Chris Hughton’s Ghanaian heritage is not widely known in the UK and Ireland, but it is in Africa.
So when he was on holiday with his wife, Cheryl, in the country of his father’s birth earlier this year, his phone started to ping with messages from home.
‘Three days before I arrived the Ghana coach lost his job,’ says Hughton. ‘I was visiting family, just relaxing. But I must have been spotted and a lot of people, particularly in the local media, presumed I was there for the job. It kind of grew and grew.
Chris Hughton (pictured) was appointed as Ghana’s new technical adviser earlier this year
‘They were discussing it on the TV and next thing my grandchildren were sending me stuff they’d seen on social media and asking why I hadn’t told them. I was relaxed about it. I knew it wasn’t true. But then over a period of time that all changed.’
Hughton is talking to Sportsmail as the new technical adviser to the Ghana Football Association. His appointment was confirmed earlier this month and he will travel to Qatar with the squad for this winter’s World Cup. He is now in Africa with the team for two Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers.
‘I do have a relationship with the association simply because of my background and I spoke to them while I was there,’ Hughton says. ‘Would this have happened had I not taken that holiday? Very possibly. Ghana had a difficult AFCON (they finished bottom of their group) in January and wanted to improve quickly as they had a World Cup eliminator almost immediately. But the holiday certainly didn’t do me any harm.’
Hughton stepped in to help out as Ghana beat Nigeria over two legs in late March to qualify for Qatar. There was talk of taking the head coach’s role but instead he will provide support to Otto Addo and his staff.
Ghana secured a place in the World Cup earlier this year after beating Nigeria in the play-offs
‘I will be taking my boots,’ smiles Hughton, before heading to his trip abroad. ‘I was involved against Nigeria but only really watched training. I will be more on the grass this time.
‘Tactics and selection are one thing but there are other issues such as media work.
‘I can help to take some of the pressure off with those things. I will be involved with the coach on tactics and the team we pick but he will have the final say.’
Hughton’s father, Willie, came to England in the 1950s to study but eventually became a postman to provide for a young family.
‘It was a difficult time for black people to come over, whether from Africa or the Caribbean,’ says Hughton. ‘He met my mother, who was Irish, and like most fathers in that era he worked long hours to make sure we had a roof over our heads.
‘I always knew where he was from but it’s not as though we ever went there a lot. We were working class and not the kind of family who had summer holidays.
Otto Addo will manage Ghana in World Cup later this year and will be supported by Hughton
‘But I have always felt the connection to Ghana. So to do this now is incredibly exciting for me.’
Hughton is 63 and looks younger. Having managed successfully at Newcastle, Norwich and Brighton, he was last in work at Nottingham Forest. That spell ended last September but it is his time at Brighton for which he is most recently remembered. Hughton took the Sussex club to the Premier League in 2017 and kept them there for two seasons. Then he was sacked.
‘Anyone who loses a job will tell you it’s a very difficult time, particularly in circumstances like that,’ he says.
‘I haven’t said much since it happened but we are a few years down the road now and the club have moved forward in a good way. They have a very good manager doing a very good job.
‘I didn’t see it coming, though, and that was the biggest disappointment. Those two years in the Premier League, we were never in the bottom three. Do I think I had done the job I was asked to do? The answer is yes.
Hughton got Brighton promoted to the Premier League and kept them there for two seasons before being sacked two years ago
‘But Brighton are now in the fifth season up there and that’s a great platform. I don’t generally give myself time to think of my part in it but there are supporters I meet who will tell me that. That’s nice. It’s a very good club, a well-run club going in the right direction.’
Hughton is the UK’s most successful black manager and his status as a driver for change in the game is one he continues to take seriously.
With this in mind, he has thought hard about the World Cup, Qatar’s poor record on human rights and in particular its treatment of migrant workers.
‘I am very conscious of it,’ he says. ‘There are far more influential people than me involved in this World Cup but everybody has a responsibility to think about how things can improve in Qatar.
‘The World Cup will bring coverage and focus and with that should come change. I am talking about structures and systems put in place to improve conditions.’
Ghana’s World Cup record is respectable. A nation of 31million, they qualified for the World Cup in 2006, 2010 and 2014. In South Africa they lost a quarter-final to Uruguay on a penalty shootout after Luis Suarez punched a goal-bound header off the line in the final minute of extra time. This winter, they have been drawn in Uruguay’s group once more.
Ghana were infamously dumped out of the 2010 World Cup after Luis Suarez handled the ball on the line and Asamoah Gyan (pictured) missed the resulting penalty
‘I didn’t think of that at the time the draw was made but I have since been reminded,’ Hughton smiles.
‘I remember it. It won’t get a mention within the camp but it has been spoken about in Ghana.
‘We are fourth seed in the group but this will be a different World Cup. Players will all have been playing for their clubs. England play eight days after the Premier League stops, for example.
‘So it could be about form or players picking up injuries and things like that. That October period with no friendlies will be very difficult and a nervous time for countries as they hope their players are OK. So we will have to take advantage of anything like that when we can.’
Hughton played 53 times for the Republic of Ireland and was part of Jack Charlton’s squad who reached the last eight of the 1990 World Cup. So he knows the way an underdog nation can be galvanised during a major tournament and does not think it will be that many years before an African nation threatens to win a World Cup.
‘It will happen, no doubt,’ he says. ‘Nations like Senegal have a lot of players at very big clubs. That is helping. How long it will take, I don’t know. But it will happen. There has always been passion and technical ability. Probably what has been lacking is some of the structure and organisation.
Hughton played 53 times for the Republic of Ireland and was part of the squad that reached the last eight of the 1990 World Cup
‘In Ghana I have already been told that when we qualified, the feelgood factor in the country was huge. When you can have that lift and people have a smile on their face then it’s important.’
Ghana won their first AFCON qualifier against Madagascar on Wednesday and play the Central African Republic tomorrow. Hughton is confident he can walk that fine line between helping Addo and also taking a step back when required. Beyond that, he is not finished with club management.
‘Management is a difficult and lonely job but we do it to improve players and teams,’ he says. ‘That is the best part. It makes me proud to see Brighton players I had now in their fifth Premier League season. But you also still must have the hunger and I have. I still want to get back into management.
‘This is exciting, what’s coming up. Hopefully I will emerge a better manager. The exciting part with Ghana is going into the unknown. They have trusted me to do the role how I see it. The question from them was simple: can you help? The answer was very much yes.’