Brighton have taken the biggest gamble of Tony Bloom’s ownership by sacking a manager who kept a patchy squad in the Premier League two seasons running. For Swansea’s Graham Potter - the club's No 1 target - recruitment would need to improve sharply for Chris Hughton’s dismissal to have a hope of success.
Not once in 2018-19 were Brighton in the Premier League relegation zone. In December they reached 10th place with a win over Crystal Palace. But an alarming slide of three wins in 23 dropped them to two points above the relegation zone. Brighton’s owner, Bloom, who fired Hughton at the training ground the morning after Manchester City’s title-securing 4-1 win, calculated that it was better to head off the possibility of that slump continuing than deal with the consequences next autumn.
This proactive approach removes Brighton’s best manager of the modern era. Hughton raised them from 17th in the Championship to 15th in the club’s first season in the top tier since 1983, and then kept them up again after a summer of underwhelming buys up front. Florin Andone, Alireza Jahanbakhsh and Jurgen Locadia have added little to Hughton’s strong defensive block of Lewis Dunk and Shane Duffy.
Those Brighton fans meanwhile who blamed the manager for “wasting money” ignored the fact that the club’s recruitment department, not Hughton, determined transfer policy. There is a strong case for saying Hughton has paid the price for mistakes made elsewhere in the club.
Dan Ashworth, the technical director hired amid great fanfare from the Football Association, is said not to have been behind Hughton’s sacking. Bloom made the decision and began informing senior staff on Sunday night. But Ashworth has been leading the search for a replacement, with Potter fitting the bill of a ‘progressive’ British coach who would have looked at home in Ashworth’s FA set-up.
Bloom’s gamble lies in the assumption that Brighton can find better attacking players than they currently have within the club’s spending limits - and in the belief that a shift to a more attacking style will save them from perennial relegation battles. Both theories will be tested once the club has taken a PR hit for dumping a manager of great class and dignity (and one who performed brilliantly to keep them up).
Hughton was a hero of Brighton’s resurrection tale, two decades after they almost went out of business. He was also emblematic of a set of values, rare now in football, and of a smooth working relationship between manager, owner and chief executive. As Paul Barber, who performs the last of those roles, pointed out in Sunday’s match programme: “For perspective, let’s not forget that our club spent almost four decades outside of the top flight before our promotion to the Premier League two years ago, and we have only played six seasons in our entire 118-year history at the highest level.”
Brighton’s line of reasoning is that they had a good manager but wanted better on the pitch. They have convinced themselves that a change will free-up the team to advance beyond pragmatism and play more adventurously. Some season ticket season holders had been grumbling about the lack of entertainment at the Amex Stadium and threatening not to renew. As with all clubs, those commercial tremors were picked up by the board, who ignored four creditable performances in a row, against Wolves, Spurs, Newcastle and Arsenal, to end Hughton’s reign after a predictable last-day home defeat to Man City.
The word around Hughton’s coaching team was that Glenn Murray, Dunk and Duffy were the three players most responsible for keeping Brighton up. None will be glad to see Hughton go. At the same time a summer cull will need to take out players who pursued personal agendas and were not supportive of the manager when results began to crumble. Bloom needs to be as ruthless in the dressing room as he was in the dug-out.
The upshot is that a manager who saved Brighton from dropping into League One has just been fired despite keeping them in the Premier League twice, while never once this season visiting 18th, 19th or 20th positions. Ashworth will need a stellar summer of buying and selling players if Hughton’s replacement is to stand any chance of making it a survival hat-trick.
Most of all the top division has lost a gentleman who helped a club with no top-flight pedigree into the land of milk and money, then kept them there against the odds. His decency is less relevant to this analysis than his competence. Brighton’s next moves had better be good to justify this sacking. It will be hard to shed the sadness one feels at the memory of Hughton on the Brighton pitch on Sunday with his grandchildren.