Monday musings – Got spirit? let’s hear it!

The sun is shining, the first signs of spring are here, the cherry blossoms are beginning to flower, the tide of this terrible pandemic that we have been experiencing for a year now appears to be turning in our favour and Albion have one of the most talented teams in its 120 year history. And yet you’d be hard pushed to find any optimism amongst Albion supporters after a frustrating 1-0 defeat at the Hawthorns on Saturday.

It will have come as no surprise to most that Saturday saw yet another promising Brighton performance which saw plenty of scoring opportunities created, be again spoilt by poor finishing and poor defending from set pieces. Groundhog Day. Well, I did say it was the first signs of spring.

This has been a season built on the gutting and slicing up of Albion’s promotion winning side. Yes we’ve replaced those individuals who many saw as surplus to requirements, with a group of arguably higher quality players. But, have we built a team with the replacement parts? The fact Albion keep coming up short in games suggests not quite yet.

This is clearly a very well coached, talented group of players with a clear idea of how they want to play. But, that they keep getting found out in the key moments in matches suggests that as a collective there is still something missing.

One of the key attributes of the existing group of players that Potter inherited and has overseen a clear off of, was its unity and team spirit. A quality that was so consciously and carefully cultivated by his predecessor Chris Hughton.

Hughton held great stock in ensuring the team was full of the right types of personalities, or as Maty Ryan once famously put it – “no Dickheads”. So much so that there has been suggestions made that part of the reason Hughton was sacked was for his disagreements with others about transfer policy in order to protect the teams bond.

We have seen examples of it still existing at the club from this group of players. Most notably in the second half comeback at home against Wolves and the hard fought 1-0 win away to Leeds United. But this kind of collective performance has not been evident enough this season. Albion’s key players now need to step up and be counted.

Grit, stoicism, that intangible quality which comes largely from failing and having to pick yourself and go again, call it what you want. Hughton’s team had it by the bucketload. And no wonder after it had been to hell and back together both professionally in terms of the way it missed out on promotion in 2015/16, and in some cases personally, such as with Anthony Knockaert’s well documented personal issues. But in both cases they collective stood together and came out of those situations stronger because of it.

However, this team and set of players do not appear to have the same collective industry. The fact we’ve seen ex-players not be exactly complimentary about the club and existing ones use their agent to attempt to embarrass the club in order to get the right deal they want, is hardly the sign of a harmonious collective spirit.

Another example of this is its defending from set pieces, where we have regularly seen players find space in the gaps and score. This to a degree is an inherent problem with zonal marking when the ball drops between players ‘zones’, but man to man marking has its fallibilities too.

For me this isn’t about whether we use zonal or man to man marking, it’s about individuals taking person responsibility to stop the opposition scoring. Too often we’ve seen examples like Kyle Bartley’s goal on Saturday, where players run around one man and into a gap between two or three static Albion defenders to score.

Albion’s team is relatively young team and contains players who you’d somewhat expect lapses in focus and concentration throughout the season. This is where you need your players with more experience to be constantly communicating and reminding players of their jobs.

Brian Owen from the Argus stated earlier this season that “Adam Webster’s is one of the voices we hear quite clearly up in the stands during these behind-closed-doors matches (like Lallana and Ryan).” Three player not on the pitch at the time of the West Brom goal.

It’s not a surprise that Adam Webster’s absence, who is becoming a real leader of this team, saw an end to Albion’s clean sheet run. He’s been Albion best defender this season and talk of an extended absence is a really worry for Albion’s hope of turning this bad run around.

When it comes to spirit, it’s hard not to notice Neil Maupay’s is waning. Albion’s number nine started the season with 4 goals in 5 games, but his subsequent 3 goals in the last 22 tells its own story.

Clearly he’s lacking confidence, otherwise he’d have taken at least one of his recent chances, as well as possibly stepping up to take at least one of the penalties against West Brom. Especially when you consider he has an 80% penalty conversion rate at Albion and 3 of his 7 goals this season were penalties.

The football coach and analyst Harry Brooks spoke about the Maupay conundrum after the game on Twitter and stated that he believed “there’s a reason Brighton players keep missing these types of chances. They can’t take them. So therefore, Potter has to change the type of chances they create”.

And whilst I think we can all agree this is a harsh assessment and I don’t take his criticisms of Potter too seriously, the fact Albion have beaten teams like Leeds, Villa, Liverpool and Spurs this season when playing on the break with less possession and getting more runs in behind suggest that he’s got a point.

In fact, in the games Albion have won lately they have played a hugely contrasting style to their last three matches, which saw them pick up just one point. Brighton’s average possession in its last 3 games was 68% but their average possession in its last 3 Premier League wins was 38%, almost half!

Saturday’s defeat was the fourth time that Brighton have had over 60% possession in a Premier League game this season, and yet they have failed to win all four of those games, accumulating just 2 points. Meanwhile, they have had less than 40% possession 3 times, winning 2 and accumulating 6 points.

The trend is arguably more striking when you look at the bigger picture. With the team having had more possession than their opponents 14 times this season, winning just one (away to Newcastle) accumulating 10 points in that time, an average of 0.71 points per game. When they have had less possession than their opponents (9 times this season), they’ve won on 4 and occasions and picked up 14 points 1.56, an average of points per game.

The Premier League’s record goalscorer Alan Shearer also commented in a question and answer session for the Athletic this week about the team’s goalscoring problems. Saying that “it would definitely frustrate me as a player, because of that extra pass. The ball could come into the box a lot earlier.”

Going onto say “I’ve always said the time to worry is when you’re not creating chances. But when you’re missing as many as they are it has to be a concern. You have to look at the ability of players to be at this level.”

I’ve spoken as recently as last week about the importance of giving Graham Potter the time and patience to get it right and accepting that during this process, mistakes will happen and that very much stands. But, following these last two defeats I think that this is now far beyond a successions of individual mistakes and has become a real issue that the club has to overcome.

Patience goes both ways and Potter also has to accept that he needs to be patient in making these changes. I think some of the problems this season have come from the club trying to do too much too soon. Particularly in regards to some of the changes in personnel referenced earlier. However, it’s admittedly a tough balance and one most teams struggle with at this very competitive level.

Potter managed to get the balance right last season. A damming 1-0 defeat at home to Palace left the team one point above the drop zone with just ten to play and saw many drafting Potter’s managerial obituary. But he trusted his team, slightly switched the teams approach to a more back to basics style and Albion got the results they needed to get over the line to safety.

But regardless of your opinion on style, the players are the ones carrying out the work and need to repay Potter’s trust. Albion should have beaten Palace and West Brom this week, take those opportunities and no one is critical of Graham Potter.

Last week and frankly too often this season the players have let down Graham Potter and his coaching. And what some of the above criticism of him obviously doesn’t excuse is the two penalties that were missed on Saturday.

This is no longer Chris Hughton’s solid and reliable, if often unimaginative outfit. Graham Potter has successfully evolved this team into a very different outfit with a very different set of players. One that is arguably Albion’s most talented squad of players ever, and yet this is arguably the most perilous position of its time in the Premier League.

These are the moments that make or break a season. Where legends and villains are formed. It’s time for the current Albion team to show their spirit and earn their stripes.

Albion’s impressive and improving defensive record

Throughout the season and throughout the club’s occupation of the Premier League, Brighton’s form has fluctuated, but one constant has been the teams pretty dependable defensive record.

