The end of an era of disappointment and the beginning of an era of Poyet

As the Albion approach another trip to St Mary’s, for those who have memory of it, it’s hard not to cast your mind back to what is at the time of writing Albion’s only win there on 15 November 2009. A night when in Gus Poyet’s first game in charge of the Albion, they ran out 3-1 winners in a victory so memorable the third goal is still played in the game opening montage at the AMEX. But to put into context why this win which began the Poyet era is so fondly remembered, we need to go back to the beginning of the previous 2008/09 season.

The summer of 2008 followed a season of promise but one ultimately of disappointment. After missing out on the playoffs, manager Dean Wilkins was sacked. Then chairman Dick Knight subsequently appointed Micky Adams as manager, bringing him back to the club seven years after leaving the side he’d built and led to win the division three title (and one that would go on to win the division two title after he left to join Premier League Leicester City). Appointing a man loved by the Albion fans meant the team began the 2008/09 season with hope of promotion back to the second tier, but one which was in-fact a season of struggle and heartache.

Micky Adams returned to the club with a buzz and a spring in his step, incredibly excited about the season ahead: “I’m delighted to be back. It’s a smashing place with good people and I’m looking forward to the opportunity.” Whilst the season started with promise as the Albion picked up 7 points from the first three games, the buzz quickly faded as the team then didn’t win a game in the next ten. This was a run that showed the flaws of Adams as a manager, with even the most devoted unable to “keep the faith”. Whilst there were high points that season, notably knocking out Man City in the League cup on penalties, most will remember with horror the 1-0 home defeat to a nine-man Walsall team that preceded it.

To sum up the Adams sequel was a disaster, and when he finally left the club by “mutual consent” in March the club was sat in the relegation zone, far from being in promotion contention as was planned in the summer. In a surprise response from the club (and one which left many feeling underwhelmed after failing to appoint first choice target Stockport manager Jim Gannon) the Albion appointed former Yeovil manager Russell Slade as his replacement. However, what was to follow was a truly great escape, picking up 13 points from a possible 15 in the last five games of the season. This run included a memorable 2-1 win away at Bristol Rovers on a Tuesday night. A game the Albion won despite going behind to a goal from soon to be England international Rickie Lambert, and one that saw them move out the relegation zone with two games of the season to go.

As a university student living in Bristol at the time and against any real logic or reason, I spent much of that season travelling back to as many home games as my student loan and part-time job could stretch to. So, for me and the other 700 Albion fans there, this night felt like some form of payback for all those horrible home defeats. As well as the already mentioned 1-0 defeat to nine-man Walsall, 4-1 to Scunthorpe and 4-0 to Crewe both spring to mind but there were plenty more. Therefore, the celebrations on the terraces that night in the suburbs of Bristol were wild, much out of relief than anything else and I remember little of the celebrations that followed in Bristol City Centre later that night aside from singing Gary Hart name, a lot! Brighton then secured safety with a 1-0 win at home to Stockport on the final day, cue another memorable Withdean pitch invasion. A highlight of which was the sight of manager Russell Slade being lifted aloft on the pitch by Albion fans at the end of the game, I don’t think he ever got his cap back.

In contrast to the Albion’s subsequent rise, opponents Stockport County went into administration just before the end of the 08/09 season and went on a downwards curve from that point on. An Albion target only a few months prior, Jim Gannon was made redundant and after three relegations the club now find themselves playing in the semi-professional National league north, the sixth tier of English football, with Jim Gannon back in charge. Football eh.

A couple of weeks after the end the season an event occurred that would shape the history of the clubs short to medium term future, when Tony Bloom took over as chairman from Dick Knight and took majority control of the club. In doing so he secured the funding for the club’s new stadium at Falmer and what has followed since has been an ever-increasing investment in the club from Bloom coupled with ever-increasing improvement on the pitch.

That summer a spending spree followed as Bloom got his cheque book out to give Russell Slade the money to build on the impressive survival of the previous season. But once again after a summer of optimistic talk of promotion the club found itself at the wrong end of the table competing with a Southampton side faced with a 10-point deduction due to going into administration. Whilst Elliott Bennett turned out to be a great signing, Liam Dickinson and the on-loan Forest duo Matt Thornhill and Aaron Davies were less successful. The club also failed to renew the signing of the talismanic striker Lloyd Owusu who had been so key to survival the previous season and others who had thrived in that period found their form declined, such as Albion legend Gary Hart.

After the underwhelming start to season and with the club still scarred from the horrors of the season before, Slade was sacked in November. This was Tony Bloom first sacking as Chairman and proof he had the ruthlessness required for the job. Whilst in hindsight it looks a clear and obvious decision to make now, many of the Albion faithful wanted to show loyalty to Slade after the heroics of the previous season. This was a ruthlessness that it could be said former chairman Dick Knight lacked in his final season, giving Micky Adams enough time to disprove the faith shown in him ten times over. Bloom said on sacking Slade: “Russell is a good man, which made it an even harder decision to take, but it is one which has been made in the club’s best interests.”

After Steve Coppell ruled himelf out of a return to the Withdean, in his place Bloom appointed Gus Poyet. Gus was a man who unlike Slade and Adams had no managerial experience to fall on despite his high profile reputation in England from his playing days. As a result of his profile and outspoken nature, Gus was a man who attracted headlines in the national press for good and for bad from the moment he was appointed to the moment he left the club somewhat in disgrace. That day at St Mary’s in mid-November started his Albion career with a bang and there were plenty more to come.

So, going into the game at St Mary’s the Albion were once again down the wrong end of the table, sitting just above the relegation zone with only 14 points from their opening 15 games. They were however above opponents Southampton by two points on account of the previously mentioned points deduction Southampton had received. The relatively close league positions meant this was a big game for both sides, with the loser set to be sitting in the relegation zone at the end of the game.

With the game live on Sky Sports it meant the Albion were introduced to the majesty of what a Gus Poyet led Albion side could achieve in front of the whole country. And for those not at the game as it was an international break it was also watched with the backdrop of the iconic commentary sounds of Martin Tyler. The team did so whilst wearing the wonderfully awful yellow and navy striped away kit, a shirt I still wear to the gym with a distorted level of joy. This was a kit that the Albion had used a lot the previous season as it’s second kit and was now getting a rare outing the following season whilst being used as a third kit.

The game started well for the Albion after current-day man of the moment Glenn Murray turned in a first time cross from Dean Cox. Murray then scored a second minutes later, where after a nice one-two with Nicky Forster, he turned the ball home after initially hitting the post. Murray had missed much of the previous season with a hernia injury and when he did play often did so clearly not being fully fit. Nonetheless he impressively still managed to score 12 goals in a struggling side. This season he would play more regularly, but only better his goal total by two, often at this point gaining some rightly made criticism about his work-rate and discipline.

These frustrations mostly arose from the fact he was clearly the most talented player in the team but often didn’t show it. Russell Slade comments showed he agreed with that thinking. At the beginning of the 2009/10 season he called Murray the “best striker outside the Championship”, but then in October publicly criticised Murray for a sending off in a home defeat to Tranmere stating it cost the team the chance of a comeback. The following season the Albion would consistently see the best of Murray, top scoring with 22 goals as the Albion won League one in its final season at the Withdean.

Just before the end of the first half Southampton pulled a goal back through a penalty from a veteran of last season’s win for the Albion at Bristol Rovers, Rickie Lambert. The penalty was given after another future England international Adam Lallana was brought down by the prior season’s player of the season Andy Whing. He was a player who caught the heart of the fans playing at right-back and was the antithesis of the generally accepted perception a young Glenn Murray. Despite Whing’s limited skill and talent he made up for it with his commitment and hard-work. Whing was a typical lower league fan’s favourite and after a successful season personally signed an extended contract with the Albion amid reported interest from Leeds United.

Whilst this moment in the game was overshadowed by the brilliance of the Albion performance, it signalled the end of Whing’s time with the Albion. As Poyet imprinted his expansive possession-based approach on the team, Whing’s limitations were exposed. He made only two more league starts for the Albion, both in three goal defeats to Leeds and Norwich respectively, and in both of which he was substituted before the end of the game. Whing ultimately lost his place in the team to Arsenal youngster Gavin Hoyte, a man originally brought in as his back-up. He initially left on loan to Chesterfield and then moved to Leyton Orient the following October, initially again on loan but subsequently permanently, linking up again with former his Albion boss Russell Slade.

Then came the moment in the game still played on the screens at the AMEX to this day. Gary Dicker received the ball midway inside the Southampton half and played the ball to the already infamous Liam Dickinson. In one of Dickinson’s few high points playing for the Albion he received the ball out wide, beat the full-back and squared the ball to Andrew Crofts on the edge of the box who turned it home. Despite the pass ending up slightly ahead of him, Crofts stretched out his right foot and turned the ball home to finish off Southampton.

Whilst that Southampton team contained several players who would go on to achieve better things, a notable face to Albion fans playing for the Saints that day was former Albion captain Dean Hammond. Despite playing for the Albion over a hundred times after graduating from the club’s centre of excellence, he was often a maligned figure and was only fully appreciated at the club when he returned on loan for the 2012/13 season after going on to achieve consecutive promotions with Southampton. Hammond clearly surpasses his reputation in Sussex, underlined by praise I remember him receiving in a piece of Match of the Day analysis from Alan Shearer two year later. This was received as he featured regularly in a Leicester side that would remarkably beat the drop before losing his place in the side as the club went on to win the league the following season.

