Michael Walker: How Chris Hughton could become Brighton's Ranieri

Former Republic of Ireland international has overseen dramatic reversal in club’s fortunes

On the final day of last season’s Championship, Brighton & Hove Albion made the 630-mile round-trip to Teesside to face Middlesbrough.

Boro were third in the table, three points off automatic promotion, though inferior goal difference with Bournemouth meant it was really four points. This circumstance sucked the adrenalin from Boro.

Brighton arrived in the north-east with a similar lack of nervous energy. It’s just their situation that was different. Brighton were five points clear of relegated Millwall, which was some consolation after the worst season of four back in the Championship.

At least there would be no return to League One.


Yet it was an underwhelming end to the season, in part because it had begun so optimistically. Sami Hyypia had been installed, but by December, with the Seagulls sick, Hyypia offered his resignation. Brighton were in the bottom three and had just lost at home to Millwall.

Having reached the Championship playoffs in the previous two seasons, and in a plush new stadium, this was not what the residents of Hove had expected. Supporters had fought long and hard to save the club and there was a wealthy owner in place; they could not face dropping back into the third division.

Brighton required stability and an uplift. They called Chris Hughton. Hughton did what was asked. By the end of February, Brighton were 18th and approaching safety but they would go no higher and it was with relief rather than a sense of anticipation that Brighton stayed up.


Middlesbrough, meanwhile, had gone top of the Championship with two games left by winning 1-0 at rivals Norwich City, recently managed by Chris Hughton. But a fortnight later Bournemouth and Watford had caught up and overtaken them.

So, suspense removed, a 0-0 draw unfolded in front of Middlesbrough’s biggest crowd of the season. In reports the match was described as “uneventful”. Boro, deflated, went to the playoffs, where they lost to Norwich in the final at Wembley; Brighton went home to think again.

One year on, the first Saturday in May brings Brighton back to Teesside. Middlesbrough have nudged themselves up a spot to second – behind promoted Burnley – but Hughton’s team, which is probably what it can be called now, have jumped from 20th to third. In 12 months they have gone from scoring 44 goals to 71; from winning 10 of 46 matches to 24 of 45.

Should they win one more, Brighton will be back in the top flight of English football for the first time since 1983, when Hughton was a Tottenham player and part of an Irish team that lost 3-2 to Holland at Dalymount Park, one of his 53 caps.

Hughton is not a man to shout about himself but if he pulls off promotion for Brighton, he should be mentioned in Ranieri terms when the season is reviewed. Certainly his opposite number at Middlesbrough, Aitor Karanka, thinks so.

“Brighton’s season has been amazing,” said Karanka on Thursday. “Chris Hughton has been the best manager in the league, because last season he arrived in a difficult moment for them. Now they are fighting for promotion. I’m really pleased for him.

“At the beginning I didn’t expect Brighton to be one of our rivals but after one or two months they joined the list.”

Karanka was correct. Brighton were not leaving this race and by mid-December were leading it. Then they ran into a team from the north. Boro won 3-0 and while that was 4½ months ago, it is a memory that offers only one side re-assurance. It was Brighton’s first league defeat of the season.

Those three goals are also part of Boro’s favouritism today. Their superior goal difference of two means that while Brighton need to win to be promoted automatically, Boro can draw and go up.

Throw in home advantage – Boro’s 33,000 capacity was sold out weeks ago – plus a group of players desperate to make up for last year’s playoff final loss and Brighton can expect to be struck by waves of Teesside tenacity on and off the pitch.

There is also politics. Middlesbrough’s wider community has been hit badly by the closure of Redcar steelworks and the club has become a focal point of local pride.

Wider focus

But Brighton have their scale and wider focus too. Their average attendance last season was 6,000 more than Boro’s; there will be 3,000 watching a beamback at their stadium.

And it is less than a year since the Shoreham air disaster. Eleven people were killed on a sunny Saturday like this, an accident that occurred a few hundred yards from Brighton’s training ground.

One of the club's groundsmen, Matt Grimstone, died. "Matt was someone everybody knew," said Hughton. A fan, Jacob Schilt, also died and Brighton marked his death with a giant shirt and wreath before playing Hull last September. Goalkeeper David Stockdale had 'Matt' and 'Jacob' printed on his gloves.

Hughton spoke of the players being “emotionally motivated” and that sentiment has remained.

There will be numbers plucked from mid-air as to how many millions this match is worth but both clubs and both sets of players have other reasons to ensure adrenalin will be conspicuous.

This will be anything but uneventful.