Chris Hughton – He was ultimate apprentice, but Hughton is proving to be a real master

On paper his management career only began in earnest in 2009, but paper will never tell the full story. Chris Hughton has been here before. In fact, he may well be the most experienced third-season coach in England. Scratch that, in the whole of Europe.

For the best part of the past two decades, the former Republic of Ireland international has stalked the sidelines. Fifteen years as a coach with his beloved Tottenham Hotspur included a spell as assistant coach, overlapping with his spell as Brian Kerr’s right-hand man at Lansdowne Road.

He took on a similar role with Newcastle United before finally, mercifully, being handed his first bona-fide managerial role on Tyneside in the summer of 2009.

It all explains, then, why he couldn’t be further removed from some of the other two and three-year rookies up and down the English leagues.

Some managers take decades to develop an aura of respect – made up of  a large helping of confidence, a dash of mystique and a pinch of cuteness – but Hughton has it all bottled up. Try to catch him out and he will shatter your agenda with a polite riposte.

That is exactly what happened last week when a Sky Sports reporter attempted to outwit the 53-year-old. Tasked with getting Hughton, a black manager in the UK, to speak passionately about the ongoing racism saga, the journalist underestimated just how canny the Birmingham City boss is.

Sitting in a small, makeshift press room at the club’s training ground, Hughton quickly, like a seasoned poker player reading his opponent’s next move, figured out what way the interview was going. Rather than get fired up and plunge for the bait, he answered the questions in his way – not sarcastically, but masterfully.

It left the interviewer without his desired newsflash quotes, but still respecting Hughton. And it was a joy to watch.

It’s all part of being a manager for a top English club, of course, and Hughton accepts that. Another would be dealing with a foreign owner, who likes the idea of promotion without supplying the funds to achieve it.

He insists no demands have been placed on him, yet the fact that Birmingham are sitting in the play-off places in the Championship and playing Chelsea tomorrow in the FA Cup fourth round keeps the bar at a dizzying height.

‘When I took the job, the only expectation was to build a team that can try and compete at the right end of the table. In all honesty, they have not set me any expectations,’ Hughton told Sportsmail.

‘What they wanted was a team that was able to compete and put us in with a chance of being in the right end of the table to give us an opportunity to get promotion.

‘But I’m realistic enough to know that things change over a period of time. Perhaps, expectations would have changed from people seeing where we are now.’

Clearly, the reason why Hughton’s name is on the door of the manager’s office at Birmingham traces back to how he guided Newcastle to the Championship title two seasons ago.

Records were broken, books were balanced, promotion was achieved and supporters were pleased. Quite simply, he ticked all of the right boxes. Surely it was a trick that he could repeat again.

However, there are big differences between what he had with Newcastle and his current Blues roster. Even when the January transfer window opened, he was buying the likes of Leon Best rather than losing key players.

‘What is different, if I looked at my best XI there [Newcastle], we had a fairly strong core of players who had been at the club before. We lost a lot of players, but we still had a lot of lads who were part of the squad who went down,’ he said.

‘So what we have done here [at Birmingham] is we have brought in players. Perhaps there is not enough said about the players that we did bring in and too much said about the players who have gone.’

Look for the positives and there are plenty to see. From his bargain buys to philosophy of passing football to still being unbeaten at home, Hughton has given Birmingham the lift they needed following relegation last year.

Of course, there are still issues that he has to ‘work around’, but he is enjoying the job. Honestly, the former Ireland ace is just glad that he is the boss and didn’t go backwards to being an assistant once again.

‘Once you step across that line from being an assistant to a manager, you do it because you want it. From the majority of the cases, those who do it want to remain as managers,’ he said.

‘For some looking from the outside and perhaps looking at some of the financial issues and losing players, they may have though it was a certain way but it is probably no different than any other managerial job.

‘For me, I am delighted to have done it and that is where I see myself. There are many, many changes from being a coach to being a manager. But you have to change because your responsibilities change.’

His personality has not changed and neither has Hughton’s belief that people should strive to improve themselves everyday. It’s something that he preaches to his son, Cian.

Out of work since being released by Lincoln City last summer, Hughton Jr has been training with his father’s team for the past number of weeks. But there will be no short cuts taken. In order to gain the respect of others, one must prove that they deserve it.

Cian doesn’t have to look very far for a perfect example of that.