Over the course of the season Poyet made his mark on the club on and off the pitch. There was a large turnaround of players, with only three of those that started that night at St Mary’s starting the first game of the following season. In successfully implementing his vision Poyet led the club to promotion to the Championship after just over a season and a half since joining and only two seasons after the club was close to facing the possibility of trips to Morecambe and Accrington in the bottom tier of the football league.

The two seasons with Poyet as manager at the AMEX that followed is one of the most exciting times I remember as an Albion fan. With the club playing self-professed “F’ing brilliant” football and with the new stadium finally opened, that team created some memories many Albion fans will hold dear for many years. Having seen the club struggle in the league below in a converted athletics stadium only two seasons before, the way fortunes quickly turned around was a testament to Poyet’s quality as a coach and a tactician.

That said Poyet wasn’t the perfect manager, as he often said himself, its complicated. His time at the club was often tainted by his sometimes-absurd media outbursts and his relationship with the board of directors was often strained by his constant criticism of the club’s transfer policy and threats that he would leave if he felt the club had “reached its ceiling”. This rollercoaster ride culminated in a fittingly chaotic climax which began with the play-off semi-final defeat to rival Crystal Palace. After the game Poyet made several comments suggesting he might resign and with the ultimately unrelated story of human faeces being found in the away dressing room at the AMEX hanging over the club like a bad smell, Poyet was initially suspended and later sacked for allegations of Gross Misconduct.

Whilst Poyet has gone on to have a mixed record in management since, his time at the Albion still stands out as a remarkable period of work in his career. Whilst he was far from perfect, we should remember that he inherited a poor side and despite this he quickly improved the club’s fortunes remarkably.  Whilst much of this was whilst riding the crest of a Tony Bloom/new stadium wave, to take a club from the brink of the bottom tier of the football league to the brink of the top tier is some achievement.

To fully appreciate how good Poyet was as manager for the Albion amongst all the tiresome chaos that came with him, we must first take into account the tiresome chaos at the club that proceeded him. Whilst as the saying goes, the grass is always greener on the other side, with Poyet the grass was always green and that night at St Mary’s demonstrated that as much as any game.

Brighton’s Women’s team – aspiration and inspiration

With the Brighton starting their first season in the revamped WSL 1 it felt like a good time to write my first blog about the Albion’s Women team.

The story begins in the 1960’s; in those days Brighton was represented in Women’s football by Brighton GPO, a team formed by several workers from the local post office’s telephone exchange. There was no Albion Women’s team then as the state of play in Women’s football was very different. Men’s teams weren’t involved in women’s football due a ban on women’s football taking place at football league grounds that had existed since 1921. And it wasn’t until the formation of an independent body the Women’s FA in 1969 that there was an official national organisation behind Women’s football giving teams like Brighton GPO the opportunity to compete in a formalised national competition.

In 1971 the FA lifted its ban on Women’s football taking place in football league stadiums and in 1983 the WFA became officially affiliated as part of the FA. However, it wasn’t until 1991 that the FA fully integrated Women’s football within its national structure and a national league was formed. Therefore, in 1990 the Brighton Women’s football team was affiliated under the Brighton and Hove Albion F.C. umbrella. This affiliation was funded as part of the Albion in the Community scheme and following this the Albion became a founding members of the Women’s Premier League in the 1991–92 season, starting within the regionalised second tier, the Division 1 South.

Despite this being relatively recent history in the terms of English football, in the early 90s Women’s football was very much in its infancy following decades of oppression from the hands of organisations like the FA deeming football ‘unsuitable for females’. For example it would be another five years until Women’s football would be played at the Olympics during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, despite the men’s tournament existing at all but one Olympics since 1900.

Whilst since the 90’s and particularly the turn of the Millennium women’s football has continued to grow rapidly, there were still limited resources at Brighton to provide much investment in the team. With the men’s senior team struggling to make ends meet at Withdean this left little funds for the Women’s team and left them still reliant on AITC fundraising to support the team. This meant whilst teams like Arsenal were going professional, Brighton were still semi-professional and most fans who went to watch the men’s team were lucky if they saw a page devoted to them in the match day programme or an advert for the odd cup game against a big side to be played at the Withdean Stadium.

There were successes though. In 2001 Brighton won the Premier League South and were promoted to the top-level Premier League National. However, the small semi-pro outfit found themselves out of their depth, and after a season of narrow survival from the drop, they were relegated in their second season with a measly 4 points from 18 games.

They then spent the next decade in the second tier only to be effectively demoted to the third tier, when after the establishment of a breakaway league the WSL, this was incorporated into the football pyramid in 2014 and expanded into two divisions. At the same time the Premier League National was disbanded, and it meant the Albion had to win the Premier League South Division and then a playoff against the winners of the North Division to get promotion to WSL 2.

Whilst during this time the team was a small operation, it would be wrong to write off the good work done by those at the club on a shoestring during those times. The work done by those including many at AITC enabled the Women’s team to exist and compete at a good level within the women’s football pyramid for around two decades. That said, much like I said in a previous blog, whilst in those years the women’s team was an afterthought in the club’s overall strategy, it is now a well integrated and invested-in element of the club.

Tony Bloom’s investment plan after initially taking over the club in 2009 and moving the club into the new stadium at Falmer in 2011, then included ambitious goals for the Women’s team. The club stated in 2015 the aim was to achieve promotion to WSL 1 and qualify for Champions league football in 5 years. But at this point the club was still playing in the third tier of Women’s football, the Premier League Southern Division, along with not so esteemed colleagues like Lewes, Basildon and Forest Green Rovers, making this a bold statement to make at the time, but one that now looks crucial to setting an ambitious mindset amongst the team.

After the club missed out on promotion to WSL 2 via the playoffs in 2015, they were then promoted the following year and started the 17/18 season as a part of the WSL 2. This time winning the playoffs with a 4-2 win over West Bromwich Albion’s Women’s team, then known as Sporting Club Albion. To demonstrate the low level of interest in the Albion Women’s team at this point, such a high profile and historic game in the team’s history managed to gain an attendance of only 648. Albeit that crowd was slightly diminished because the game one-off game was played at High Wycombe, a two-hour drive from either Brighton or West Bromwich.

The Albion’s promotion to WSL 2 coincided with promotion and relegation being suspended for one season to enable another restructuring of Women’s domestic football. This time it was to enable the creation of a ‘franchised’ full-time top-flight WSL 1 league. Something the Albion later successfully applied for a place within for the start of the coming season, but I will come onto this later.

Despite the successes, the progress to date hadn’t been without its bumps in the road. Following allegations of disciplinary breaches made to the Sussex FA about team manager James Marrs, he was sacked in June 2017. But in response the club made its biggest statement to that point by appointing possibly the most experienced British manager in the Women’s game, former England and Great Britain manager Hope Powell. With this appointment, the club started the season in WSL 2, going from newly promoted chancers to suddenly being the team to watch.

And after joining she spoke to the Guardian about her positive experiences at the club and the seriousness with which the club was now treating Women’s football. “We are very integrated. They’re looking to invest in the future which is fantastic – I’m part of that. I’ve met the owner and I’ve met the board members, I’ve sat down in London and they really want to integrate the women.”

Bloom and Barber have clearly appointed the right people in the right areas at the club across the board and the women’s team is no different. For instance, Powell has stated the importance to the team of assistant manager Amy Merricks. Following Powell’s appointment and prior to her formerly beginning work she said: “I was in very close contact with Amy Merricks, who has done a fantastic job and I can’t speak highly enough of her. We were in regular contact once it was announced. She’s done all of the work, she knows the club, she knows the culture.”

Soon after joining Powell was quick to imprint her vision on the club, and one of the first things she focused on was the club’s style of play. “The speed of play is one of the things I really wanted to increase; we need to up the tempo, do everything so much quicker, because that is what they are going to face going forward.” And the Albion game certainly upped the tempo since, finishing second in last season’s WSL 2 in their first season back at that level.

When the WSL 1 licence status was granted for the upcoming 18/19 season last December Albion chief executive Paul Barber said on reacting to the news: “We have always wanted to achieve equal status for women’s and girls’ football at the club and acquiring tier one status will now enable us to make this a reality.”

In comparison to the Albion, Doncaster Belles who finished ahead of the Albion to win WSL 2 last season, decided not to apply for WSL 1 status, citing the costs being beyond their budget. Another key comparison is Man Utd, the biggest name in domestic men’s football who up until this restructure had gone many years without a Women’s senior team, and now have been fast-tracked up the pyramid and granted a place in this season’s WSL 2, alongside our local rivals Lewes.

It says something of the lack of ambition for Women’s football that clubs like United, Spurs, Sunderland and Palace are playing in WSL 2 or in some cases lower. The fact that clubs like those with the brand and infrastructure that they have are only granted equal or in some cases lower status to a small fan-owned semi-professional club like Lewes is telling. Lewes in comparison whose men’s team played in the 8th tier of English football last year, have an average attendance in men’s football of just over 700, which to put that in context is around 1% of that of Man Utd’s average attendance.

