It’s been an odd season and one where the very purpose of football has been questioned in the light of the restrictions that have been placed on all of our liberties in order to protect public health.
As the Pandemic surged over the winter, football persevered, despite many, including the manager of the ultimately relegated West Bromwich Albion – Sam Allardyce, calling for the season to be halted.
But the season continued, initially amongst a succession of postponements due to Covid outbreaks at various clubs, and this Sunday we now find ourselves at the final round of matches after a season like no other. One that many of us will be glad to see the back of.
For Brighton it’s been an odd season on the pitch too, one that has constantly promised so much improvement, but one that as we go into the final day will most likely be delivering another 15th-17th league position finish.
Let’s not pretend survival is anything other than a success for Albion. But for the first time there is genuine reason to believe, barring a disaster of a summer transfer window, that this Albion team can push on next season. It has so much potential.
For all teams outside the established seven topflight clubs, at the beginning of a new season relegation is a very realistic possibility. But for Albion it feels like loftier ambitions than just surviving are now too a very realistic possibility.
Over the last two seasons, Graham Potter’s management has improved performances at the Albion markedly, but it is yet to achieve a consistent improvement in results and lift the team up the table towards its long term goal of established top half status.
But, whereas in previous seasons we’ve just been grateful to not be in the bottom three, this season that feeling is mixed with an increased frustration not to be higher up the league table.
Most prominently this season leaves me with a feeling of what if and not just because of all the missed goalscoring opportunities that we’ve all ranted and raved about throughout the season, but also because of Albion’s inability to hold onto a lead.
In fact Albion have led in 19 of their 37 games so far this season, but won just 9 times (as many as they won in each of their last three Premier League seasons) and dropped 25 points from winning positions, the most in the Premier League this season. And those matches don’t include a further 9 draws, many of which could have been turned into victories with better finishing. And you can add to that a fair few additional hard luck stories like the last minute winner conceded at home to Palace or the two penalties missed in the 1-0 away defeat to West Brom. I could go on…
And yet amongst the difficulties, Albion are clearly making progress. They currently hold the longest run of any team in the top two divisions without losing a game by more than one goal (28 matches). Manchester City (17) and West Ham (17) are the next nearest Premier League sides to that current streak. Chris Hughton always used to say that at 2-0 down you are still in the game, but at 1-0 you are just a moment of magic away from improving your outcomes and with it your league position.
Yes there are big issues to resolve, but there are far more positives than negatives to take from this season. In particular having a manager in charge of the club of such increasing renown as Graham Potter.
He said recently of Albion’s difficulties in front of goal. “As a coach, my number one business is to try to help the players that we’ve got to improve and that’s always where I’ll look to start. Then, as with everything, we want to try and get better, so we have to think about what we need to do to get better, but firstly it’s about improving the players we have here.”
It’s encouraging to have a manager who puts such faith in his players. This is in contrast to many other Premier League managers who are quick to talk down and criticise their players in search for an excuse to hide behind when things go wrong. This includes Scott Parker of Fulham, who has regularly publicly criticised his players this season. So it should come as no surprise that by the end of it many of them looked like they had completely lost all confidence. In contrast Graham Potter has shown great leadership this season and this has no doubt played a huge part in Albion’s survival.
Pablo Picasso once said “The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.” Football is often an industry focused purely on results rather than the bigger picture. But listening to Graham Potter this season gives me belief that at Albion there is a bigger goal than that, creating a football team that we all can be proud of.
In a year where mental health discussions and awareness have become more prominent. I’ve had my own struggles due to personal problems and for me football has often offered a salvation from the difficulties of everyday life. Something positive to focus on and to help punctuate the gloom.
Life throws up obstacles and challenges, it rarely goes as planned and most of us go out of our way to ensure no one knows we are struggling. Empathy and thoughtfulness for others are priceless qualities that can go a long way. Graham Potter has shown in the way he has carefully and consistently defended his player that he has this in bucketloads.
In football, as in life, when someone wins someone else has to lose. So creating an identity purely around winning is always likely to lead to an identity crisis, as the recent history of clubs like Arsenal show us. An identity crisis heightened by the recent bid to join a breakaway European Super League.
In a society that feels ever more fractured and divided, the global pandemic came at a difficult time and heightened those feelings. And as our communities were closed down we became more isolated and as a society we became increasingly divided. So moments like the return of supporters to the AMEX this week for the game against Man City are so important in rebuilding those communities in a (hopefully) post-pandemic society.
In the days leading up the game I thought it would feel poignant to be at the AMEX again after over a year away, but it was in fact more like pulling on a comfy pair of slippers you’d had stuck at the back of the cupboard over the summer. Throughout the evening I felt a heightened sense of excitement and joy. Even when Albion went 2-0 down and looked to be heading towards certain defeat I couldn’t help but continue to smile.
Being part of a community of fans that brings such joy for something that is in reality quite trivial, is a reminder that together we are all stronger.
Many will depict this season as one of missed opportunities. Both on the pitch for Albion and off the pitch for us supporters who have gone so long without our matchdays. But it has also been an opportunity to assess, and if the match against Man City is anything to go by, I think we will be making the most of things from now on.