Respect for Norwich City’s ‘nice guy’ Chris Hughton says all you need to know
There’s been a theme running through the season so far which has gone largely unnoticed.
It’s not John Ruddy’s constant improvement to become one of the best keepers in the league. It isn’t the way our foreign imports Sebastien Bassong, Javier Garrido and Alex Tettey have brilliantly settled into their new surroundings. And it’s not even Grant Holt’s continued ability to wind up opposition players and fans alike with his barnstorming, but effective, style of play.
While all of these are true, what I’m talking about is the level of admiration our manager Chris Hughton is receiving from fans, managers and players alike.
We’re just 10 matches in and already his name has been sung by supporters of no less than three teams – us, Spurs and Newcastle.
Also, it seems barely a week goes by without a member of the opposition praising him to the rafters. Take last week, not only did Stoke boss Tony Pulis talk up Team Hughton, he described the City boss as “a good manager and a good man”.
He then went on to give him a bear hug Yogi would have been proud of prior to kick-off.
And days earlier, Tottenham number two Steffen Freund told how he will never forget the way Hughton helped him to settle at the club in 1998. He said: “It is difficult to remember which words he taught me. Of course all the bad words! I got a teacher. But I really appreciate him because he also helped me settle in.”
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Of course managers praising their opposition number isn’t a particularly rare phenomenon.
Sometimes you can tell it’s genuine, other times it’s begrudging and there are occasions it’s probably nothing more than mind games.
But with Hughton you get the impression the praise isn’t simply granted because of his time and success within the game – it’s also because he’s a pretty decent, intelligent and nice bloke.
The evidence doesn’t stop there. Trawl through previous articles on Hughton and journalists will often refer back to his ‘socialist past’, which comes from the fact he wrote a column for the Workers’ Revolutionary Party publication News Line in the 1970s.
And while the man himself has been quick to deny this was anything political, he has admitted holding strong beliefs that your average man on the street should be able to benefit from a state-provided ‘strong health system and a strong education system’. Pretty decent then.
Meanwhile, in the 1980s he received a United Nations citation for refusing to visit South Africa during the Apartheid regime.
And he is also known to be a big exponent of the Kick It Out anti-racism campaign and again a quick trawl on the web shows he’s not afraid to give up his time to talk about his past experiences.
Of course it seems unlikely that Hughton has got as far as he has within the game without being able to dish out the odd rollicking where it is needed. And there are some who would aspire to the argument that ‘nice guys finish last’ and it isn’t the job of a manager of people to be ‘decent and genuine’.
And of course taking the tough line does work for many managers – Sir Alex Ferguson for one.
But there can be clear benefits from being the polar opposite, as spelled out by Danish striker Peter Lovenkrands, who said in an interview he was under no pressure to play or train for Hughton’s Newcastle following the death of his father.
He added: “His understanding of that was absolutely second to none. That meant a lot to me. That made me want to play for him, even though it was through tough times.”
So if we agree that both nice guys and nasty ones can succeed in the game, does it really matter to fans which type manages their club? Ultimately no supporter is going to grumble if their team is tasting success – but they don’t like their manager ‘as a person’.
But when you know the manager is an all-round decent person it doesn’t half make you enjoy any success a little bit more.
• Let’s hope for as dramatic a match at Reading on Saturday as last time we locked horns at the Madejski. Remember that 3-3 draw where young referee Michael Oliver controversially sent off Grant Holt in the first half with City 3-1 up? As entertaining at least, but with a better outcome. Win and Hughton will go into the Manchester United game on the same total Norwich had at 11 games last term – the difference being a quarter-final placing. Surely that would be enough to quell any lingering Hughton doubters – for now at least?
• For years I’ve been banging on about my wish to see a decent Norwich City cup run – and at last one has come along. As far as I’m concerned for a club like Norwich it can be a good way to keep the fans interested and engaged, and from getting bored with league competition. Ask Stoke fans, who enjoyed an FA Cup run in 2010/11 followed by a sojourn in the Uefa Cup the season after. The joy it can bring was proven in those brilliant minutes last Wednesday - among even the memorable recent seasons. I just wish more people had been there to enjoy it.
• A real deviation from the norm in recent games is how much of City’s play is going down the flanks. Against Stoke 32 crosses were created by the Canaries, compared to 23 by the visitors. At Villa it was 37, compared to their 11. Our highest total prior to this was 22 at Fulham. And it’s clear good crossing works for us. Both goals in the last two league games came from crosses, as did the two against Spurs in the League Cup. We need to work on execution though – successful crosses (how may landed on a City head or foot) was just 12 out of 69.
• An interesting question put to me by Chris Lakey, our esteemed head of sport: Is Wes Hoolahan currently playing the best football of his time at Norwich? When you consider how integral ‘Wessi’ was to our last three seasons that’s a pretty high standard to achieve, but I guess the answer has to be yes. What is interesting is how few managers are happy to accommodate him during their early stages of having him as a player. Glenn Roeder, Paul Lambert and Chris Hughton (not forgetting Ireland bosses) have all taken time to warm to him as a regular.