The reality is only the established professional clubs can compete at WSL 1 level. As a top-flight club, the Albion will be required to provide players with a minimum of 16 contact hours per week, rising to 20 hours per week by 2020-21. There are also minimum financial investment rules, whilst in conjunction clubs are also be required to meet Financial Fair Play regulations and a squad salary cap. Further rules mean that whereas second-tier sides will have lower requirements such as only being required to run a reserve team, a WSL 1 level club like the Albion will also be required to run a youth academy. Something the Albion already has in place.

Whilst the women’s game has been in a period of growth in general, the domestic club game has been in a period of disorganised flux since the turn of the millennium. This constant flux, typified by the FA and it’s constant need to restructure domestic club football, means even the big clubs like Chelsea, Arsenal and City despite investing large amounts in their Women’s team have struggled to establish a significant match day following. Average attendances for each are incomparable to those of the men’s first team and more similar to those of many non-league men’s first teams.

But Brighton’s manager Hope Powell is behind the current reorganisation plans. “I understand it because a lot of clubs in WSL 2 are saying: ‘If we get promoted there’s every chance we can’t [compete] in WSL 1 anyway so what’s the point?’ So, I think they’ve had to look at it, revamp it, and try and offer it out to those clubs that can afford to be a WSL1 club, fulfil the criteria and meet the needs of being full-time. I think it’s a sensible decision.”.

The one anomaly to this is Yeovil, who whilst have a professional men’s team, are a much smaller club than any of their WSL competitors and have struggled but just about managed to meet the WSL 1 requirements. On being grant status the club stated: “Whilst the last 18 months have been testing for the Ladies both on and off the pitch, the stability of being granted a professional license should allow them to head into their next chapter.”

The Albion will be playing their home games this season at Crawley Town’s Broadfield Stadium. Having previously switched home games between there and Lancing, means the club is currently representing Brighton as a city whilst not playing within it. But as the Men’s team’s current appeal shows, the club is as much a team for the county of Sussex as it is the City is Brighton. That said the Women’s team are yet to gain the same following as the men’s team with attendances last season regularly totalling only a few hundred.

The Albion’s current group of players is most definitely the best in the club’s history. This includes Ini Umotong, scorer of 13 goals in 19 league games last season, she was signed with fellow teammate Danielle Buet from Notts County when the club folded before the beginning of last season. Ini, the Albion’s number 9 is one of the club’s star players and as such features on the poster advertising this season’s home and away shirts at the entrance of the club shop at the AMEX stadium. However, Ini recognises the challenge ahead of the club this season: “It will be a big step up. We have a few girls that have experience of playing in the top flight, but a lot of us haven’t played in the division before now.”

One face most Albion fans will know is that of AITC ambassador and Northern Ireland international Laura Rafferty. She signed for the club in 2017 from Chelsea where she made only one first team appearance. But since signing for the Albion she’s become a regular in an Albion defence that conceded only 26 goals in the league last season – the joint third lowest total in WSL 2 last season. Laura is a regular face in club media output as well as the local news for her good work as AITC ambassador, but she’ll be hoping this season she gets as much coverage for her good work on the pitch as she has previously off it.

However, there are many players like last season’s club captain Vicky Ashton‑Jones who faced the choice whether to commit to the club full-time because of the club’s new-found WSL 1 status. Whilst playing with the Albion Vicky, a police firearms officer by trade commuted 57 miles door-to-door from London because of her job. Prior to the club gaining WSL status she said: “It’s a nice dilemma. Certainly, when I was playing I didn’t have that option; all I wanted to do was be a professional footballer. For me it’s better to have the dilemma than not at all. The opportunities that are ahead of these players now are incredible, the likes of which I could only dream of. It’s going to be difficult for some, we absolutely understand that, but it’s a decision they’re going to have to make.” However, unfortunately for the Albion, Vicky has decided to concentrate on her job in the Police and not continue with the Albion this season rather than going full-time.

With the changes that are taking place at the club over the summer still being managed and the club coming up against a higher level of opposition than ever before on a weekly basis it’s hard to judge the prospects for this coming season, but there is plenty of optimism for the short to medium term future of the team.

That said, despite Albion’s heavy investment in the Women’s team in recent years and the already stated ambitious goals from the top of the club, the team will be judged this season on more than the on-field results. As manager Hope Powell says herself: “I think it’s really important that there are women role models and that people have someone to aspire to.”

The Welsh Wizard – Nathan Jones

Nathan Jones time playing with the Albion will be best remembered by many for the trickery and skilfulness that made him a cult figure on the Sky Sports program Soccer AM, but to just remember him for that would be unfair. Signed by manager Micky Adams in the summer 2000, he was a key part of the team that won back to back championship winning promotions, and after the subsequent relegation he was then part of the team that won the playoff final in 2004 to win its third promotion in four years. In fact it was the end of an eventful nine-year period for Jones.

After growing up in the Rhondda in rural Wales, he started out with Welsh club Merthyr Tydfil playing non-league football. It wasn’t long though before he went professional signing for the team he now manages, Luton Town. He spent a year there, but after failing to break into the first team he moved onto sunnier climates in Spain, where he was able to utilise his Spanish A-level.

He initially playing for Segunda División side Badajoz during the 1995/96 season as they missed out on promotion to La Liga, the next season he stepped down a division to play for Numancia where he won promotion back to the Segunda División. He later returned to the UK signing for Southend, in a three-year spell that included a loan spell at Scarborough in his second season. Despite that he still accumulated 99 appearances for the shrimpers, winning player of the season in his final season.

Therefore when he moved to the Albion in the summer of 2000 it was a major coup for then manager Adams. He quickly became an integral part of a team that is fondly remembered by many supporters of the club. Jones showed versatility at the club playing initially as a left winger and later also as a left back, a versatility that helped him keep his place in the team. In the back to back title winning promotion seasons Jones was a regular playing 76 times scoring 6 goals. After promotion to Division One, he found game time harder to come by starting only 16 games, with Paul Brooker battling him for the left winger role, whilst Kerry Mayo had a great season at left back.

After relegation back to the third tier and with Brooker leaving to join Micky Adams at Leicester, Jones was once again a key part of the team that won promotion via the playoffs, with the team winning its third promotion in four years. And with the playoff final in his home country’s capital Cardiff it was a nice way for him to cap off an eventful few years with the Albion. In the build up to the playoff final Jones said of his time to date with the Albion: “The emotions have been up and down over the past few years, but coming to Brighton is one of the best things I ever did – it’s a fantastic club”.

Following promotion and with the team reinforced with new signings, Jones once again struggled to get game time at the higher level, starting just three times. Whilst the Albion reached its highest finish during its time at the Withdean of 20th in the Championship, Jones was ultimately deemed surplus to requirements. At the end of the 2004/05 season Jones was not offered a new deal and with the good wishes of everyone at the club he moved to Yeovil, where he spent seven years first as player and later as a coach.

After being brought in initially just as a player, in 2008 he began his move into coaching by combing his playing duties with becoming first team coach of Yeovil women’s senior team under manager Steve Phelps and assistant manager Nigel Wolfe.

Whilst many Yeovil fans will remember the highlight of his time at the club when he captained the club at Wembley when they lost the 2007 playoff final, for many Brighton fans they will remember a number of games he played in for Yeovil against the Albion.

One such game against the Albion was during Micky Adams doomed second spell at the club, where The sides drew 1-1 on a sunny day at Huish Park. It was so sunny, when I finally arrived home I resembled a tomato shade of red. Despite leaving on good terms Jones received a lot of stick from the travelling Albion fans, which only got worse after the events that would follow. The game saw debutant Joe Anyinsah sent off for two yellow cards, the second yellow was for a high-footed kick on Jones, which manager Adams didn’t take kindly to as his post-match interview shows.

Later that season after manager Russel Slade left Yeovil (who following the sacking of Micky Adams would later take the Albion job), Jones became Player-Assistant manager of Yeovil men’s senior team under player-manager Terry Skiverton. Later that season, Brighton met Yeovil again, this time beating them 5-0, in a defeat branded by Jones as “embarrassing”. With former Yeovil manager Russel Slade having by now replaced Adams as manager, the Albion were on their way to a remarkable escape from relegation and along the way gave Jones a footballing lesson to take forward.

After a few years of consolidation in League One, Skiverton was sacked with Yeovil in the relegation zone and Gary Johnson appointed manager. Subsequently Jones was demoted from assistant to first team coach and following this he only stayed on until the end of the season.

After only a matter of weeks since leaving Yeovil, he started a new coaching job as u-21 team coach at Charlton. But after only a year there he moved on again to take a job as first team coach at the Albion, returning after 8 years away. He first worked under then manager, Spaniard Oscar Garcia, once again utilising his A-level in Spanish. When he left at the end of the season Jones was kept on to work under newly appointed manager Sami Hyypia, in what was a short-lived and unsuccessful spell in charge.

With Hyypia gone, Jones was appointed Caretaker boss for games with Reading and Fulham. However, Jones wasn’t ever in the running for the job on a permanent basis as chairman Tony Bloom and the board wanted someone with successful managerial and Championship level experience, something Jones didn’t have. In fact Jones stated before the Fulham game that he had ‘no personal ambition’ to take the Albion job at the time, despite his long term goals to be a manager.