155 goals conceded in 107 games may not sounds impressive, but when you consider many relegated teams in recent years have conceded at an average of around 2 goals per game or sometimes more, and that Albion’s record equates to less than 1.5 per game, it starts to look far more impressive.

Moreover, despite the team’s much spoken about increased emphasis on attack under new manager Graham Potter, the defensive record this season is currently better at 1.32 goals conceded per game compared to both last season at 1.57 pg or the season before at 1.42 pg.

It can’t be ignored that since promotion this defensive record has been the club’s saving grace. With the team also scoring an average of less than a goal a game in both of the last two seasons, it’s that dependable defensive record that has enabled the team to pick up some all-important draws which helped it retain its topflight status over that time.

But this season has been different in that regard, with Potter’s Albion already being one goal off matching its best scoring record since promotion and that’s with 7 games still left to play. Whilst this hasn’t led to an increased rate of wins (7 so far compared to 9 in both the last two seasons), the defeats column totalling just 12 compared to a whopping 20 last season, (which no matter what won’t now be matched), indicates progress.

Statistics can be misleading though if not analyses properly and comparing this seasons stats when we aren’t yet finished to previously completed seasons could be just that. In particular the club’s tough run in should be considered. Especially if Albion concede 4 or more at home to Manchester City and Liverpool in future games as they have in recent seasons, some of those statistics could look far more comparable to last season or even worse.

But the fact that Albion would have to concede at about 3 goals per game between now and the end of the season to even match last season’s goals conceded record, (more than double its current season pg conceding average) shows just how good a defensive job the team have done so far this season whilst also improving its attacking record.

One of the key factors in that success has been the teams improved ball retention and at the heart of that has been Brighton’s captain Lewis Dunk. He was a lynchpin in Chris Hughton’s Albion side alongside Shane Duffy and has since flourished under Potter’s less direct style of play, which has seen him move from the teams heading and blocking defensive battering ram to a key figure in the starting point for much of the teams new found attacking possession based style.

Whilst Dunk has added consistency between the leaderships, one key change that has enabled Potter to enact this evolution in style so effectively has been Adam Webster. His arrival in the summer left many assuming Dunk would be on his way to Leicester, but it has instead seen last season’s Albion player of the season Shane Duffy spend much of the season on the bench.

It is true however that Webster has struggled at times, particularly early on when the sides use of a back three and an overemphasis on playing out from the back left him very exposed. Amongst Potter’s tactical fluidity, the move to a more regular use of a back four and a slightly more risk adverse approach to building out from the back has definitely helped him and the team improve its defensive stability.

Another player who like Dunk has had to similarly adjust to a very different style is Brighton’s goalkeeper Maty Ryan. A player who was equally important under Hughton and has equally flourished under Potter’s passing style. With the statistical swing of his distribution changing significantly from mostly kicking the ball long beyond the halfway line to mostly passing the ball out to one of Albion’s centre backs, he has arguably had to adjust the most.

I wrote earlier in the season that I’d like to have seen Duffy brought back into the team to give the club more defensive stability. And whilst he has come in and played well in some more recent games, blaming Webster individually for Brighton’s problems earlier in the season is too simple, the team’s risky approach simply left Webster often as the fall guy.

The tide really began to turn against this approach at home to Sheffield United in November, a game which saw Brighton’s keeper Ryan have 48 touches and an 89% pass accuracy rate. Numbers that demonstrate the intention of passing out from the back but mask the difficult situations the players he was passing to often found themselves in. That day saw the AMEX faithful frustrated with the teams over playing in defence, leaving the side taking too many risks at the back and make little progress going forward, with Webster in particular receiving heavy criticism.

This was one of many examples of course. Albion’s 2-0 defeat at home to Leicester in November saw Ryan achieve similar passing stats and Webster receive similar criticism after conceding the penalty for Leicester’s second. A penalty that unsurprisingly came after Ryan made a short pass to Pröpper in the teams own third despite him being under severe pressure from the opposition. It was the definition of a “hospital pass” which saw him promptly dispossessed by the opposition and a subsequent hasty challenge from Webster lead to the penalty for Leicester to score their second.

Compare that to the most recent games against Arsenal or Leicester, which saw Ryan achieve lower figures more comparable to last season under Hughton of 37 and 36 touches respectively and a lower passing accuracy of 68% and 63% as the team moved to a more direct style accepting less possession of the ball and taking less risks at the back. This has knock of effects of course, particularly on possession which has been severely reduced. Whilst this was in part dictated by the nature of the opposition, for most of the season Brighton have had more possession than the opposition, averaging 53%, the leagues seventh highest average. But in recent games this has significantly reduced with 41% against Arsenal and 34% against Leicester.

After the defeat at home to Sheffield United left many Albion fans audibly groaning at the teams risky and frustrating possession based approach, Graham Potter said in his programme notes for the next home game against Bournemouth in December that: “mistakes will happen” and that it was “all part of the process”. And whilst the subsequent win that day supported his claim, the recent change to a more risk adverse approach of playing out from the back may suggest the fans did still have a point. And although Maty Ryan’s spot of bother against Leicester shows you can’t remove all risk, moments like this have been less common in recent games.

Funnily enough in this regard, the 3-1 defeat away to Bournemouth in January in particular seems like a turning point in style. And after initial teething problems in the subsequent 3-3 draw against West Ham, the team have conceded only 4 goals in the last 6 games. Including away trips to Wolves, Sheff Utd and Leicester and home matches against Arsenal and Palace. All of whom currently sit in the top half.

Much of the recent talk on social media about Brighton’s defence has been about the future of Brighton’s loaned out youngster Ben White. But with Dunk, Webster and Duffy all playing well and the global transfer market likely to be significantly diminished by the ongoing global pandemic, there is no certainty he’d even be in Potter’s first choice eleven next season with the other options he has available. Add Dan Burn to the mix too, who whilst having played mostly at left back this season is more commonly thought of as centre back, and you have a lot of competition for places. And that ignores the likes of fellow loaned out youngsters Leo Ostigard and Matt Clarke, all making for increased competition in defence at the club.

Brighton’s end of season slump in both the previous two seasons and tough upcoming fixture list will hopefully ensure there is no complacency and that all minds are fully focused on the games ahead. But the recent improvement in its defensive record since the horror show away to Bournemouth along with Potter’s shift to a less idealistic style of play, gives rise to a certain amount of optimism for the Seagulls ahead of the final 7 game run-in.

A Resumption of Woe?

As the Premier League season resumes for Brighton on Saturday, the club sit 15th, 3 places and 2 points ahead of the relegation zone.

Whilst there is much excitement of football and many other aspects of normal life returning, this excitement has masked the concerning predicament that the club finds itself in. Still searching for its first win in 2020, only having scored 8 goals in the 10 matches played during that period, and with mounting scepticism over Graham Potter’s leadership. All combining to mean those good vibes could be over as quickly as David Luiz’s chaotic cameo for Arsenal against Man City on Wednesday night.

There are significant concerns over the club’s Premier League status despite bookies making Brighton a relative 3/1 outsider of the bottom six club’s to be relegated. Especially considering the fixture list, which leaves the club with four of the traditional top six still to play plus high flying Leicester.

Lots has already been discussed about the team’s lack of ability to take its opportunities this season. Be it goalscoring opportunities, or game winning opportunities. But most telling is that of the teams five remaining home fixtures, four are against traditional top six clubs. Leaving Albion either needing to significantly improve its away form or pull off some significant shocks in order to survive the drop.

