Facing into the two (and possibly, three) most important matches of his time as Birmingham City manager, former Republic of Ireland international (and assistant manager); Chris Hughton has refused to rule himself out of the running for the West Brom job which has become vacant this week following the departure of Roy Hodgson.
Hughton was appointed head coach at St. Andrews on 21st June last and targeted an immediate return to the Premier League (rather than advancing in the Europa League having won the League Cup) as the club’s priority for the 2011-’12 season.
The club had been thrown into disarray following the last day (in fact, last minute) relegation at the end of last season. Having lost many of their front line players, including center half linchpins Scott Dann and Roger Johnson, the Blues were thrown further curve balls during the weeks following the end of last season.
Having given manager Alex McLeish a vote of confidence and the club’s board having told the Scot they wanted him to lead their push back to the Premier League, McLeish quit the club by email just a few days later to take over at bitter cross city rivals Aston Villa! All was clearly not right at St. Andrews.
The matter was eventually settled out of court, with Birmingham threatening to sue Villa unless they paid up the remaining £5.4million on McLeish’s contract. It was hardly ideal circumstances for Hughton to join the club.
Barely a week after Hughton’s appointment as first team manager, Birmingham owner Carson Yeung was arrested in Hong Kong on charges of money laundering, relating to a period before his involvement with the club. He was bailed to re-appear in August, his assets were frozen, and the Hong Kong Stock Exchange suspended trading of shares in the club’s holding company, Birmingham International Holdings Limited (BIHL), in which Yeung was the single largest shareholder with around 26%.
There was at that stage real doubt as to whether the club had a future, but they managed to find a sponsor for one year (Rational FX) which gave the club some crucial finances.
Forced to sell so as to secure further vital funds, Hughton’s Birmingham started the 2011-’12 season without the services of Cameron Jerome, Barry Ferguson, and Liam Ridgewell who all moved on to Premier League clubs.
After such a trying close season, Birmingham could have been forgiven for struggling early on and they slipped to 17th in the table after seven games having collected just eight points. The club recovered well however and through Hughton’s guidance – as well as some top notch wheeling and dealing in the transfer market – the Blues went on a run of six wins from eight games mid season and reached a peak of third in the table.
The club’s consistency throughout the season was excellent, losing two games in a row only once all season, and though the club slipped to fourth following four consecutive draws in their last five games of the season, they were good value for their play-off spot, and possibly crucially, a home game for the second leg.
Hughton comes across the effervescent Ian Holloway’s Blackpool in the play-off semi-final first leg on Friday night, with both men, in all fairness deserving of promotion to the Premier League, and certainly deserving of being Premier League managers, such is the financial restraints and difficult circumstances both men have managed under.
Hughton’s Irishness, dedication to the Irish cause (his brother Harry and son Cian have played for Ireland at underage level despite being born in England) and decency of character (though Holloway also of course appears to be a decent character) swings it for me however and this observer hopes Hughton makes it back to the Premier League. There is the possibility that West Ham born Chris will want away from all the hassle at Birmingham however and his being linked to local rivals West Brom is likely more than mere paper talk.