After a 2-2 draw with Reading in which the Albion lead 2-0, Jones took charge again as the Albion visited Fulham. That night the Albion put in probably the best performance of the season so far to beat Fulham 2-0. The scenes at the end as Jones celebrated wildly in front of the Albion fans were special, if it were up to me I’d have given him the job there and then, but that is probably why I’m not in charge of making those decisions and Tony Bloom is. You can tell what that night meant to him too by watching his post match interview.

Later that week Chris Hughton was appointed manager and Jones was kept on as a first team coach. Hughton in fact was keen to keep him on board and had some nice things to say about Jones on his appointment. “Nathan Jones will very much be part of my first-team coaching staff and he has done a fantastic job here. I’m particularly grateful for the last two results and as somebody from the outside with a keen interest looking in, I was hoping that the last two results would fare well and he has done very well. I have a lot of respect for him as an individual and also as a coach, so I’m delighted to have him on board.”

During his time under Hughton and following his successful spell as caretaker, there were constant rumours Jones would leave the Albion and get his first job in management.

When Southgate invited him to shadow him and the other coaching staff of the England U21s it was another sign of his growing reputation. And when two months later he left to manage his old club Luton Town no one was surprised, in fact there was nothing but good wishes from the club. Albion Chairman Tony Bloom said, “Nathan has been a great servant to the club”, whilst Manager Chris Hughton said “Since I arrived, he has been an enormous help to me in my first year in the job; and alongside Colin Calderwood, he has played a big part in our progress in the last 12 months. I think he has all the attributes to become a very good manager.”

So it’s no surprise that Jones has done well at Luton, achieving promotion to League One last season, his first full season at the club. So well in fact that he was interviewed for Sunderland job in 2017, but some would say fortunately he missed out to fellow Welshman and former national team manager Chris Coleman. Fortunately as he now manages Luton at the same level as Sunderland following their relegation to League One in the same season and even more fortunately as Coleman is already out of a job whilst Jones’s reputation continues to rise.

One thing you may not know of Nathan is how much his religious faith, Christianity, shapes his life. The Rhondda village Nathan grew up in had a population of less than 2,000 but four practicing churches. He was so devoted to his faith that it was at the expense of a potential football career, missing a number of trials as a youngster because they were on a Sunday. Whilst he is still a devoted Christian his views on the Sunday holy day, have slightly altered. “I went to Cardiff and they had games on Sundays. I went to God and said, ‘I believe you brought me to this opportunity, I need to play.’ It was done in good faith. It was a necessity then. I believe God understands that.”

Through his faith Jones is in full belief he has fulfilled his potential and then some. “I don’t look back and think, I could’ve been this or that. I’ve surpassed any dream that I ever had and I’m very blessed, and in God’s will I did those things. If I hadn’t done all of those things, who’s to say if I’d be here?”. In modern society religion has a bad name and whilst there is much evidence of the evil it is responsible for, stories like Nathan’s shows the other side of the coin. In his case showing the strength it can give to people to achieve their goals.

So, what next for Nathan Jones? Currently he is managing a Luton side in League One who, despite a mixed start, have been tipped as an outsider for promotion to the Championship. As for the medium to long term future, if he continues his progress as a manager he’s certainly left enough of a mark in Sussex to be considered a potential future Albion manager.

13 games without a win

I remember turning to the person next to me before kick-off and saying: “won one, drawn one, we are due a loss”. I didn’t quite know at the time to such the extent that this was true. A 12-game run of defeats was to follow that left the club facing an instant return to the third tier.

It was 17th August 2002 and after back to back title wins the Albion had appeared to have taken to life in the second tier of English football with relative ease. Winning 3-1 away at Burnley on the opening day, followed by a goalless draw at home to a Coventry team facing a second consecutive year outside the top flight for the first time in a decade after relegation from the Premier League in 2001.

After the Burnley win, the newly appointed manager and former director of youth Martin Hinshelwood spoke, of the possibility of a third consecutive promotion: “It has to be rated an impossible dream to have three successive promotion seasons; but that still does not stop us having ambition.” But the next 13 games would prove to make a mockery of the mere suggestion.

So, with four points from the first two games, the following Saturday the Albion hosted Norwich on a bright summers August day, but one that would soon turn gloomy. Bobby Zamora was the talisman of the team at the time and the main goal threat. But to the Albion fans horror towards the end of the first half he hobbled off injured, with what turned out to be a knee injury that would keep him out for much of the run of defeats that were to follow. With Bobby out this ultimately left the Albion with a hole in their side of monumental proportions for a run of games that would prove pivotal in the season.

The game itself was from there on in a comfortable 2-0 win for Norwich, one in which Brighton failed to register even a shot on target. With Bobby gone this left youth team graduates Shaun Wilkinson and Daniel Marney to lead the line and neither did so with much success. These were young players of potential who were thrown into first team football ahead of schedule because of the limited finances available at the time and it showed.

The honeymoon was over for Hinshelwood and he had to find a solution to the missing goal threat. After the Norwich game he admitted the team needed to strengthen and the next day they did just that by signing veteran striker Paul Kitson. A signing met with an initial air of excitement but one that would turn out to be a bad one. Kitson’s time at the Albion was dogged by injury and when he did play he was ineffectual, that winner at Reading aside. Since retirement Kitson has been declared bankrupt following some failed investments and large betting losses, a sadly common story amongst retired professional footballers.

Later that month after three defeats in a row the club was getting panicked. As a solution they added more new signings to the squad, including a young striker on loan from Arsenal, Graham Barrett. Another striker who would struggle to make an impact in front of goal that season.

Barrett signed on the same day as veteran centre-back and soon to be Albion legend Guy Butters. Although for him this would be a season to forget, he would later redeem himself by helping the Albion make an instant return to the second tier via the playoffs the following season. They both made their debuts in a spirited 4-2 defeat to eventual champions Portsmouth, a game in which the Albion played well and led 2-1 but ultimately lost again. Sadly, for Barrett it was a debut to forget after he was dismissed late on for violent conduct, a sign of more frustrating times ahead. However, Portsmouth manager Harry Redknapp said the Albion had given the eventual champions them the best game so far that season and it left the Albion with some optimism to take forward.

However, what followed would kill off any post-promotion and post-Portsmouth optimism that remained. First there was a 1-0 defeat away to Millwall when the hosts broke down the Albion’s resistance to score a late winner and continue Albion’s run of defeats. Next a 4-2 defeat at home to former landlords Gillingham, and despite the return of talisman Zamora in a home game against Grimsby, a run of four one goal defeats left the Albion bottom of the league and facing an unwelcome record of ten successive defeats.

The pressure got too much for Hinshelwood who was inevitably sacked, but it was his replacement that caused a surprise. Steve Coppell was the most successful manager in the history of the Albion’s fiercest rivals, Crystal Palace. So, when in early October he was appointed Brighton manager, it wasn’t met with resounding support. Coincidently it was also almost two weeks from the first competitive match between the two rivals in a decade, which added an extra spice to proceedings.

First though came a 4-2 home defeat to Sheffield United, which was a fiery start to Coppell’s reign. A game after which as the Argus put it Coppell will soon realise that the Albion “don’t do boring”. Six goals were scored that day including a hat trick by Carl Asaba for United and Graham Barrett’s only goal for the Albion. But it is a defeat that will mostly be remembered for the late Albion capitulation after leading 2-0. This capitulation included two late penalties that won the game for United and left referee Phil Prosser with an infamous reputation at the Withdean, one that would stick for years to come. With a surname like that it will be easy for you to imagine the chants that followed these contentious decisions.

Then there was the trip to Selhurst Park, the home of arch rivals and Coppell’s former club Crystal Palace. What followed is one of the most infamous defeats in club’s history. An Andy Johnson hat-trick contributed to a 5-0 score-line. Any hope that remained was killed that day and the Albion had hit rock bottom.

After the excitement of consecutive promotions this terrible run had an incredibly demoralising effect on the club. Despite a turnaround under Coppell and a spirited fight against relegation, ultimately the run of 13 games without a win left the club with too much to do and the club were relegated to the third tier at the end of the season.

Listen to the negative criticism, however valid it is

I’ve written blogs before in reaction to things that have been written on social media after Albion games. It’s something that I have found is a cathartic process, but ultimately one that some will feel is just adding to the noise of what’s been written about the topics already. Nonetheless we all continue to carry on carrying on.

Charlie Brooker said in his Guardian column about the culture of exaggerated opinions on social media in 2014: “exaggeration is the official language of the internet, a talking shop so hopelessly overcrowded that only the most strident statements have any impact…in this increasingly binary world, if good equals amazing, bad equals catastrophic. Any disappointment, any setback, anyone who steps out of line – all instantly labelled the Worst Thing Ever.”

This Sunday the twitter hashtag #bhafc personified what Charlie Brooker was talking about. One-minute Chris Hughton is clueless, negative and running out of ideas. The next Brighton are 2-0 up and he’s a tactical genius, who’s outsmarted the great Jose Mourinho and never gets a move wrong. The reality of course is, as always, somewhere in the middle.

Much of social media discussion is this way of course. Exaggerated noise for the purpose of attention and ‘likes’, but that doesn’t make all this noise worthless. Debate & criticism are an important part of getting feedback for any task. However, some felt the need to mock and pour scorn over the avid critics of Hughton’s team selection before the game, who ended up with egg on their face.

Whilst I disagreed with the criticism of Hughton, I disagreed even more strongly with those mocking the opinions of his critics. By all means disagree and debate with them and try to better understand each other’s opinions, but don’t just shut them down and call them idiots.