Many have praised the club for its long term strategy, but too often it’s come at the expense of short term success. I’ve discussed the club’s overemphasis on the long term before. The most prominent example of which being the club’s stated target of establishing itself as a top ten topflight club. Something that felt a bit like planning a wedding before having found a partner who has agreed to marry you.

After a few high profile and high value underwhelming transfers from overseas, the emphasis seems to have altered towards encouraging the utilisation of more unproven younger players. With the likes of Lamptey, Mac Allister, Connolly and Alzate all being relied on to fill some gaping holes in the Albion’s squad. And with 5 substitutions now available during matches and those matches now coming thick and fast, this will be the case more than ever.

Graham Potter will get much of the credit/criticism for this approach. But it’s arguably far more as a result of the ever-growing influence of Technical Director Dan Ashworth on Brighton’s transfer policy in the post-Hughton era, as it is down to the appointment of Graham Potter.

Of course, whoever you credit/criticise for Brighton’s transfer policy, it’s worth noting that the club is limited in who it can recruit by its finances. With one of the smallest wage budgets in the division mixed with a huge amount of flux last summer, a relegation battle was always likely. All meaning the likelihood that the club could have brought in significant proven talent in recent transfer windows was small.

If my recent trails through the club’s history teaches me anything, it’s that the current stable leadership and topflight status should be cherished and enjoyed. Nonetheless this season has left many with a feeling of missed opportunities on a number of occasions.

But we do have reason to be optimistic, the return of the likes of Glenn Murray and Shane Duffy to starting births in the recently games before lockdown saw the club gains some vital draws. But with games running out, the team will need to turn those draws into wins.

Much will rely on the team actually taking advantage of the creative talents of Pascal Gross, Aaron Mooy and Leandro Trossard. All of which have deserved better at times than the results have delivered. Along with an increased reliance on other experienced squad members like Ryan, Propper and Dunk setting an example which the younger players can follow.

There is still plenty of game time for Brighton to make up for their lost ground from the season gone by, but time is running out, and the excuses for Potter’s team’s missed opportunities are beginning to run thin.

The game on Saturday against an Arsenal side fresh from Wednesday night’s embarrassment, gives the Seagulls a chance to make up some of that lost ground as well as putting some space between them and the bottom three. But given how many chances have already come and gone, you could forgive Brighton fans for still being pessimistic.

Brighton vs Man United – A history of contrariety

Whilst Brighton fans in the 1990s were forced to watch on during their club’s much documented struggles, Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United were enjoying one of the most successful periods of any club in English football history. As a result if you’d been on mine or any other school playground in Sussex at the time you’d be sure to find plenty who proclaimed to be huge United fans with grandparents from Manchester and struggle to find anyone who’d admit to follow Brighton for fear of fierce ridicule.

After the years of relative mediocrity for United that followed the end of the Matt Busby era at Old Trafford, the nineties saw a return to national superiority for the club. It was a decade which saw them win five of the ten topflight league championships on offer as well as four domestic cups and two European cups. One of those being the famous Champions League Trophy that saw them become the first English clubs to win the treble of the League title, the FA Cup and the European Cup in the same season (1998/99). All this during a time of great growth in world football led to Manchester United becoming the richest club in the world and a dominant figure for many years to come.

In contrast, after starting the decade in the second tier of English football and losing the 1991 playoff final to Neil Warnock’s Notts County to miss out on joining Ferguson’s United in the topflight, the nineties was a decade which saw a dramatic demise for the Albion. The following season the club were relegated to the third tier and by 1996 they were relegated again to the bottom tier of the football league before going a game away from falling out of the football league and probable oblivion a year later. All whilst the owners of the club did their best to run the club into the ground. Quite simply there can’t have been two more contrasting clubs during that period.

The first victory

So when on a Friday night in early May 2018 that same Brighton and Hove Albion (who were still in fear of a potential relegation in their first topflight season in 34 years) hosted a Man United team second in the Premier League, many could be forgiven for pinching themselves to check that they weren’t dreaming. And whilst this was a United team with no chance of catching league leaders and cross-city rivals Manchester City, they were still an intimidating opponent.

But it was a night where league positions and history were forgotten as the home crowd at the AMEX roared Brighton to a victory that took the club to mathematical safety and the holy grail that is the 40-point mark against an admittedly below par Manchester United.

In the club’s last home game of season they secured survival to secure only their sixth topflight season via a Pascal Gross headed goal on the end of a Jose Izquierdo cross, but only after it had been adjudged to have crossed the line by just 2.8cm by goal line technology.

There was a moment things looked to be heading the other way though, after Man United had a goal disallowed early in the first half with the game still tied at 0-0. Thankfully for Albion fans, Marouane Fellaini was correctly adjudged to be offside when turning home a Marcus Rashford free kick, but this was as close as United came to scoring in a performance epitomised by the England international Rashford’s inefficacy in leading the line. Rashford was maybe suffering under the pressure of the situation, with Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez injured this was his chance to show manager Jose Mourinho he could lead the line in the upcoming FA Cup final against Chelsea. Despite his inefficacy he did start that game, alongside Sanchez, a game United again lost 1-0.

In contrast Albion were supreme that night, with wingers Izquierdo and Knockaert both causing the opposition plenty of problems out wide, whilst Gross and Murray again linked up well to cause the opposition problems through the middle of the pitch. Gross scoring was not an unusual sight for the Amex crowd. In his maiden Premier League season, he scored 7 and assisted a further 8 of Albion’s 34 goals, going on to win the club’s player of the season award.

And Hughton’s resilient side held on fairly comfortably to secure a crucial and impressive win. This was possibly the most impressive performance of the whole season, and the timing of it was of huge relief. With the Seagulls final two fixtures being away games at Champions Man City and then finally away to fellow giants Liverpool, there were plenty of Albion fans getting a little worried about the threat of relegation.

Instead it was a night to celebrate, and with the game being on a Friday night plenty of Albion fans did. Once the team had carried out their traditional end of season lap of honour/appreciation, the fans flooded into the bars and pubs around the stadium and the city centre to celebrate achieving another season in the topflight.

The second victory

Later that year in August, as the 2018/19 football season got underway, Brighton opened their second Premier League season at home with the same home fixture that ended the last, and it was to be the same outcome as before too, with another victory for Albion over Man Utd.

However, it wasn’t all good for the Albion that day, after then stand-in captain for the day Lewis Dunk was forced to come off injured early in the first half. But fortunately, he was replaced by the new signing and Nigerian international Leon Balogun who was instantly up to the pace and the standard of the Premier League and played well alongside centre back partner Shane Duffy.

With Balogun a more than capable deputy, the Albion were able to press United with gusto, putting them under plenty of pressure. And it wasn’t long before this pressure told and the Albion got off the mark with a sublime chip from Glenn Murray. This is a goal that has to go down as one of his best for the Albion, whilst it was from close range, the skill and technique to flick the ball up and chip the ball over United ‘keeper David De Gea was a great sight to behold.

With the Albion faithful still in a state of shock to be ahead, a second Albion goal from Shane Duffy sent the AMEX into a state of pandemonium. United allowed Shane Duffy an absurd amount of time in the box to take the ball down and he rifled it home to give the team a two-goal lead.

After Lukaku had pulled one back for the visitors, last season’s match-winner Pascal Gross once again converted, this time from the penalty spot, to regain the team’s two goal advantage going into half time.

