighton can testify.
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