Hindsight is 20/20 and on social media those who are proven right often make sure the other party knows about it subsequently, but it’s important to remember the state of play at the time of the decision making. Who would have predicted the Albion would be 3-1 up yesterday whilst entering injury time? I’d suggest only the most absurdly optimistic of fanbase.

It’s all part of the growing trend that demonstrated best on Twitter, where many have an inability to disagree. The culture as described by the professor of psychology Todd Kashdan of “attack first think later, if at all”. Condemning people because their views or actions make you feel uncomfortable will not lead to a constructive debate, something that is a crucial element for any organisation, even one that is so widely discussed as a professional football team.

Furthermore, creating a culture which discourages negative criticism, however absurd or ill-informed it may be, can lead to complacency. And complacency is something that the three teams who were relegated from the Premier League last season could easily have been accused of. The moment we as Albion fans begin to discourage debate and scepticism, even from the less informed, is the moment we risk creating a bubble of ideas and a lack of creativity at the club.

As the saying goes “football is a game of opinions” and those opinions often vary greatly on the most trivial of subjects, even among the highly paid pundits and commentators of the game. Pouring scorn on those you believe to be, or even those that prove to be holding absurd opinions only goes to cheapen and diminish the quality of the debate, whilst discouraging future debates. So, let’s all try to treat each other with a bit more respect and consideration. Or to paraphrase Albion fan Fatboy Slim: We’ve come a long, long way together, so let’s not behave like idiots now we are here.

Brighton’s away form amounts to Gross Negligence

Last Saturday saw a convincing 2-0 defeat for the Albion at the hands of Watford. This was nothing we haven’t seen before, particularly away from home. In their 19 games away from the AMEX last season Brighton gained only 11 points, the worst away record in the league. This included seven 2-0 defeats, so this was much the same as last season.

To underline the point, let me throw a few stats your way. Away from home the Albion scored the second lowest amount of goals (10) in the Premier League last season whilst conceding 29. Three of those goals coming in one game against West Ham. The Albion created only 121 chances in those games, the 15th lowest in league. So even when coming up against Watford, who conceded the most goals at home in the league last season (31), it was unlikely to lead to much optimism from the Albion faithful.

Pascal Gross’s performances demonstrates this marked difference in away games the best. The Albion’s player of last season recorded a Squawka combined performance score at home of 306, the best score from any Albion player. However, away from home he received a score of -5. No wonder as all of Pascal’s goals and 6 of his 8 assists came at home last season.

There were clear differences in style when the Albion played at home compared to when they were playing away. The Albion play much deeper and retain less possession away than at home, averaging 46.3% possession at home and 43.8% away last season. This may not sound like a big difference but it equates to an extra 2 minutes without the ball and chasing the opposition, which can make all the difference. It also means when the team do have possession it’s more often in deeper areas of the pitch meaning attacking players like Gross have a diminished effect on the game.

As Gross lacks the pace of other attackers, this lack of possession and deeper defensive line means he has more to do and more ground to cover in order to create chances when the Albion have the ball. His role in the team is often to create chances but his lack of pace means that away from home attacks would very often break down before they had started. Whereas at home, the team’s greater attacking intent allows him to start from a more advanced position on the pitch and allows him to thrive.

On Saturday against Watford there was a clear difference in the impact of Gross and his 60th minute replacement, new signings Yves Bissouma. His replacement Bissouma notably had a greater effect, adding some much needed drive and pace from deeper positions. Exactly what Gross lacks. But for me this doesn’t suggest we drop Gross over Bissouma but rather we deploy an adapted system that best incorporates both whilst minimising Gross’s shortfalls. He was our most effective player last season, without him we’d be playing Championship football this weekend.

Another factor though is at the other end of the pitch. As has been pointed out by all and sundry, the Albion conceded a lot of goals from set pieces last season. In fact the most in the Premier League, conceding 22 from set pieces of which 16 were from corners. But this issue is exacerbated by the lack of goals scored away from home. Scoring more than once away from home only in that wonderful night in East London against West Ham. Excluding that game, Brighton scored a goal away from home only once in 2.2 games.

Conversely the team also scored very few goals from set-pieces last season. Scoring a total of 5 goals from this method, which again was the lowest in the league last season. This is despite Pascal Gross creating more chances from set-pieces in the Premier League last season than any other player (36). This lack of others taking those chances from set pieces will no doubt have exaggerated the low performance score Gross received away from home, as the old saying goes, goals change games (whilst masking other deficiencies in a performance). If Brighton had taken a significant amount more of their chances from set pieces many of the issues away from home could be ignored.

The manager Chris Hughton has stated that the team have focused on set-pieces in training a lot of late, but it’s something he’s been struggling with since he took charge. In December 2015 when talking about conceding goals from corners in a home defeat to Middlesbrough, Hughton told The Argus: “It’s a big worry, something we need to eradicate”. Let’s hope the worrying ends and the hard work on the training pitch finally pays off.

Burnley are a team that Brighton can aspire to match, and I’m not talking about their fans behaviour. In their first season following promotion in 16/17 they accumulated just 7 points away from home, but managed to earn a total four times that amount (28) last season, more in fact than they earned at home that season (26). Even more surprising is that last season they earned less points at home than they did in their first season (33), despite finishing 13 places higher in the league.

They achieved this by working on the defensive side of their game, conceding only 22 goals away all season compared to 35 the year before and in doing so made a league low last season of 2 defensive errors. Even more impressive considering that this was done despite taking a defensive approach similar to the Albion’s, whilst achieving only 45% possession away from home.

Burnley have been reliant on their defence to stay tight, despite their good away record they scored only 19 goals, averaging only one goal per game. Albeit this is almost double the Albion’s total in the same year, it meant they couldn’t afford the kind of errors that were made by the Albion last season to accumulate the points total that they did. Whilst Watford last weekend won’t give us Albion fans hope of better things on the road, Burnley’s success last season goes to show what defensive solidity and discipline when combined with an extra clinically edge in front of goal can achieve.

The Albion going forward away from home will look at their new signings to offer more attacking threat going forward. As the positive impact on Saturday of Bissouma and Jahanbakhsh as second half substitutes will demonstrate. But they also need to cut out the silly defensive errors and goals conceded last season. Burnley’s year-on-year improvement shows what can be achieved if this is done.

Whilst last Saturdays defeat was another example of their poor away record, Brighton’s home record has been fantastic and was their saving grace last season. They accumulated 29 points at the AMEX and scored 24 goals in the process, the 8th best home record in the league last season and only bettered by the top 6 and Everton.

Whilst some have called for Pascal Gross to be dropped for Yves Bissouma, I wouldn’t suggest such a change. The home record we achieved last season was largely as a result of using a system that got the best out of Pascal Gross. The Albion must instead find a system that gives him and them the same level of success away from home that they have achieved at the AMEX.

That said, despite that home record last season including a win against our next opponents Manchester United, we shouldn’t be overly optimistic for Sunday’s rematch. United’s away record last season was only bettered by Champions Man City. So Sunday’s game shouldn’t be considered a good chance for a repeat of that great night last May, but oddly enough does appear to be a better chance of getting a result than last weekend’s trip to Watford.

Six things to look out for this season

(Unless stated Squakwa has been used as a source for statistics)

Cardiff

Cardiff will be an interesting prospect for their fellow Premier League teams when facing them this season, one unlike any of the established top-flight teams. Take yourself back to last seasons cup tie between them and eventual Premier League champions Man City and you’ll see a side up for a battle and not afraid to tread the line between fair and unfair play. Man City ultimately won 2-0 but Cardiff didn’t roll over, weren’t disgraced and won’t be this season.

Many have said Cardiff manager Neil Warnock is not able to translate his Football League success to the Premier League, which I think is unfair and his record isn’t as bad as many others suggest. When he was at QPR the club were a basket case. He wasn’t given enough time following achieving promotion to make a good enough judgement on his performance either way. At Sheffield United admittedly they went down in their first season. However, they only went down by one goal on goal difference and only after losing on the last day of the season to the team who stayed up at their expense, Wigan. Hardly a disaster. His time at Palace in the Premier League was also too short to derive any real judgement from. Elsewhere he’s proven over and over he’s good enough to take a team and quickly get it overachieving expectations whilst in the Football League, so why not at the top level?

Cardiff are a team that I think are suited to upset the odds. Last season they were a defensively stubborn team – conceding only 39 goals in the league. The second lowest total in the Championship with only champions Wolves conceding less, they’ll need to show those qualities again this season. They managed this despite conceding plenty of possession, with an average possession last season of only 47%, which is unusually low for a promoted side. Even Brighton under the pragmatic Hughton averaged higher at 51% in our promotion season. They compensate this with a good record on set piece goals, with over a third of their goals coming from set pieces last season. Something that should worry the Albion at least if their defending from set pieces last season is anything to go by.

Cardiff, unlike other promoted sides have no need to change their style of play and with a number of players with a point to prove, they will relish coming up against the big guns. Whilst they have not signed many new players I think they can still be a dangerous prospect and their style of play will help them overcome their shortfalls. Whilst they’re odds-on to go down, I think Cardiff will stay up. I’m not being contrary for the sake of it, they have what it takes to upset the bookies.