As the first half ended it gave the crowd time to take stock of what had been a whirlwind of a first half. One where the Albion had played with a level of pace and intensity unrecognisable from the 3-0 defeat to Watford on the opening day of the season just the week before, and to be frank most of the season previous too.

Despite an improved display from United in the second half, they once again upon visiting the AMEX rarely troubled the Albion defence. Meaning the late penalty clumsily given away by Duffy and scored for United by Paul Pogba was a meaningless consolation for the visitors leaving Albion 3-2 victors.

To the future, via the past

As well as being a second home win in a year this was in fact the third straight home League win for Brighton against Man United. The first of that run coming 36 years previous when a solitary Peter Ward goal gave Albion a 1-0 win back in the last season of Brighton’s only other topflight spell from 1979 to 1983. In fact despite their contrasting histories Brighton have won a respectable three to Man United’s six of the eleven occasions these sides have met in Sussex, with the remaining two ending in draws.

Just a matter of months later after the league season ended with Brighton relegated from the topflight, the clubs met again in the 1983 FA Cup final. After the original tie ended with a memorably entertaining 2-2 draw, United won the replay comprehensively 4-0.

And aside from meeting each other in both the League Cup and FA Cup during the 1992/93 season, they would have to wait 34 seasons to meet again in the league. In fact prior to Albion’s promotion in 1979 the clubs had only met once beforehand in the 1909 FA Cup, when Man United ran out 1-0 winners.

After all those many years apart, this week sees the sides now meet for the tenth time since Albion’s promotion to the topflight in 2017. It’s a long way from having to wait another 34 years for the occasion.

Loyalty in football

Loyalty is an often-discussed topic amongst football fans. Be it the perceived loyalty of long-serving players such as Brighton’s former striker Gary Hart or the perceived lack of it from the currently loaned out Brighton striker Florin Andone. Many of Hart’s former managers regularly praised him for his commitment, dedication and work-rate, but despite his evident talent Andone’s behaviour at the club was so divisive that journalist Paul Hayward joked he’d be holding his leaving party in a phone box before his departure to join Turkish giants Galatasaray on loan this summer.

But loyalty isn’t just about being liked by interested parties. The Oxford Dictionary definition of loyalty is “the quality of being faithful in your support of someone or something.”

Whilst it’s easy to see that Hart fits this definition far better than Andone, based on his recent interview with the Athletic the later clearly felt that the club didn’t deserve a faithful dedication to the cause based on how he had been treated. In contrast Gary Hart regularly stated that he expected little and was just happy to be a professional footballer, and his determination was almost undying despite the relatively limited renumeration and training facilities he had at the club during his time. The loyalty of those within a club relies heavily on the environment that exists and modern football has many recent examples like Andone’s that suggest the environment is far from ideal.

Loyalty isn’t just about players though. Whilst fans demand it from their club’s players, many supporters fail to act in a similar fashion.

At Arsenal, led by the YouTube channel Arsenal Fans TV there is a culture of regular and at times ferocious criticism of players and management. And at its heart is the fans YouTube channel which has encouraged the hounding of key figures at the club, no more so than the regular and viscous protests that were held against former manager Arsenal Wenger. A trend continued after his departure with the latest figure of the fans ire Granit Xhaka who’s perceived lack of dedication and loyalty has made him a scapegoat for Arsenal’s recent poor form.

All of these are examples of how the changes in the funding structure of the football industry in recent decades has altered the power of the different stakeholders. The investors and the loyalty of their key revenue source; the TV corporations, are of the upmost importance. In contrast supporters are becoming a marginalised interest group in the sport and an ignored voice. And as such the players are now far more motivated by the loyalty they are shown from the owners of their club and their image in the media as presented by the TV corporations, than their reputation amongst supporters of their club.

When it comes to owners, some clubs are luckier than others and as Brighton fans we are incredibly lucky to have Tony Bloom as Chairman. He’s not just a fan of the club from a young age, but someone whose family has been involved at the club for decades and a person that was on the board at the club long before becoming Chairman. As such the history and identity of the club is ingrained within him and we are unlikely to get the types of missteps that some modern football club investors who have been attracted to English football primarily by the financial possibilities have become notorious for. You only have to compare his reign as chairman to other clubs such as Cardiff, Bury, Sunderland or Hull to appreciate that. Clubs where owners have come in and even if their actions were well intentioned, they have destroyed the harmony amongst supporters and left the club in a mess.

However even with the best possible owner of the club, they don’t always act with the highest levels of loyalty. Take the sacking of former manager Chris Hughton for example. Hughton was the man that led the club to achieve Bloom’s ultimate goal of top flight status, and kept the club there for two seasons. However the perceived lack of entertainment and worrying loss of form meant he lost his job regardless, mainly because the club’s topflight status and the club’s reputation within it are far more important than loyalty to past achievements. The club didn’t want to risk the loss of tens of millions of pounds in TV revenue and slowly getting the reputation as the new Stoke City that neutrals don’t wants to watch, and so sacked Hughton in favour of a more attack-minded and exciting appointment in Graham Potter.

In an industry with a culture where results are expected quickly and progress is expected almost indefinitely, it could easily be argued that the loyalty of people like Chris Hughton should be praised. Instead they have are often roundly criticised by supporters as soon as things go wrong, supporters who perceive themselves as the truly loyal party at the club.

But then again supporters’ voices aren’t listened to much in the modern Premier League era where clubs are driven by the TV corporations who almost entirely fund their organisations. So it’s no wonder that criticism of others arises from a feeling of bitterness and frustration.

Another example of these changes is the FA Cup. A competition steeped in history and tradition, much of which has been undermined in favour of the increased commercial success of the competition in order to keep it relevant to the clubs and so losing those traditions that are important to supporters.

All this is a sign of those whose loyalty in football really matters. The TV corporations are the club’s key stakeholder and so lead those club’s decision-making processes. As such the loyalty in English football is no longer prioritised towards reciprocating supporters’ loyalty towards their clubs but the financial support provided by the TV revenue.

In an industry where TV revenue and success are king, loyalty feels like a forgotten skill and the loyalty of the likes of Gary Hart’s and Chris Hughton’s is no longer as valuable to clubs. And so supporters will have to accept their clubs having less of their like and more talented but unpredictable players and managers of the likes of Florin Andone.

Twenty things from twenty seasons (part 2)

This piece is the second part of two blogs. To start at the beginning click here to read part one.

2009/10 – After an underwhelming start to season and with the club still scarred from the horrors of the season before, manager Russell Slade was sacked in November. This was Tony Bloom first sacking as Chairman, and it was proof he had the ruthlessness required for the job. Whilst in hindsight it looks a clear and obvious decision, many of the Albion faithful wanted him to show more loyalty to Slade after the heroics he oversaw as Albion miraculously avoided relegation in the previous season.

This was a level of ruthlessness that it could be said former chairman Dick Knight lacked in his final season. In contrast, the reason Knight gave Micky Adams the job in the first place was mostly through thinking with his heart over his head, then he gave him 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 himself 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 at Chelsea and Tottenham. 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 a few years later.

That day at St Mary’s in mid-November started his Albion career with a bang and there were plenty more bangs to come. I wrote more about the game here, but this was a night when in Gus Poyet’s first game in charge of the Albion the team ran out 3-1 winners in a victory so memorable the third goal is often still played in the game opening montage at the AMEX and whilst it took time for Poyet to properly make his mark on the club, this was a sign of things to come.

2010/11 – the following season saw Poyet turn the Albion from a hapless relegation struggler to a F’ing brilliant Championship winning side. One that wasn’t just great, but also great to watch.

