Clapping not clap banners should mark Chris Hughton’s Carrow Road return to Norwich City
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
Chris Hughton left Carrow Road in a hail of clap banners. He returns as a Premier League manager.
If anything perfectly illustrates the madness of English football it is Hughton's revival on the south-coast at Brighton.
The hugely likeable yet defensively cautious manager of Norwich, circa 2012 to 2014, has guided the Seagulls to the brink of the Championship title on a torrent of attacking intent.
Anthony Knockaert has been the stand out performer in the second tier this campaign; a whirling dervish of a wide player with the technique and potency to punish Football League rivals. Hughton recruited the 25-year-old wide player from Standard Liege in January 2016. He has been rewarded this campaign with 15 goals and numerous assists.
City felt the full force on the south-coast in October. That 5-0 pummelling unleashed waves of negativity around Norwich's receding promotion hopes, fanned by Brighton boy Russell Martin's brutally honest post-match verdict.
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Subsequent events demonstrated it was not a one-off. Brighton had the template to emerge through a Championship minefield. Norwich simply had too many deficiencies to maintain early season progress.
Whether Knockaert, Glenn Murray and Steve Sidwell will be good enough in the top flight is a debate for another week. Right now they deserve every plaudit going for recovering from the brutality of missing out on automatic promotion on the final day of last season and then slipping up in the play-offs.
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Hughton has restored his managerial reputation after struggling to build on a mid-table Premier League finish at Norwich, having initially accepted a tough gig to follow Paul Lambert at Carrow Road. Hughton's task in these parts was to broker a degree of re-invention, add a dash or three of rejuvenation to a playing squad which had punched well above their collective weight. A heightened sense of expectation, fuelled in part by lavish transfer outlays on internationals like Ricky van Wolfswinkel and Leroy Fer, placed extra stress on Hughton. The vastly-experienced coach erred too often on the side of caution, was too willing to praise the respective strengths of Premier League opponents, and too quick to underline City's modest place in the football pecking order.
That is what inexorably led to a bitter April afternoon in 2014, when West Brom prevailed at Carrow Road to shunt Hughton's squad ever closer to the Football League. The bemused look on Pepe Mel's face at the final whistle as those clap banners rained down in pure frustration around the technical area was one of the abiding images of a sad exit for an honourable man.
Hughton took his medicine and bided his time. Norwich returned to the big league quicker than their former manager but, again, were unable to sustain the meteoric progress of Alex Neil's early months. To slip back once more last season perhaps illustrates how tough a managerial job it will always be to attain sustainability for City's co-operative financial model.
Hughton's latest feat proves he is an astute operator in the Football League, after matching his previous achievements at Newcastle United.
To add the title with a win at Carrow Road on Friday, and deny the big-spending Magpies top spot in the process, would be another delicious irony. Hughton's stock is on the rise again, his methods and his man-management feted. There is talk of affording him the freedom of the city of Brighton. That sour ending to his time with the Canaries has receded for the majority of those beyond the borders of Norfolk.
Hughton deserves to be praised not vilified on his first competitive return to Carrow Road. You would expect nothing less from a fan base who would wish no ill will towards a man who commands huge respect within the game. The rise and fall of Neil underlines there is a shelf life to working in the most precarious parts of the football industry. Hughton and Norwich was a marriage that should have been dissolved much quicker. But that is the past.
Those now in control of Norwich's destiny would do well to study the Seagulls' model; a magnificent stadium and world class training complex are a testament to the huge investment of owner Tony Bloom but also Hughton's measured, incremental approach to building a football club. City may not have access to similar revenue streams - irrespective of one more injection of parachute money to come - but the strategic planning and the attention to detail are within the remit of Stuart Webber and the club's board.