Fulham

As the side promoted through the playoffs, Fulham historically have the toughest job of the three promoted sides in staying up, with 15 of the last 25 play off winners relegated in their first season.

This is especially true if you look at the defensive stats, whilst they only conceded 42 goals last season, the fourth lowest in the division, they certainly have a mistake in them. They made the fourth highest defensive errors in the Championship last season (23), only four of which resulted in goals. That’s an unlikely conversation rate in the Premier League, for instance the previous season’s playoff winners Huddersfield made 22 defensive errors in last season’s premier league, 10 of which led to goals.

As has been widely agreed Fulham have made a number of good signings, including some big names, and it will be interesting to see how they all adapt. But whilst this is true, they needed to make those signings given that they are the lowest ranked team going into the new Premier League season. The Albion and Huddersfield both spent big last summer in order to make the step up, whilst Newcastle’s spending spree in the summer following relegation the year before meant they were already well reinforced and ensured all three were able to beat the drop. So, whilst the signings they’ve made are impressive and show ambition, they needed to be given the gulf they have to make up over the summer and I doubt it will give them an edge over other more established teams.

Fulham are a team that like the ball and to control possession, averaging 55% possessing last season. This isn’t something they can expect this season and they will have to get used to spending long periods without the ball, particularly against the top 6 or risk being overrun. In fact, last season all the teams outside the top 6 averaged less than 50% possession, no doubt somewhat skewed by the Man City effect but nonetheless a striking statistic. If they plan to carry on last season’s possession-based approach in the top flight this underlines the need for signings of the like of Jean Michael Seri and Zambo Anguissa to hit the ground running. Time will tell but Fulham have work to do to make the step up and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was too much for them.

England’s new ‘golden generation’

With the tune to “Three Lions” just about out of our heads and the Premier League starting, international football takes a back seat. But will we see more of the young English talent who’ve done so well in various international tournaments at youth level, break into Premier League first teams this year? And will fans start to pressure managers and clubs to give them more first team opportunities?

It certainly promises to be an exciting season for some of the young Englishmen. Particularly if the Community Shield is anything to go by then we will be seeing more of them this season. The highly rated Phil Foden started and played well as City went onto win that game, whilst Hudson-Odoi started for Chelsea and former Albion target Tammy Abraham came off the bench. Whereas at Liverpool the U20s World Cup winner and player of the tournament Dominic Solanke has already made a number of first team appearances since signing last summer. He is amongst plenty of impressive young English talent at the club including Alexander-Arnold and another former Albion target Joe Gomez. Those three sides appear to be the teams to watch for England’s future World Cup stars but here’s hoping there’s more besides.

Maurizio Sarri

To say Sarri is one of the characters of European football is probably underselling it. From reports of excessive chain smoking to stories of absurd superstitions such as repeatedly reversing into a player’s car before games for good luck, the man comes with a reputation for being an eccentric. And add to that the allegations of Homophobia made against him by former City manager Roberto Mancini, it could be an interesting and at times controversial season for Chelsea purely off the pitch.

But on the pitch, he could have a huge impact. Sarri worked wonders at Napoli, creating what many believe to be the best Napoli side since the days of Maradona, pushing the imperious Juventus close in the title race last season and playing some great football at the same time. Napoli were indeed an exciting side to watch, creating the equal second most chances in Europe’s top 5 leagues last season (472), equal with Man City and only beaten by European Champions Real Madrid (498).

Playing a high pressing 433 they scored plenty of goals and created lots of chances, and if pre-season is anything to go by he plans to set Chelsea up to do the same. After 4 years of organised, defensive tactics under Mourinho and then Conte this will be a big change for Chelsea and one that whatever the outcome will be interesting to watch.

Nations League

Usually international football is a boring inconvenience amongst an exciting Premier League season and only every 2 years does it get our full attention. UEFA are hoping this may change with the invention of the Nations League. England are in a group with Spain and Croatia, playing them home and away over the course of the season with the winner of the group going through to the semi-finals in June.

It will be interesting on two fronts. Firstly, following the success of the England national team in the summer will it catch the imagination of the public, unlike most international breaks in previous seasons? Secondly, will the players risk injury and their club managers fury to play in these games, unlike most international breaks in previous seasons?

Time will tell how much things really have changed but it does appear to be coming at a good time for English football. Amongst the political and economic uncertainty, the country is experiencing some serendipitous escapism in the form of a new-found enthusiasm for the national football team. So, don’t put those waistcoats to the back of the wardrobe just yet.

The Hughton high press

I wasn’t going to write something completely non-Albion related, was I? With the Albion approaching a second season in the top flight it appears Hughton’s plan for progression involves a change in tactical approach. Last season the team set up with a deep defensive line and then hitting teams on the break, but there are plans in place to shift to a higher pressing more offensive style.

Nantes manager Miguel Cardoso described the intensity of Brighton’s play in the recent pre-season friendly between the sides as “Incredible”. The last time the Albion were described as incredible it certainly wasn’t describing their pressing tactics.

This is something Bruno also spoke about ahead of the Nantes game, saying that in preparation for these new tactics that pre-season had been “very tough”. The Albion captain said: “I think people will see a difference this season when it comes to pressing. We want to be a team who do that even more. We are going to arrive in better shape than ever when we get to the league. Last season we were a very solid team, a team who worked hard, and that will stay the same.”

Whether a pressing style where the team push higher up the pitch leaving space in behind the back four will suit full back Bruno at the ripe age of 38 is debatable. However as already mentioned, as a unit the Albion set up to defend very deep in their own half last season. This meant the midfield had to cover a lot of ground to get from defence to attack, with moves often breaking down before an attack had begun. This limited the number of chances the Albion created, in fact the 6th lowest in the division. Therefore, playing a higher defensive line and pressing higher up the pitch makes logical sense to counter this issue as the team looks to progress on from last season. Chris will therefore be hoping the current set of players bolstered by the new signings will be able to adapt to the change in style.

The Albion started last season playing incredibly cautious football, ending it with a low average possession of 45%. As the season went on the Albion became more comfortable and they started to attack more, which paid dividends. The Albion scored just 0.71 goals per game before the new year, but then scored 1.12 goals per game after the new year, a not insignificant 56% increase. This added goals per game coincided with a marginal increase in points per game from 1.05 to 1.12, a 7% increase. Pushing higher up the pitch may allow the Albion to create more chances and control games more. At very least it’s a tactical ploy to use against the lower ranked teams in the division at home.

New Season, New Signings

It’s been another busy transfer window for the Albion. Once again breaking its transfer record, that’s for the third transfer window in a row and for the sixth time in the last five windows. The Albion have so far made a total of seven first team signings, all of which look to have improved on the squad depth and quality from last season, whilst at the same time filling any gaps left by departing players.

Florin Andone was the Albion’s first signing of the summer and adds much needed depth in the striker area. The Albion were far too reliant on Murray and Gross for goals and chance creation last season and adding extra quality in this area would have been top of the priority list of the recruitment team. The reliance on them in attack is demonstrated by a number of stats, for instance Murray and Gross between them contributed 19 of the 33 league goals Brighton scored last season.

The football statistics website Squawka said of the Romanian striker: “the striker is a proven goalscorer when the system fits him, having scored 27 goals in 58 games while at Cordoba. His effect at Brighton will be down to how well the Seagulls can cater to his strengths.”

Last season Hughton set up the team to get the best out of Glenn Murray and he did his job accordingly by scoring 14 goals in all competitions to help fire Brighton to safety. However, because of the lack of options and the underperformance of Anthony Knockaert, the Albion were at times quite one dimensional. Therefore, its important both Andone and January signing Jürgen Locadia make an impact to give Hughton more options on how to set up the team in order to get those all-important goals.

Leon Balogun was the Albion’s second summer signing and one many fans will know the most of given shortly after signing we had the chance watch him represent Nigeria at the World Cup.

The one striking thing about him to me though more than his football ability is his character. He has spoken insightfully about racism in German football to the BBC’s World Service and written articles about his upbringing in Germany as a dual national, something topical in football currently. He comes across a very grounded man and one that could fill the hole left in the dressing room by departing players like Liam Rosienior and Steven Sidwell that Hughton will have relied on in the past to uphold the Albion’s highly thought of team spirit. Something German football journalist and Albion fan Jonathan Harding echoed to the BBC back in May.

Following the departure of Tim Krul and Niki Maenpaa, new signings Jason Steele & David Button will provide competition for Maty Ryan for the number one shirt, whilst helping to fill the Premier League squad homegrown players quota. That said, one of them will be needed to step up when Ryan leaves to represent Australia in the Asia Cup, which starts January 5th and ends February 1st. Assuming Australia go all the way, Ryan would be ruled out for at least 4 league games (potentially 5 or 6 depending on when he leaves to meet up with the squad), plus 1 or 2 FA Cup games and both legs of a potential League Cup semi-final, ambitious but true.

Those 4 league games include a home game against Liverpool and a trip to United. So, whoever comes into the team for Ryan could well be busy! These follow a trip potentially reuniting David Button with his old team Fulham and finally the Albion face Watford at home.

New signing Yves Bissouma announced himself to Albion fans last weekend with a terrific free kick goal in a friendly against Birmingham. Signing from Lille the Mali international chose to sign for the Albion over Portuguese champions and 11th ranked team in Europe, Porto. As has been pointed out by many already, as well as being a good bit of business by the Albion, this is a sign of the power the Premier League possesses for a side like Brighton, relative newcomers, to win a transfer battle with two times European Champions Porto.

