In sport, expectations of success and failure are constantly being discussed, something that is especially true of the globally followed and scrutinised English Premier League. But whilst some disagree over their veracity, the expectations held over a Premier League club are a good barometer of its perceived standing.
The dictionary definition of an expectation is “a strong belief that something will happen or be the case in the future”. Or in layman’s terms in this context a “preconception” or “anticipation” of a club’s future performance.
The expectations ahead of Brighton’s season were vastly contrasting depending on who you listened to. Many pundits predicted the club to be relegated and some bookies tipped newly appointed Graham Potter to be the first Premier League manager to be sacked. Whilst some of the more optimistic Albion fans were talking of new dawn of free-flowing attacking football, and even qualifying for Europe.
Neither of these are necessarily exemplify the club’s genuine status, but both are a consequence of the perceptions many have of the club from recent events. Speak to some about the club, and they’ll say it’s one that has no business being at the top level, whilst others will say the only reason the club aren’t matching the loftier achievements of clubs like Leicester and Bournemouth is because of failures in the first team management last season.
The reality, as ever, is somewhere in between. But either way it is true to say that expectations of the club have never been higher. The combination of consistent levels of smart investment by owner Tony Bloom, unprecedented levels of success across all teams representing the club and a board of directors that hold a seemingly unwavering ambition to succeed and progress in a hugely competitive industry, have all created an environment where the club’s supporters have begun to expect continuous progression. Even when many outside the club think the only realistic expectation is the opposite and a regression to the club’s previously lowlier status.
This is a level of expectation that ultimately told for former men’s first team manager Chris Hughton. Who was subsequently sacked just hours after the season ended despite continuing to meet what many saw as the club’s ultimate objective of last season, surviving relegation. Expectations that despite his successor overseeing two impressive 3-0 victories in his first ten competitive matches, have led for some to suggested that the jury is still out on whether Graham Potter is the man to lead the club forward.
Hughton’s sacking and Potter’s subsequent appointment is a topic I’ve discussed here before, more than once. But what is relevant here is that the expectations held are guided by perceptions of events and not just the events themselves.
Whilst on paper Hughton’s achievements were great, possibly the best any manager has ever achieved at the club, they were often not easy on the eye. His defence-first mindset was pragmatic and unarguably successful. And it built a base that without it, the club wouldn’t be now aiming as high as it is. But nonetheless it left many supporters uninspired and craving more.
Hence why now the club has chosen to twist and go down a different route. A route intended to arrive at achieving a more entertaining spectacle as well as improved results. And we’re already seeing evidence of it. Pretty much any statistic or piece of informed punditry you can find demonstrates the drastic change in style of play since last season, and whilst the points total after eight league games this season (9), is only marginally ahead at this stage last season (8). The nature of the expansive style of play in contrast to Hughton’s pragmatic and conservative style has caught many Albion fans imagination.
But, how does the club manage the situation to ensure the euphoria of exciting football and significant, if sparsely populated victories don’t create an unrealistic level of expectation?
This is tough, especially as so much of the perception of the club is drawn from factors outside their control or incidents from the past. And managing expectations isn’t as simple as shaping or manipulating the truth, but instead ensure the perceptions of your performance are based on realistic boundaries.
Perceptions over football managers success or failure are often shaped by the circumstances they work within that are out of their control. Circumstances which will inevitably create biases towards a certain mindset.
As Andy Naylor said in the Athletic recently: “For all the importance placed on a change of style, Brighton’s Premier League success or failure will come down to something much more straightforward: scoring goals.” As much as Graham Potter tries to create an environment where the team will score more goals, he is reliant on others to do their jobs properly for this to be successful.
At Brighton, the success of not only the men’s team, but also the women’s team and its youth academy team’s has created a positive atmosphere and a bias towards expecting continued success, despite the increased level of competition that comes with playing at a higher level.
When managing expectations a key rule is: never overcommit. An area which if not explicitly, but at least implicitly Brighton have certainly been unafraid of risking doing just that of late. Not only in sacking Chris Hughton and in his place appointing a manger tasked with bringing in a more expansive ambitious style of play whilst achieving better results on the pitch, but also by stating that the club’s long-term aim is to become a top half club.
In football, one stakeholders’ expectations that truly matters is the supporters, and as a club with a fan as an owner this is no truer than anywhere as it as at Brighton and Hove Albion.
As a supporter of a club like Brighton, holding our club to high standards is a virtue of the recent and almost unprecedented levels of success. And it’s a virtue constantly evident in an industry of great flux where there must always be both winners and losers.
The contrasts of which are demonstrated perfectly by the recent fortunes of crisis club and once holder of the Premier League’s “model-club” tag: Bolton Wanderers. What stories like theirs show is just as having high expectations of our club is a virtue, so is lowering those standards by showing the situation the empathy it deserves and being willing to demonstrate forgiveness when your team is inevitably at times cast as a loser rather than a winner.
In practice expectations, and possibly more pertinently hope, is a natural consequence of supporting a football team. But the level of expectations that a group of supporters have and the pragmatism of those expectations, can have an impact on the mental state of the team. And in a sport decided by such small margins, this could be a key factor in Brighton’s Premier League season.
As Graham Potter approached the North Stand after that memorable 3-0 victory at home to last season’s European Cup finalists Tottenham Hotspur, the sound of “Graham Potter’s Blue and White Army” was sung throughout the stadium. A clear sign he is currently meeting the expectations of most. Time will tell if the reality of this seasons achievements by his Albion team can continue to keep up with the ever-growing expectations that are being set of them.