A night that personified Gus’s tenure as manager was that famous and frantic night where we beat Dagenham and Redbridge 4-3 to gain promotion to the Championship.

On a night we expected to secure promotion with ease over a Dagenham side that would eventually be relegated, against a Brighton team who’d not lost at home all season were instead staring down the barrel of a defeat when John Akinde gave the visitors the lead after just 1 minute.

However, that lead didn’t last long and a quick double from the Albion via goals from Inigo Calderon and Glenn Murray game them a 2-1 lead at half time.

But it was not to be plain sailing from there as after 3 second half minutes Dagenham equaliser and then after 3 more they took the lead from the penalty spot

But the lead changed hands once again. First Liam Bridcutt fired home from 25 yards to equalise for Brighton and then Ashley Barnes headed in what turned out to be the winner with just under half an hour to go.

This left the reminder of time where the thousands of Albion fans inside Withdean or listening to the radio at home with a long anxious period where Dagenham pushed for another equaliser, but this time the defence stood firm.

What a way to see off the Withdean days, a pitch invasion ensued, the title was secured the following Saturday away to Walsall and lifted at home to Huddersfield the week after, who had to settle for a place in the playoffs, whilst Albion were about to enter an new era in the club’s history.

By now Tony Bloom’s investment was starting to make a mark on 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, one that had gone on to win League One and would experience more success in the Championship.

2011/12 – August 2011 finally saw the first competitive game at Brighton and Hove Albion Football Club’s long awaited, stubbornly fought for and much anticipated new stadium. As the day’s events off the pitch were going to be memorable, the events on the pitch had to ramp it up a notch to have a chance of sticking in the memory too, and how they did.

The game was to be played against the team Brighton had played in their final home game at their last permanent home the Goldstone Ground back in 1997, Doncaster Rovers. And as we walked up the ramp to the stadium and settled in our padded seats in the state-of-the-art stadium, it was hard to reconcile this club with the one many of us had watched play at the Goldstone and at Withdean over recent decades.

After Billy Sharp gave Doncaster an unexpected lead and in doing so scored the first competitive goal at the AMEX, Albion huffed and puffed for a long time to no avail until a late double from Will Buckley saved the occasion from being dampened.

The £1m man Will Buckley was a second half substitute, coming on for the less than effective Matt Sparrow. This substitution was to have an almost instant impact as after a Liam Bridcutt free-kick was headed clear to the edge of the box, Buckley rifled it home to equalise. Cue pandemonium in the stands and almost as if it was choreographed, thousands of Blue and White flags were flown in the air to celebrate. This would have been enough to salvage the momentous day from ending on a sour note, but more joy was to come.

The momentum was with Albion, players streamed forward in search for a winner and indeed it came, when fellow substitutes Craig Noone and Will Buckley combined. A Noone through pass in behind the Doncaster defence found Buckley one-on-one with the keeper, who scored the winner. Cue further pandemonium, flag waving and an incredible outpouring of emotion. Ultimately the result wouldn’t have mattered as it was finally having the stadium that really mattered, but by winning the team had topped off a wonderful day in fairy-tail style.

2012/13 – With the stadium still in its honeymoon period, a feeling of deflation, frustration and torment was about to well and truly kill that off. It was a feeling brought on by losing the playoff semi to our rivals Crystal Palace; and was a result of those the two Zaha goals and the wild celebrations amongst the travelling Palace fans in the South Stand that followed them.

What made it worse is that for the first time I could remember since supporting the Albion, we went into the derby game with the upper hand. Having finished higher in the final league table and beating Palace 3-0 at the AMEX in the league just a couple of months before, this felt like our match to lose. As a result, this coupled with the chance of top-flight football, it was probably the biggest match for the Albion since the playoff final in 2004.

This confidence remained, when after a 0-0 draw at Selhurst Park in the first leg, Albion were favourites to progress. And as the tie was still 0-0 on aggregate at half time in the second leg at the AMEX, and with the possibility of a penalty shootout looking more likely, this was tense but exciting.

The second half though, was heart-breaking. We started well and had good chances to take the lead, Ashley Barnes hit the bar with one shot and had another cleared off the line, but this was not to be Brighton’s day.

And as the frustration grew so did the anxiety from the home fans and with twenty minutes to go Zaha scored to give Palace the lead. Then after twenty minutes of fruitless pressure from the Albion, Zaha made it 2-0 and with that ended the Albion’s dream of promotion, for another year at least. And as our pain was Palace’s gain, this made it even worse.

2013/14 – after a long and drawn out suspension and investigation into Gus Poyet’s conduct he was sacked by the club over the summer and replaced by former Barcelona B manager Oscar Garcia Junyent. And after initial concerns following the fiasco which followed the defeat to Palace that the club would take a step backwards, this showed the club were intent instead on continuing to progress. In that vein the club qualified for the end of season promotion playoffs once again, albeit on the last day of the season with virtually the last touch of the ball off Leo Ulloa’s head finding its way into the net.

In the Semi-final Brighton drew Derby County, who finished 3 places and 13 points above the Albion and so were strong favourites. But it was Brighton who struck first when the on loan Jesse Lingard finished a good team move but by half time Brighton were 2-1 down and that was how the first leg ended.

But to say it was a deserved lead for Derby would be untrue. Brighton manager Garcia said the result was “unfair” and that “We were better than them in all areas. I am really proud of our performance.”

But you have to take your chances in knockout football and that was it for the Seagulls, something that a conversion rate of 20% of shots on target compared to Derby’s 200% that night suggested (Derby’s second was an own goal from Albion Keeper Kuszczak which ricocheted in off his back after hitting the crossbar).

What was to follow was 90 minutes of hell at Pride Park in the second leg, as an Albion team already ravaged with injuries lost captain Gordon Greer early on who was replaced by the youngster Adam Chicksen who was making only his fifth appearance of the season to make up a makeshift defence.

That was the telling moment of the game, as Albion went on to be overrun by a rampant Derby side who scored 4 to Albion’s 1, eventually winning 6-2 on aggregate. And that was that for another season. Yet another season of joy, hope and relative success in the context of the club’s history ending in despair.

Context is important though. For a club that for so long didn’t have a permanent home ground and that had spent most its history in the third tier of English football to establish itself as one of the best teams outside the top flight was a testament to Tony Bloom’s investment. But he wasn’t done just yet, not until the club were in the Premier League. Unfortunately, there were a few bumps in the road ahead before that could happen.

Oscar Garcia resigned shortly after the season ended, a resignation the club had apparently expected. In particular it was his dissatisfaction with the club’s transfer policy being cited in some quarters as a reason for his departure. With the situation not helped when Ashley Barnes was sold to Burnley and Liam Bridcutt moved to Sunderland in the January transfer window of that season. A lesson the club would heed when clubs came calling in later promotion battles.

This was the second manager in two seasons resigning because he felt he couldn’t take the club further in the competitive climate the club were competing within. Whilst some criticism was valid, this was an incredibly competitive league, one where a significant proportion of club’s had significantly higher budgets than the Albion. And with the FFP rules to comply with too, the club were in a difficult spot.

Poyet said that it was “Now or Never” to get promotion to the top tier the season before. Whilst this was a typically Poyet-style exaggeration of the truth, there was an element of truth to it. Especially given the financial power that a number of the other teams had over the Brighton; it was going to take a serious defying of the odds to achieve promotion from here on in.

