ony Bloom took the biggest gamble of his tenure as Brighton owner when he decided to sack Chris Hughton this week. It followed a dismal run of form that saw the Seagulls pick up just three wins in their final 23 league games and finish a mere two points above the drop zone. Bloom, a professional poker player and sports betting virtuoso, clearly decided he could not risk the run continuing into the 2019/20 campaign. His gamble could prove inspired or it could backfire spectacularly, as Hughton represented an extremely safe pair of hands and he will be a tough act to follow.
This abrupt sacking felt like a brutal way to jettison the most successful manager Brighton have had in the modern era. The Seagulls were just one place above the relegation zone in the Championship when Hughton took the reins on 31 December, 2014. He kept them up, stabilised the squad and finished third the following season, before achieving promotion to the Premier League in April 2017 with three games to spare. Finally, after a 34-year absence, the Albion were heading back to the top flight. Bloom’s decision to take a punt on the former Newcastle boss proved to be a masterstroke.
Hughton doubled down on that notion when he beat the drop twice in a row, despite being lumbered with several players that are not really good enough for the Premier League. In 2017/18, Brighton had the second lowest wage bill in the division and this season they had the third lowest. He is a cautious, pragmatic manager and he made Brighton stubborn, organised, solid and very difficult to break down. Brighton were odds-on favourites to be relegated last season, but Hughton’s strong leadership ensured they finished 15th. They rarely played attractive, free-flowing football, but they were disciplined, strong in the tackle and efficient in front of goal.
An Alarming Run of Form
They came flying out of the blocks in 2018/19 and victory over Everton on December 29 left the club 11 points above the drop zone. Yet Hughton then presided over an alarming slump in form and it left Brighton in grave danger of heading back down to the Championship. They can consider themselves fortunate after 18th placed Cardiff suffered a string of dodgy refereeing decisions towards the tail end of the campaign, and many fans felt that relegation next season would have been inevitable with Hughton at the helm.
Two games in particular convinced them that Hughton had to be axed. First up they suffered a humiliating 5-0 home defeat at the hands of a struggling Bournemouth side. The Amex had been something of a fortress during Brighton’s first season-and-a-half in the Premier League, but Eddie Howe’s men stormed the ramparts and ripped it down. Then there was the 2-0 defeat to Cardiff in a crunch relegation six-pointer. That gave the Bluebirds belief and sparked a nail-biting end to the campaign for Brighton fans.
Bloom decided to sack Hughton on that day and only gave him a stay of execution after deciding an immediate sacking could plunge the club into further jeopardy. This was a gamble that paid off for the owner, as the players rallied for Hughton, and they picked up three creditable draws against Wolves, Arsenal and Newcastle in the final weeks and avoided relegation. But Bloom acted decisively in the aftermath of Brighton’s final day defeat and promptly dispatched Hughton.
“Undoubtedly, this has been one of the most difficult decisions I have had to make as chairman of Brighton & Hove Albion, but ultimately one I have made due to how we struggled in the second half of the season,” he said. “Our run of three wins from 23 Premier League matches put our status at significant risk. It is with that in mind, and the performances during that period, that I now feel it’s the right time for a change.”
The football was grim for the majority of the campaign and Hughton ultimately paid the price for Brighton’s lack of quality going forwards. They had fewer shots on target than almost every other team in the league, they were overly reliant on the ageing legs of Glenn Murray and Hughton could not get the best out of expensive new signings. It was often turgid, dreary stuff, but fans could forgive bad performances when the team were racking up points. It is all well and good playing unattractive football when the results are going your way, but when the results dry up you will quickly find yourself out of a job. Just ask Jose Mourinho.
A more apt comparison might be Rafa Benitez at Hughton’s old club, Newcastle. He has kept the Magpies afloat in the Premier League by promoting an extremely turgid brand of football, but the Champions League-winning Spaniard clearly feels he has no other choice given the shoestring budget on which he must operate. The St James’s faithful would love to see more entertaining football, but they tolerate the negative tactics while they are winning games. If they were to lose 5-0 to Bournemouth, it could be curtains for him too.
While the timing and manner of Hughton’s departure seemed ruthless, it was good to hear Bloom say he will be remembered “with great affection”. Hughton is a class act, dignified, eloquent and thoroughly decent. A true gentleman in a sport with too few of them to go around. Critics in the national media may see Hughton’s sacking as further proof that the Premier League has lost its soul, and those with no association with the club are suitably outraged, but Bloom is also a pragmatist and he did not trust his manager to lead the club to glorious new heights.
A Golden Opportunity
It was hard to imagine the Albion ever playing exciting, adventurous football under Hughton, but now fans can dare to dream. Trepidation abounds, but so too does hope. There was outcry when Southampton sacked Nigel Adkins after he took them up to the Premier League. He was axed with the club three points above the drop zone and the general consensus was that he should have been given more time. Yet in came Mauricio Pochettino, who revolutionised the club’s playing style and led them to their highest ever Premier League points tally. If Brighton can pull off a similar feat in replacing a strong and steady manager with a progressive tactical genius then Bloom will be vindicated.
But for every Southampton, there is a Fulham. The Cottagers crashed and burned this season after prematurely dispensing with Slavisa Jokanovic, and Premier League history is littered with similar cautionary tales. Newcastle were rapidly relegated after sacking Hughton back in 2010, and Bloom could live to rue his decision. Brighton are likely to be among the favourites for relegation in Premier League markets next season. You rarely see all three newly promoted clubs go back down, and one or two established Premier League sides will be relegated, so the stakes are high.
Let us not forget that Hughton pulled off some fine results towards the end of the campaign. Draws with Arsenal and Wolves were hard earned and impressive, as the Gunners boasted strong home form and Wolves were flying high. He also took the Seagulls into the semi-finals of the cup. However, many fans feel like he took the club as far as he could, and it is time to inject some fresh dynamism into proceedings after the project turned stale.
There is now an opportunity to take the club forward and Brighton fans may end up watching exciting, swashbuckling football once more. Graham Potter is the favourite and that looks like a sensible choice, given the outpouring of grief in Swansea at the news. Yet his appointment is not a slam dunk and Bloom could also look at some intriguing options like Marcelo Bielsa or Mikel Arteta, while Steven Gerrard has acquitted himself well at Rangers and could be tempted by a Premier League role.
If sacking Hughton was a huge gamble, choosing his successor is an even more bigger decision. If the new manager can marry defensive steel with expressive football, Albion could become mainstays of the Premier League and entertain fans at the same time. This is the most crucial summer in Brighton’s recent history and it will be fascinating to see how it pans out.