This interview originally appeared in UCFB’s Future Sport magazine, which can be read in full here.

Chris Hughton has been breaking through barriers all his career, becoming the first mixed-race player to represent the Republic of Ireland in 1979, and currently leading the way for black and minority ethnic coaches in British football. Hughton met with Future Sport to discuss inclusivity in the game and advise students on pathways into the football industry...

When Tony Collins was appointed manager of Rochdale Town in 1960, little did he know that he would still be part of a small minority almost a quarter of the way through the twenty-first century. 

As the first black manager in English football, his appointment should have been a watershed moment in British culture, let alone sport. Racial discrimination from the stands and on the pitch witnessed in subsequent decades suggests the moment passed by silently in the night.

Since Collins was hired by Rochdale nearly 60 years ago, only 34 other black and minority ethnic (BAME) coaches have managed in one of England’s four professional leagues. Just 60 BAME appointments have been made overall during that time.

YouTube video

As the most prominent BAME coach currently working in English football, Chris Hughton is well placed to assess the landscape. “There is no doubt that there is a lack of managerial and executive positions in the game for black and minority coaches,” the Brighton & Hove Albion manager said. “The stakeholders in our game have a real responsibility to redress the balance and to make those pathways easier and more comfortable.”

There are currently six BAME first team managers across England’s 92 professional managerial positions – accounting for 6.5%. In the Premier League’s 26-year history, just 2.7% of permanent coaches have been from a minority ethnic background. When compared to the number of BAME players who were in the Premier League at the start of the 2017/18 season – 33% - the numbers backup Hughton’s analysis. 

He adds: “We certainly want to see inclusion in our game. I think that’s a responsibility that we all have but at the moment those are the facts. Certainly for any black and minority respective coaches and people that want to get into the game, it’s dealing with those facts.”

Football authorities certainly now appear to be working to improve these figures. In August 2018, The Football Association and the Professional Footballer’s Association launched In Pursuit of Progress – a three-year equality, diversity and inclusion plan, which will ensure every available coaching role across the English set-up has at least one BAME candidate interviewed for the post. Qualified minority ethnic coaches in the game will also assist the likes of Gareth Southgate on England duty.

Except for a couple of caretaker positions, it took over 20 years as a coach for Hughton to get his first job as the leader in the dugout. Despite working with 11 different managers during his time on the coaching staff at Tottenham Hotspur – following a 13-year playing career at White Hart Lane – it wasn’t until he joined Newcastle United in 2008 that his chance came. After first deputising for Kevin Keegan, Joe Kinnear and then Alan Shearer, Hughton was finally given the manager’s job permanently three months into the 2009/10 season after guiding the club to the top of the Championship as caretaker manager. 

Many would have given up hope of getting that elusive job, but Hughton is more determined than most. His will to succeed is a shining example in the ongoing struggle to redress the inequality in the game and help new coaches overcome the barriers faced by previous generations.

“[You need] to see through those hurdles,” he tells us. “If you feel that you’ve got to try harder then that’s a course and a pathway that you’ve got to take. Don’t be put off by what the statistics are.”

Hughton added: “Don’t be put off by the negativities in our game. You have to show that thirst for knowledge, that enthusiasm and want to succeed and work as hard as possible.”

As if ethnicity wasn’t a big enough challenge for managers like Hughton, the job itself is famously short-lived. Having a will to succeed is one thing, but being resilient is another. In what is now a regular feature of life at St James’s Park, Hughton was ruthlessly sacked in December 2010 just four months after returning the club to the Premier League at the first time of asking. His impressive win ratio in the North East stands at over 55%.

Hughton found himself part of the managerial merry-go-round just a year after landing his first full-time managerial job. Unsurprisingly, the former Republic of Ireland international dealt with it with the kind of class and clarity we’ve come to expect from the FA Cup winning full back. Hughton says: “Setbacks are part and parcel of the game and there isn’t one top manager that hasn’t had to go through setbacks or lost their job.”

True to character, Hughton adds: “It’s a massive part of the game. It’s important that you try to keep on an even keel as much as possible, which means that you try not to get too down when things aren’t going well and don’t get too excited when things are going well.”

Following a year at Birmingham City, where Hughton took the club to the Championship play-offs, the Premier League came calling again when Norwich City approached the Midlands club. Premier League safety was the aim and was achieved in his first season at Carrow Road. A difficult second season saw Hughton leave the club in seventeenth place.

It was another eight months before Hughton was back in the dugout on the south coast after being appointed Brighton’s new boss on New Year’s Eve 2014. The club was set up for the Premier League with a shining new 30,000 capacity Amex Stadium on the edge of the seaside town; and the category one training centre in Lancing is the envy of many Champions League clubs. Gus Poyet and Oscar Garcia led the club to the play-off semi-finals in previous seasons, but it was Hughton who took the club over the line.

The Seagulls experienced play-off heartbreak once again during his first full season at the club. But the signs in Sussex were obvious to all – it was just a matter of when, not if, they’d reach the Premier League for the first time. The players had bought into Hughton’s style, his staff, their experience and their methods. The culture at the club had shifted. But how?

“The best culture that you can ever get is the culture where the expectation from the players themselves is of a high level,” Hughton says. “I think you can only have that when the training sessions that you do have a high demand from the players and that they have a consistency day in and day out.”

Hughton has no doubt that it’s easier when a dressing room is on-board and things are going well. But he’s spent his entire career trying to harness and cultivate this type of environment. It doesn’t just happen overnight. “If you can try and encourage that type of culture, then it’s consistent whether you’re going through a good or bad phase”, he adds. “When you can create that culture then I think you have a really good formula.”

Brighton’s survival in the Premier League after their first season came with relative ease, not to mention famous home wins over Arsenal and Manchester United. Hughton also became the first black recipient of the top flight’s Manager of the Month award in February 2018. Quiet, determined, humble. Hughton, much like Collins, is a role model, and his influence on the game goes much further than his job as a Premier League manager.