Joe Gallagher spent nearly a decade as the man who held Birmingham City’s defence together and with the experience of nearly 300 games doing just that he can spot a fellow linchpin when he sees one. And in Chris Hughton he believes Blues had the best.
The former England B international, who was made captain at St Andrew’s when he was just 19-years-old, has spoken of his sadness at Hughton’s decision to move to Norwich City and believes that Birmingham have already missed out on their No.1 objective of the summer, keeping Hughton at the club.
And while he doesn’t blame the ex-Newcastle boss for wanting to return to the Premier League, Gallagher is unequivocal about that fact.
“Coming to the end of the season, whoever I spoke to at work or at the football club agreed,” he said the 57-year-old, “If Birmingham could keep hold of Chris Hughton they had got a chance of getting out of the division,”
“I didn’t care what players came in or went out, even if the likes of Nathan Redmond, Chris Burke, Ben Foster left, the one person Birmingham City could not afford to lose was their manager.
“And for the earlier part of the close season, when I saw one or two other managers moving about I was thinking ‘That is good,’ because there had not been a lot about Chris Hughton in the papers. I was really hoping everyone else would go about their business and leave Chris alone. But sadly, because he is such a fantastic manager things were going to happen and I am really disappointed and saddened that the supporters have lost a potentially great manager.”
There was something of the Moneyball approach to Hughton’s work, the ability to spot a talent others had missed and identify how best to fit that into his system.
The details might not have been as convoluted as the extensive statistical analysis of a player’s potential employed by the legendary baseball coach Billy Beane to make the financially disadvantaged Oakland As great, but the theme is consistent. Undervalued players brought in to add value.
As Alex McLeish’s Carling Cup squad broke up men like Steven Caldwell and Jonathan Spector were brought in on free transfers and played more than 70 Championship games between them.
One shouldn’t overplay the impoverished card, Birmingham still had a £16 million parachute payment after relegation from the Premier League and their wage bill would have eaten into a large chunk of that, but Hughton still had to overcome the departure of around ten important players.
It was a quality that did not go unnoticed and while Blues benefitted from it while Hughton was there, it also made him attractive to other clubs.
“Chris made a good team out of players who came in for very little fees, players that other clubs had discarded and he made them into good players and made people sit up and watch,” Gallagher says.
“Ordinary players were operating as a fantastic unit and if I was any owner in the Football League there would have been one manager I would have broken the bank for and that would have been Chris Hughton.
“He is not going to spend millions and millions, he is not going to blame other things like the pitch, the injuries, too many games. He did not complain about anything he just got on with the job.
“All these good players, the likes of Chris Burke, Redmond, Jordan Mutch would never have made Birmingham City a great team but Chris Hughton could have made Birmingham great again.
“It was plain to see for everybody watching the games that they all worked very hard, whether for Chris Hughton or just for themselves it doesn’t matter, but Chris had them working hard as a unit, a good back four, a solid midfield although they were perhaps a little light up front. I am so sorry for the fans they have lost a, very good manager”