For me, Yves Bissouma could be the best addition, giving the Albion something that we lacked last season in the middle of the pitch. However good Pröpper and Stephens were last season, and they were great, as a team we lacked a threat going forward from that area of the pitch, increasing the reliance on Pascal Gross and Glenn Murray to provide the goals. From his time in France, Bissouma has shown he is able to add defensive stability as well as an attacking threat at the same time. In Squawka’s analysis of the new signings they underlined this by stating that Bissouma is “able to contribute in both defence, with his tackling ability, and attack – having completed 3.2 take-ons per 90 last season”. Therefore, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him replace Stephens, or more likely Pröpper, in the starting eleven.

So, to Alireza Jahanbakhsh, who broke the Albion’s not so long-standing transfer record.  The man from Iran comes with a lot of interest from his home country, you only need to look at the amount social media comments that have appeared of late on anything Brighton associated that are in Persian to notice that. The transfer saga also caught the imagination of the Albion faithful and his signing was met with an out pouring of joy on all forms social media. For many it was caused just because of the joy and relief of beating Leicester City to his signature.

For all the hype he will be expected to hit the ground running, which as shown by Izquierdo and Locadia’s initially slow starts with the Albion could prove to be tough, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him on the bench in early season matchdays. However, I think he will at least add a much-needed extra level of depth to the squad in wide areas, providing added competition for the existing wide players Izquierdo, March and Knockaert.

He looks like a wide player in the mould of Hughton’s liking, whilst often starting from a wide position, he likes to cut inside and create something from central areas, through either a shot or a pass. This type of play from Albion wide players last season helped allow Gross to often drift out or full backs to push on into the wide areas as they did to such good effect last season.

That said, the Dutch league isn’t the top level of European football it used to be, and for every Luis Suarez style success there is an Afonso Alves style flop, so you may call the signing a little speculative. But he does come with a high rating, for instance Jacob Steinberg wrote in the the Guardian’s Albion season preview that “The 24-year-old’s arrival demonstrates that Brighton’s recruitment team are endeavouring to think outside the box. A determination to look in places others are ignoring allows them to find young, hungry and affordable players who still have time to improve.” I’ve praised the Albion’s recruitment on my blog time and time again and whilst it’s still unknown whether Alireza will succeed with the Albion, his signature feels like a statement of intent

Bernardo will become the first Brazilian to play for Brighton in its history but don’t let the goal in a pre-season fixture with Crawley fool you, he is a full back more in the European mould than the South American mould. Having previously played at RB Leipzig, a team known for their high tempo and defensive organisation this should be no surprise. Signing for a reported £9m this sounds like a lot for a full back but shows how highly the Albion recruitment team rate him, but also how important the full back positions are to Albion’s width. As pointed out above, the wingers will often drift inside leaving space which the full backs are often expected to make use of, making good full backs critical at both ends of the pitch. I suspect Bernardo may replace Bruno in Albion’s notional first eleven, but he can play on either side of the back four.

As I’ve pointed out in previous blogs, the Albion were lucky last season with injuries. As a result many squad players like Connor Goldson and Sam Baldock went largely unused, hence the keenness from them to leave for pastures new this summer. A stronger squad in case of any potential injury crisis will at least best prepare the Albion for this eventuality whilst keeping those in the first eleven on their toes. If we had a run of injuries of the like that we did in the 15/16 season that coincided with a bad run, including a 3-0 home defeat to Middlesbrough, which ultimately may have cost the Albion promotion that season, it could cost the Albion Premier League status once again.

Therefore, the business done by the seagulls this summer whilst maybe speculative in some areas like the signing of Jahanbakhsh, looks to have given the Albion a level of squad depth and an increased variability of options not seen before, certainly in my memory.

Club Progression and Unprecedented Status

As the English football season once again approaches, Brighton find themselves competing with the best teams in English men’s football once again in the Premier League. But it’s not just the men’s first team this season, the Women’s first team start their WSL 1 season in September, whilst there are various age level men’s and women’s youth teams and a number of disability-specific teams also playing at the top level in their classification. So as the club starts a season of unprecedented status, what is the cause of the clubs wide ranging current success?

One of Brighton’s saving graces over the dark years that followed relegation from the top flight in 1983 was its large catchment area. It has meant the club was still able to pull a significant number of fans to watch it play no matter what, and there have been plenty of times many of us have experienced that “what”, and its not been good. For instance the club regularly attracted 6-8 thousand fans a game to watch a lower league side play in a converted amateur athletic stadium with no atmosphere whatsoever. A ground voted the 4th worst football ground in England in the Observers poll in 2004, the worst being Brighton’s one-time temporary home Priestfield. An attendance that may seem measly compared to current figures, but this was of course a very different club at the time. One that for a while had not been a club the City could taken pride in. Being an 80s baby meant when I was younger I was the only person at my school who supported Brighton, this was typical across Sussex in the 90s and 00s. But despite this apathy from many circles the club still attracted a large core of fans who kept the club alive during the tough periods.

The club’s catchment area has also meant that the youth team has been able to attract a reasonable pool of players. Even when Brighton were relying on sharing their limited training facilities with the local university, they still kept bringing players through to the first team, some of whom went onto play for bigger clubs elsewhere. At times the club relied on such players to fill gaps in the team where finances couldn’t be stretched to buy a replacement. A luxury that other lower league clubs like Brentford had to work harder for and one they have since given up on. I do wonder what could have been for some of the young talented players one-time Albion manager Dean Wilkins championed if Falmer has been given the green light even just a couple of years earlier. Many instead went onto bigger and better things elsewhere.

The club and fans quite rightly champion former chairman Dick Knight for what he did for the club during the 90s, grasping the club away from the previous owner Archer and subsequently going onto lead it into the new stadium at Falmer. However, the intervening period was long, much longer than expected, and it could have led to a feeling apathy and a period of further decline. But instead the club had some great years, in fact some of its best. The Albion won 4 promotions and spent 3 years in the English second tier whilst playing in a ground famously dubbed in the hit protest song ‘We Want Falmer’ as being fit for “Albanian Division Eight”. Those years where the battle for planning permission overshadowed it all, were the truest personification of making the best of it and to Knight, Perry and co. we owe a great debt of gratitude.

However, the club is now a very different organisation, both on the field and off it. Whereas facilities up until the move to the AMEX could be aptly described as ‘make-shift’ they are now of a high standard. The club has moved from porta-loos, portable cabins, sharing facilities with the local university and players washing their own kits to the new stadium at Falmer, a state of the art training centre and unrecognisable levels of professionalism. The club has been saying its “Premier League ready” for a while and in 2017 when the club finally managed to make the step back up to the top table of English football (for the first time since 1983) it was ready for the challenge.

This investment is coupled with ambitious targets set by those in charge at the club. The club stated in its most recent annual report: “Our ambition for the club’s senior teams, both men and women, is to play at the highest level possible.” One they had already achieved with the men’s team and have since achieved with the Women’s. With this investment and stated ambition comes increased expectations as well as the added complexity of running a larger organisation. Along with that, the management of such great change, as shown by the amounts of money paid to some management consultants is not an easy process and one seemingly carried out well.

A lot of the off the field success is due in no small part to the smart investment decisions made by Tony Bloom and the recruitment of the right people in key positions. From Chief Executive Paul Barber to Head of Recruitment Paul Winstanley, Tony Bloom is continuing to invest in both the long and short term and a quick look at the club financial statements will tell you how lucky the Albion are to have found Tony Bloom.

Talking to the accountancy magazine “Economia” Brighton’s Finance director David Jones admitted as much “Tony Bloom loves the club and is passionate about it. His family has been involved for years; his grandfather was the vice chairman in the 1970s and 1980s. He has invested over £250m of his own money including £100m for the new stadium and £30m for a new training ground. He’s funding the club’s losses and provided the funding for a team capable of winning promotion to the Premier League.”

The Albion’s 16/17 financial statements shows a debt due to Tony Bloom of £191m up from £170m in the previous year. As it says in Economia it is “the “friendliest” of debt, because it is entirely owed to Bloom and is interest-free, it shows how much the club is dependent on him.” Jones goes onto underline Bloom’s importance by saying: “The size of the football budget has been largely down to the chairman and how much he was prepared to commit, while at the same time living within the game’s financial regulations such as Financial Fair Play (FFP) and its profitability and sustainability rules.”

Of course, much of the attention towards the club and investment from the club is aimed at the men’s team. And with the incredible amount of competition and media coverage in men’s senior football that team’s success, rightly or wrongly, ranks above all others in many observer’s eyes. Soon after Bloom took over he quickly pumped money into the football budget of the club. After appointing Gus Poyet as manager, at the Poyet’s request he put money into improving the professionalism of the club by paying for services so players could concentrate on the football, for instance so they didn’t wash their own kit. He also began investing more so Poyet could build a team in his vision that went on to win League one.

However the more significant change has come off the pitch since those make-shift days playing at the Withdean. A great example of his astute investment that has led to this success is the Albion’s much praised recruitment team. Back in 2015 and pre the appointment of Chris Hughton as manager, the Brighton Argus were already praising this move. You only have to look at the success of the signings made last summer to know what a success this investment has been.