2014/15 – The next season contextualised just how competitive this division was when after former Liverpool defender Sami Hyypia was appointed manager over the summer, the club went on a downturn which saw only six wins in twenty-six games. A run which lead to Hyypia losing his job and Albion staring down the barrel at the prospect of relegation back to the third tier.

Not long after assistant manager Nathan Jones took charge 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 very 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.”

The next four and a half years saw Hughton and the team he went on to build cement their names as Albion legends; legends that will be spoken about for generations to come. And once survival from relegation was secured with relative comfort, it was a period where Hughton would begin to build possibly the best side in the club’s history.

2015/16 – but you don’t appreciate joy without having experienced plenty of heartache. And 15/16 was to see an Albion side would experience a great deal of that. After an intense season-long promotion race with rivals Burnley and Middlesbrough went down to the final day, Brighton missed out on goal difference.

It was the nearest of near misses as going into the final day, Burnley were two points ahead of Middlesbrough and Brighton but as Brighton travelled to Middlesbrough on the final round of fixtures, they had already achieved promotion. So it came down to this showdown at the Riverside, with both teams knowing that a win would see them up, but a 1-1 draw meant both finished on 89 points (a points total good enough for automatic promotion almost every other season in recent history) and Brighton missed out on automatic promotion on goal difference by just two goals.

The nature of the miss left everyone demoralised ahead of the familiar and this time less eagerly anticipated playoffs semi-final, which would this time be against Sheffield Wednesday.

It wasn’t just the nature of the miss but also the fact the playoffs hadn’t been kind to Brighton, and the first leg at Hillsborough would be no different as a 2-0 defeat left the Albion with an unenviable deficit to overturn.

It was a game to forget, with Dale Stephens suspended after receiving a controversial red against Middlesbrough, and Lewis Dunk also suspended for the first leg, whilst the returning veteran Bobby Zamora missed the entire run-in through an injury, the team were severely weakened. This injury for Zamora was one that ended up forcing him to retire, ending an enjoyable but short swansong that brought back memories of his first spell. Brighton lost another four players to injury during the first 60 minutes leaving them down to ten. And after Kieran Lee gave Wednesday a 2-0 lead many thought would be unassailable.

And so it proved, but it was not without the Albion throwing everything at their opponents in the second leg at the AMEX. In these circumstances you’d usually say the team threw the kitchen sink at them, well here the Albion threw the whole kitchen at them; washing machine, oven, cupboards and all, but to no avail as Wednesday stood firm.

When Dunk game Albion the lead on 19 minutes it felt like it could be our day, but Wednesday quickly equalised within nine minutes and Albion went on to miss a plethora of chances to make a comeback. 27 shots, 9 on target but only 1 goal to show for it. It was to a degree the same old story, three semi-final defeats in four years, three different managers, but when it came to the crunch playoff game the same old problems.

But this day felt different to the others, gut-wrenching, yes. But not as demoralising. For a start I doubt the atmosphere in the AMEX for that second leg will ever be topped, and to go with it was an inspiring performance of real effort and intent from the Albion players. Despite the crushing miss of automatic promotion and the crushing defeat at Hillsborough this team was still kicking.

2016/17 – the next time we all convened at the AMEX there was a reinvigorated optimism around the place. There had been many good summer additions, including a certain Steven Sidwell, now 33, that we came across back in 2003 during a loan spell with the club as a young up-and-coming player. The club also signed Northern Ireland international Oliver Norwood to bolster numbers in a central midfield that had become over-reliant on the partnership of Stephens and Kayal. Shane Duffy was to sign later that month, a player who would go on to form a formidable partnership with Lewis Dunk at the back. And then there was the return of Glenn Murray. A man who’d left the club in 2011 on the eve of the move to the AMEX to join rivals Palace was back and would quickly win round any remaining doubters with his keen eye for goal.

But more than that, key players had been held onto, Dale Stephens and Lewis Dunk in particular had been subject to fierce transfer rumours of a move away, but both stayed, largely due to the club’s firmness to reject a number of offers. Clearly a sign they’d learnt lessons from the ill effects of the sale of key players in prior transfer windows.

When the first home game came around against Nottingham Forest there was plenty of optimism of the team going one better and finally achieving that coveted goal of automatic promotion to the topflight.

And it was a game that mirrored much of what was good about this Albion team, Anthony Knockaert who went on to win Championship player of the season scored the opener and then the returning Glenn Murray scored his first two goals after returning to the club and was set on his way to scoring 23 that season.

What followed was possibly the best season on the club’s history when it’s comes to pure joy and glory. At times winning felt like an unvarying habit and losing inconceivable.

After unexpectedly losing at home to Brentford in early September the team didn’t lose again in 2016. And aside from that Bristol City defeat at home where the team had already been promoted, only Champions Newcastle took all three points from the AMEX from there on in.

After the win over Forest, Brighton went top that night as a result of playing on a Friday night ahead of the rest of the division. They went on to spend 76% of the season in those automatic promotion places, including most importantly the last one. Premier League here we come!

2017/18 – There were more triumphant days than the 2-0 home defeat to eventual Champions Manchester City, but for me there have been no game which filled me with more pre-match excitement, maybe except from the opening game against Doncaster six years before.

Brighton in the Premier League, that’s right Premier F***ing League! The hairs on the back of my neck were stood up all day with anticipation. Before the game Brighton city centre was packed with football fans of both the royal-blue and sky-blue persuasion and the 5-30 kick off allowed everyone a bit more time for everyone to lap up the atmosphere and enjoy the build-up on a sunny late summer day.

Once you got into the ground you were greeted with the sight of countless TV crews lining the pitch in anticipation of the Premier League’s opening weekend late Saturday kick off, this felt like Brighton were finally box office.

As the teams came out a banner was lifted in the North Stand saying “From Hereford to Here”, the title of a poem written for the occasion by Atilla the Stockbroker which was based around the club’s rise since that win at Hereford in 1997 that kept the club in the football league. For me it wasn’t quite from Hereford away in 97 to here but from Hartlepool at home in 99 to here, but it had still been some rise that I’d been lucky enough to witness the majority of.

At times during the mid-Withdean years when the Stadium planning permission battle seemed endless, it was hard to imagine the club playing in the top flight, but 34 years since the club last reached these height, 20 years since that Hereford game and the closing of the Goldstone and 6 years since the opening of the AMEX it had finally come. Through all the battles with shoddy owners, planning committees and playoff semi-final opponents, the club had finally made it.

The game itself was less important but as brilliant as the day was, City were just as mesmerising, and Albion matched them for large periods. And in fact, Albion nearly took the lead before two quick goals around the hour mark sealed a 2-0 win for City.

This was a lesson in what the step up to the topflight was all about, the ball retention, passing accuracy and constant tempo of the City possession was like nothing the team had seen in the Championship. So, they quickly found out what survival would require and in the coming months Hughton’s men continuously progressed and eventually achieved safety with the relative comfort of two games to spare.

2018/19 – Finally, we come to last season and when it comes to the best moments of that season there are none that beat the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley. But rather than focus on the game here I want to focus on the day, and what a day it was.

Yes we lost, but the day was never about the result, it was about the club and its fans enjoying a historic day in the club’s history. Brighton fans filled pubs all over London, from Marylebone to Mayfair, from The Globe in Baker Street to The Green Man in Wembley. And the pre-match the atmosphere in the west end of Wembley stadium was a sight that could have put a lump in the back of the throat of even the less sentimental from within our fanbase.

