As Brighton delayed Manchester City’s sun-drenched title celebrations yesterday in order to say an emotional farewell to a club legend, few inside the stadium can have expected to see another one leave less than 24 hours later.
Chris Hughton may well have been more surprised than anyone considering he’d just guided the Seagulls to a third successive season of Premier League football, despite losing 4-1 to Pep Guardiola’s back-to-back champions on the day. But while 38-year-old full-back Bruno received a rapturous send-off from the club he now calls home, Hughton’s sudden departure has been handled less graciously.
“Disgraceful”, “delusions of grandeur”, “I hope you get relegated now” are some of the most common responses to the club’s tweet announcing the news this morning – some of them from the same people who called the team’s recent performances “boring”, “anti-football”, and “a disgrace to the Premier League” (whatever that means).
Most tellingly, though, few of them seem to be Albion fans.
From the club’s point of view this is the best time to part ways with Hughton. Just two league wins in 2019 – plus a never-entirely-convincing FA Cup run that only papered over the cracks – is relegation form. In truth, Brighton’s Premier League survival was guaranteed more by the woeful form of the teams below them (particularly Cardiff’s defeat to Crystal Palace last weekend – thanks, Palace!) than anything Chris Hughton or his team have done in the past four and a half months.
The football has been dreary, especially since the turn of the year, to the point that fans had resorted to celebrating even having a shot on goal when playing away from home. A team rightly praised for its defensive solidity had lost even that, losing tamely at home to Southampton, Burnley and, most worryingly, Cardiff, in a stadium that had previously been their stronghold. Last season the Seagulls only lost four times at the Amex; this term they doubled that, even managing to concede five to an out-of-form Bournemouth.
Twice they threw away two-goal leads, most dramatically at Fulham in January, conceding four second-half goals to a team that had looked doomed even then. In recent matches there were signs that the Seagulls’ resolve was returning, with hard-fought points away at Wolves and Arsenal and in an unlucky 1-0 defeat to Tottenham, but without the results of those teams below them it would’ve been too little, too late.
What’s the gamble?
Is 17th where a club still relying on Glenn Murray to score all the goals should be? Pretty much. Does that make Hughton’s sacking a disgrace? Not exactly, although telling him his services were no longer needed after safety had been secured and allowing the fans to thank him alongside Bruno would’ve been the decent thing to do.
It doesn’t even mean his performance over the past two years has been inadequate. But the team looked bereft of ideas and if that form had continued into next season relegation would have been no less than they deserved.
Obviously it’s a gamble. Sacking any manager is a gamble. Until the new man is in place and we know whether we’ve got another Mauricio Pochettino at Southampton, a Claudio Ranieri at Fulham, or something in between, it’s impossible to say. But with former FA man Dan Ashworth recently installed as the club’s technical director, Hughton’s recent cautious football clearly doesn’t match the board’s ambition.
Having invested so much in getting the club he loves to this position, chairman and owner Tony Bloom can’t afford to see the team slide back to the Championship just because Big Chris is The Nicest Guy In Football. If that were the only condition of the recruitment policy, they might as well give the job to Dave Grohl.
There are plenty of fans who think a change is needed and it’s the right time for Hughton to go. But no genuine Brighton fan will happily wave goodbye to the man who calmly guided the club through its most successful period of the modern era without a tinge of sadness.
If nothing else, we just wish we’d had the chance to say thank you.
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