Whilst some of the investment decisions are made primarily to produce results on the pitch, others are made with a view to promoting the clubs culture and community spirit. There is no greater example of this than the clubs award winning community scheme Albion in the Community, highlighted via the success of some of the national disability-specific league teams championed by the organisation. In its annual report the Albion said: “We know how important this club is to so many people and know we can have an impact in such a positive and inspiring way. Since our promotion to the Premier League, we have seen so much pride and positivity in the local area and we will continue to embrace that.”

Another area the club are investing in is in Women’s football, highlighted by the success of the first team who will be playing against the best English Women’s football has to offer in next season’s WSL. When the club appointed former England, manager Hope Powell this underlined how serious it was for this team to succeed. In previous eras, any other team other than the men’s seniors were more of an afterthought, but the club now has an array of well-funded and well managed teams playing under the club badge.

But why does this matter? In my opinion it only goes to extend the culture created and cultivated in Dick Knight’s period as chairman. He took a club that was broken and moulded it back together into a proper community club. He took the passion the fans had shown to see off Archer and utilised it to aid the clubs progress at the Withdean. His legacy is a club that is truly a part of the city, part of the community and by investing in the variety of football teams the club ensures it caters for all people within that community that hold it so dear.

A further example of the club’s willingness to invest in the local community and further afield is the Monk Farm estate development, one not without its controversy. Whilst that is true it also goes to show the club’s commitment to invest in not just the City of Brighton and Hove but Sussex as a whole.

This all comes at a cost of course, the clubs latest accounts for the 16/17 season show the total annual operating costs were £68m with a loss of £38m (up from £51m and £25m respectively in 16/17). One of the additional disclosures that is required is the pay of the highest paid director. Which in the latest accounts stood at £1.2m (up from £0.6m in 15/16, although much of the year on year increase relates to his portion of a club wide £0.9m promotion bonus). It is widely believed this salary is paid to Chief Exec Paul Barber, and whilst reviewing the 16/17 year end accounts Kieran Maguire from the Price of Football says he believes he is “worth every penny”. He goes on to say: “Ultimately if Tony Bloom thinks Paul Barber is worth the money then that’s good enough for us.” Here, here.

In Paul’s time at the club he’s overseen structural changes of the like the club has never seen and considering the tangible success that has occurred in that time, whilst still managing to maintain some of the culture cultivated under Dick Knight and Martin Perry’s stewardship, he’s got every reason to be proud of his work. Furthermore, it’s no wonder other clubs have been rumoured to be after him.

All this said, it’s hard to give Brighton the “model club” tag that some other have been labelled with in recent years. As already stated a lot of the success in recent years remains down to Tony Bloom’s investment. Whilst the club foundations were rebuilt through the hard work of Dick Knight, the board of directors and the fans during end of the Goldstone, Priestfield and Withdean years, Tony’s investment has given those foundations a further platform to reach taller and broader levels of success.

That said, the cynic in me would also say that in football success is often cyclical and after a short period clubs often reverse to mean. Look at the line up of this seasons Championship and League One and you’ll see an array of clubs who’ve basked in the glory of a short successful period at the top, only for it to come crashing down in a heap after a few bad signings and a few key people leaving. And Brighton are no different to any other Premier League club that finished outside the top half last season, relegation is and for the short to medium term remains a realistic possibility. But at least we know with Tony at the helm, if the worst does happen then the club will never stoop to the low it did in the decade or so following relegation from the top flight in 1983.

On the day Dick Knight stepped down as chairman and handed over the reins to Tony Bloom he described it as a “natural progression”, but what has happened since that day has in fact been not far short of miraculous. Whatever the coming season brings, the City of Brighton and Hove and the county of Sussex has a football club to be proud of and a community organisation to treasure. UTA!

Second Season Syndrome – Fact or Fiction?

Second Season Syndrome – Fact or Fiction? A blog looking at the effect of Second Season Syndrome in the Premier League #bhafc #htfc #nufc

So as Brighton approach another season in the Premier league a topic that will no doubt be discussed at length is the concept of “Second Season Syndrome”. For those who are unaware of this concept “Second season syndrome” is simply put: where a team fails to match the achievements of the first season after promotion in the season that follows, usually leading to relegation. The reasons for this occurring have been hypothesised as ranging from increased pressure resulting from heightened expectations to decreased motivation and complacency after achieving or exceeding a club’s expectations in its first season.

To be clear a “syndrome” can be defined as: a group of symptoms that are consistently occurring together. Suggesting Second Season Syndrome would equate to a regularly occurring trend for teams in their second season. Therefore, in this blog I will analyse the historic data to see if this syndrome exists, specifically within the Premier League.

According to anecdote the examples of this theory appear to be numerous but for me there are two that stick out. First Ipswich town who finished 5th in their first season in the top flight in the 2000/01 season and qualified for Europe, only to finish 13 places lower and be relegated the following season. Furthermore, Reading finished 8th in their first ever top flight season back in 2006/07 but dropped ten places to finish 18th the following season to be relegated back to the Championship.

However, there are of course examples of teams who have by contrast drastically improved on their first season performance in their second season. Leicester City famously won the league in their second season after promotion, whilst last season Burnley finished 7th and qualified for European competition. Both improving significantly on their first season league position.

But are either or both of these examples of anomalies or a rather sign of a greater trend?

Findings and analysis

I have looked at the performance of teams in their second season in the top flight following promotion to see if we can prove or disprove this theory, basing a team’s overall performance on their end of season league position. I looked at this using two fairly definitive measurements of second season syndrome. The proportion of team that were relegated in their second season, and the movement in position of a team from its first to its second season.

To do this I looked at the Premier League from 95/96 to date. The reason I did this was because for this period the top level contained 20 teams and 3 were promoted and 3 were relegated. I appreciate football began before this period but it would be an unfair year-on-year comparison as a result.

Furthermore, much has changed since the start of the premier league, particularly with the factor of ever increasing Sky tv revenue, which makes comparing the current day performances to performances before the advent of the Premier League difficult.

My analysis shows:

  • Since 95/96 – 13% of teams relegated were in their 2nd season (compared to 42% in first season).
  • In the last 10 years – 13% of teams relegated were in their 2nd season (compared to 33% in first season)
  • Since 95/96 – teams on average finish 1 place lower than they did in their first season (0.86) with a median movement of a one place drop.
  • In the last 10 years – teams on average finish 1 place higher than they did in their first season (1.22)
  • Standard deviation is a statistical measure which shows the spread of data within a dataset, the higher the deviation the higher the number. The standard deviation of the change in second season performance compared to the first season is just above 5 (5.4).

Findings

Whilst the examples of teams performing significantly worse in their second season are apparent, there is no clear evidence of a trend. Furthermore, there are as many examples of successful second seasons as there are unsuccessful.

The generally accepted hypothesis appears to be that a team’s second season is harder than the first, however the data here shows you are almost four times as likely to be relegated in your first season as your second.

Whilst a small decrease in average position of teams in the Premier league from first to second was found over the course of the period studied, there was no clear trend.

In fact, the standard deviations of the change in second season performance compared to the first of 5.4 shows there are large swings in 2nd season performance from one team to another. For instance during the period studied, whist Ipswich dropped 13 places year on year, Leicester went up 13 places year on year. As you can see from the final graph there are as many outliers on both sides of the deviations, which ensures this doesn’t skew the average significantly enough to affect the findings.

Conclusions

Ultimately Brighton, Huddersfield and Newcastle fans will be glad to see my analysis shows no definitive trend either way. The data shows a team’s 2nd season performance is ultimately more dependent on each club circumstances and the fact it’s their 2nd season doesn’t necessarily equate to a drop-in performance.

Ipswich for example had to contend with the additional strain on resources of extra games in the form of European competition in the season they were relegated. Leicester and Burnley however, went from a first season of relatively narrow survival to a second season of great success. Second seasons appear to only be a hinderance in certain circumstances.

These are of course outliers, the more common movement year on year was a fall of one place, with 50% of the year on year movement between a three-place fall and a one place rise in end of season league position. Whilst a small fall in average final league position suggests a second season may be on average marginally harder, a small movement such as this in a game of small margins such as football, hardly equates to a “syndrome” of such widespread notoriety.

In fact, in the last ten seasons the trend of second season performance has moved from a small decrease in year on year league position to a small increase, something that seems logical to me. As a team’s become more experienced and established in the top flight you’d expect their league position to rise. Furthermore, with the level of analysis that takes place at Premier league clubs now it’s not unexpected that the surprise factor of newly promoted teams may have been lost or at least diminished.

So, whilst some will refer to second season syndrome it appears to me to be a fictional concept designed in an attempt to try to create the narrative of a trend that doesn’t really exist. Many clubs in fact perform similarly or better to how they did in their first season and as already mentioned, where this isn’t the case there are often extenuating circumstances.

The clear trend is if you survive your first season you are between three and four times as likely to survive relegation in your second, many Premier League teams key goal. A trend that should fill Huddersfield, Newcastle and Brighton fans with confidence. Furthermore, the general trend is that every season you survive you’re then more likely to survive the following season.

My club Brighton appear to me to be a stable club that picked up points consistently over the course of the previous season and one that is more than capable of meeting and even improving on last season’s performance. Ultimately though the Premier league is a toughly fought division and time will tell where we end up come May and whether my hunch is correct.