For me the best moment of the day was still to come. At the final whistle 35,000 Brighton fans stood on their feet applauding and cheering their side. Proud of their efforts and appreciative of what had been a memorable cup run for the club, it’s second best performance in the FA Cup and the best for 36 years.

These were post-match celebrations that will live long in the memory. I, like I’m sure many others, felt quite emotional at the end, maybe it was the weariness from the battle, maybe it was the sound of Fatboy Slim’s “Praise You” ringing around the Stadium, a song that has become synonymous with the club, or maybe it was sharing such a momentous day with family and friends. Either way it had been a second half performance from the team to be praised. Whilst chances were few and far between, this Albion side had pushed possibly the greatest team in the world right to the end. And after a few post-match drinks to savour every drop of the day we went home satisfied that we’d made the most of it and the team had done the City proud.

Whilst some would criticise this as a typically negative performance from Brighton, including the BBC’s Jermaine Jenas who called it as “missed opportunity” for the club, they were up against a great team. And you only have to look at the final ten minutes where Brighton did throw players forward in attack to see what they were up against, a period in which the Albion managed to create no clear cut chances, whilst City created the best of the game on the break, which Raheem Stirling struck tamely into the hands of Brighton ‘keeper Maty Ryan.

The club hoped this would be a springboard for the two key home games coming next in their relegation run-in, but instead the team lost both games at home to Bournemouth and fellow-strugglers Cardiff and only stumbled to safety when at one point it looked like it would be achieved comfortably. But achieved it was and I go into my twenty first season as an Albion fan supporting a topflight club, which considering all that has gone before is pretty special.

Guest blog from Albion tweeter SeagullsAcademy – Graham Potter and the Fountain of Youth

The long-time Albion fan behind the SeagullsAcademy twitter account has a particular interest in the Albion youth system and the young players developing through the academy. Here he provides a little background on the youngsters hoping to make an impression on the new Albion head coach Graham Potter.

As preparations start to ramp up at the Albion for the third successive season of Premier League football, things will be a little different this summer. The Seagulls enter the 2019-20 campaign with a new head coach at the helm; Graham Potter was appointed exactly one week after Chris Hughton was fired in the hours that followed the final match of the 2018-19 season. With Dan Ashworth having also been recently appointed (to the new position of Technical Director) it is clear that Chairman Tony Bloom is moving the club into previously uncharted waters.

Bloom has, of course, invested a huge sum of money into the infrastructure of the club over the last decade. He funded not just the building of the award-winning Amex Stadium but also the state-of-the-art Category One Academy, the American Express Elite Football Performance Centre. It is now apparent that the chairman expects to see a return on his investment (not necessarily in financial terms, but certainly in terms of producing young footballers who are capable of forcing their way into first team contention).

Chris Hughton’s four-and-a-half-year tenure as Albion manager will be fondly remembered by most Albion fans for many years to come. He inherited a side that was struggling in the Championship and took them to within a whisker of automatic promotion in his first full season. He went one step further twelve months later and then kept the club in the Premier League for two seasons, for good measure. However, there is one thing that was noticeably absent from Hughton’s spell in charge; there were very few first team opportunities for the youngsters developing through the academy, particularly in the league side. This was perhaps most evident when Hughton chose to ignore both Ben White and Ben Barclay and go with no specialist centre-back cover on the bench for three Premier League matches in December 2018.

Given the success of the U-23 side over the last two campaigns (promotion and then a third-place finish in Premier League 2 [Division One]) it would be difficult to argue that the players simply aren’t there. Who are the youngsters who might make the breakthrough now that Albion have a head coach who garnered a reputation at Swansea City last season of giving youth a chance?

Striker Viktor Gyokeres has a genuine opportunity to establish himself in Potter’s first team squad over the next few weeks, particularly as it has been reported that the Swedish youngster was on the Englishman’s radar when Potter was still at Ostersunds. Gyokeres is more a bought-in talent than a product of the academy, joining the club in January 2018 at the age of 19 and hitting the ground running with 11 goals in 15 appearances for the U-23s in 2017-18. He made his first team debut against Southampton in the Carabao Cup last August and also made four appearances in the FA Cup run. He made his debut for the full Sweden international side in January (against Finland as part of a training camp in Qatar, albeit in a very young side) and scored on his full debut against Iceland a few days later.

Fellow U-23 striker Aaron Connolly will also be hoping to impress the new boss during pre-season. The diminutive forward joined Albion to commence his scholarship in the summer of 2016 after developing through the youth system at Mervue United in Galway. He has so far scored at every level he has played at, including notching a brace against West Ham in his debut for the Albion U-23s in January 2017, scoring a hat-trick against MK Dons in the Checkatrade Trophy last November and scoring seven minutes into his debut for the Republic of Ireland U-21 side in the Toulon Tournament in France recently. The Premier League 2 Player of the Season had a brief, injury-affected loan spell at Luton Town towards the end of last season, making a couple of substitute appearances, and will probably be loaned out again to continue his development.

Connolly’s Irish colleague (and captain of the U-21 side during that recent Toulon Tournament) Jayson Molumby has been tantalisingly on the edges of the Albion first team squad in the last couple of seasons, but his chances of a breakthrough have been disrupted by a serious knee injury. He started both of Albion’s Carabao Cup matches in August and September 2017 and a month later was named on the bench by Chris Hughton for three Premier League matches. Unfortunately within weeks he suffered a dislocated knee cap which required surgery in January 2018. He broke down again as he returned to training at the start of 2018-19 and required a second surgery in August 2018. He finally returned to action for the U-23s in February this year (and made the bench for the first team for the Derby County FA Cup tie the very next day). He was named as one of the top four players in Toulon and a fit, healthy and rested Molumby will undoubtedly be pressing his claim at club level.

Max Sanders came through the scholarship system at Albion at the same time as Molumby. Sanders, who hails from Horsham, has been with the club since he was 8. He earned his scholarship a full 12 months before it commenced and was captaining the U-23 side during his first full season at that level in 2017-18. He is comfortable fulfilling a number of roles in midfield, capable of getting forward and contributing goals (he scored 6 in 34 appearances for the U-23s in 2017-18) but also able to sit and play the holding midfielder position where he formed a very effective partnership with Steven Alzate during that same season. He was rewarded for his fine club form when he was selected for the England U-19 squad at the UEFA 2018 U-19 European Championship Finals in Finland in July 2018. He started 3 of the 4 matches and was a half-time substitute in the other. He lost a couple of months to injury at the start of the 2018-19 campaign but earned a place in the matchday squad for the Premier League fixture at home to Liverpool in January 2019. He has yet to appear for the Albion first team (he was an unused substitute for the FA Cup 6th round fixture at Old Trafford in March 2018) but it is surely only a matter of time before opportunity comes knocking.

Turning to the defence, Albion have a player who made his first team debut nearly three years ago and who is now the most experienced outfield youngster on the books (with perhaps the highest upside). Ben White joined Albion during his U-16 schoolboy season after he was released by the Southampton academy. He made his debut for the U-18s in 2014. The cultured centre-back (who is also capable of playing at right-back) developed through the youth team and U-23s before making two starts for the first team in the League Cup in August 2016. The following season he spent the campaign on loan at League Two Newport County. He netted one goal in 51 first team appearances and won FOUR Player of the Season awards at the club’s end-of-season awards night; he also won the South West Argus Player of the Season poll. County’s manager Mike Flynn described him as an “outstanding talent” and the best loan signing the club had ever made. He also expected White to go on and earn an international cap.

White spent the first half of the 2018-19 season back with Albion. Ben Barclay (a season older than White) was named in the Premier League 25-man squad but Hughton ranked White ahead of him in the pecking order. White would have started against Southampton in the Carabao Cup in August 2018 but picked up an injury playing for the U-23s a few days beforehand, giving Barclay the opportunity. White was named on the bench by Hughton for the Premier League fixture at Burnley in December 2018 but for the next three matches, when Albion had only two fit-and-available first team centre-backs, the manager chose to leave him (and Barclay) out of the squad altogether. In early January 2019 White went out on loan again, this time to League One Peterborough where he scored one goal in 16 first team appearances.

White has already moved out on loan for the 2019-20 season, this time to Championship Leeds United. The Whites are known to have been impressed by his spell at Newport County and he now has the opportunity to make an impact at a higher level than he has previously played. With the ink barely dry on a new three-year deal, the future looks rosy for the Poole-born youngster.

Left-back George Cox finally got the opportunity to experience senior football in 2018-19. Sussex born and bred, he joined Albion at U-11 level and developed through the age ranks until his U-16 season when he wasn’t offered a scholarship by the Seagulls. He secured a trial with Aston Villa but they didn’t offer him anything as they thought he was too small. He returned to Albion but was only getting expenses in 2014-15 (unlike his scholarship colleagues who were now being paid). He made his first start of that season for the U-18s in September 2014 against Aston Villa in a 3-0 win and immediately after the match he learned he had finally earned his coveted scholarship.

In 2017-18 Cox was an ever-present for the U-23s as promotion to Premier League 2 Division One was achieved via the play-offs. He was all set to go out on loan at the start of the following season when routine testing discovered an irregular heartbeat that required surgery. He had to be awake for the procedure and felt the surgeon cut his groin and saw his blood on the surgeon’s fingers. However, Cox made a full recovery and after returning to the Albion U-23 side he joined League Two Northampton Town on loan in January 2019. Unfortunately he suffered an ankle injury in only his second game for the Cobblers and after almost three months out returned to action for the final few league matches of the season.

Cox had repeatedly demonstrated in his Albion U-23 appearances that he is capable of delivering a lethal ball into the opposition’s penalty area for his attacking colleagues. He will have an opportunity to leave an impression on new boss Potter during the next few weeks of pre-season, but will most likely move out on loan again to continue his development. There are a number of other young players who will also be seeking to put down a marker, not least Steven Alzate (who now has league experience with Leyton Orient and Swindon Town) and Haydon Roberts (who will still be a scholar in 2019-20 but has established himself in the Albion U-23 side and become a permanent member of the England U-17 side with 15 appearances in 2018-19). The youth system at the Albion has never boasted a higher calibre of young player, and the era of the first team manager not trusting the emerging talent might just be at an end.

 

 

Graham Potter – You don’t have to be a Wizard to do well here, but it helps

So after the somewhat abrupt sacking of Chris Hughton, the club have appointed Graham Potter as first team head coach. After spending eight years in Sweden managing Östersunds, Potter then spent the last season managing Swansea in the Championship, steering them to a mid-table finish. He now finds himself making another step up, this time hoping he can pick Brighton up after a disappointing end to last season.

Like all Brighton fans I’m very impressed with what I’ve read about Graham Potter and as a result I’m excited for the season ahead. In his press conference he said all the right things too, praising his predecessor whilst sharing the owner Tony Bloom’s ambition to achieve progress on the pitch. But as Brighton fans we’ve heard a lot of the right things being said in recent months and yet had little to cheer on the pitch. So I think it’s time for some realism: It will be another tough season ahead for the Albion.

Yes, it will be a tough season in a tough league amongst an environment of growing expectation and ambition for Brighton. As such Graham Potter has shown brave ambition to take this job and at the same time leave a fairly secure post at Swansea in the league below where he is much admired. This feels like a risky step forward for both parties.

It does say a lot about the progress of the club in recent years and the ambition of the board that the club achieving its 3rd and then 4th highest ever league finish in the last two seasons is deemed not good enough by so many. But whether with this move the club have bitten off more than it can chew is a question that won’t be answered until next May.

For Potter to ensure the team match the growing expectations with the relatively limited resources he has available, then he will have to be as good as he sounds, and he will need some luck. So I for one don’t envy him. No more so than because he inherits a team damaged from a poor showing in the second half of last season.

The current squad of players he is inheriting is one that, Glenn Murray and Pascal Gross aside, lacks evidence of consistent and reliable quality in attacking areas. And is in particular short of creativity and pace. This was desperately demonstrated by only scoring 14 goals in the league in the second half of the season and scoring the 4th lowest amount of goals in the league all season, with only the three relegated teams scoring less. A situation in part caused by the injuries to the 2017/18 club player of the season, Pascal Gross.

This issue was exacerbated by the attacking options added to the squad in the last two seasons either being injured or not performing to the required standard. A lot has been made of this, but frankly this is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Albion’s problems.

The squad is also one of the most inexperienced in the division as an analysis produced at the start of the season showed. Brighton’s squad cumulative experience was the fifth lowest in the Premier League, totaling only 563 Premier League appearances, over 1,000 less than next place Newcastle. More striking is that three of the four less experienced teams were subsequently relegated with the only other side Wolves, who unlike Brighton are a team made up of players with plenty of top flight experience in Europe’s other top flight leagues.

That relative inexperience will be increased next season after the retirement of captain Bruno, who along with other leaders like the also now retired Liam Rosienior and Steven Sidwell were all a huge part of the “good group of lads” that Hughton moulded first into a promotion winning side, and then into a Premier League side which will soon enter its third straight season in the top flight.

One element in Hughton’s relationship with owner Tony Bloom that reportedly caused conflict was the transfer policy, as discussed by Barry Glendenning on the Guardian’s Football Weekly Podcast. And with the recent appointment of Dan Ashworth as Technical Director along with Graham Potter being given the job title of First Team “Head Coach” rather than “Manager”, it suggests a change in approach in this regard. The club will be hoping this leads to more success in this area next season to overcome the issues highlighted in recent months.

But the prospect of drastically improving on what Potter has available to him by dipping into the transfer market is likely to be on the same constrained level relative to the competition as in previous seasons. As Paul Barber has signalled the fiscally responsible approach shown in previous years won’t be changed, and rightly so.

You may have recently seen criticism of the club’s transfer activity, some of which is valid, but it is done whilst ignoring the financial reality that the club is competing within. Brighton have one of the lowest wage bills in the league, in the 17/18 season, the most recent that we have figures for, Brighton had the 2nd lowest wage bill in the league with only Huddersfield’s being lower. And whilst the club’s gross transfer spend in 18/19 season was estimated as the 9th highest in the country, it was done so whilst bringing in a whopping 15 players, making the average transfer fee per player estimated around only £5/6m, which doesn’t buy much at this level.

And whilst the club’s net spend since promotion was the 6th highest in the Premier League this is also exaggerated by the fact that unlike much of the competition the club didn’t have Premier League assets to sell to offset against their spending. In fact the club’s total estimated transfer revenue was only £12m, half that of the league’s estimated average. On top of that the squad required strengthening to meet the standards required to make the step up to the top tier, which as Fulham have shown, even if you splash lots of cash it doesn’t assure success.

This all means the quality of players available to Potter is on average lower in comparison to its competitors, making his job all the more difficult. And this will likely make the prospect of Graham Potter transferring his expansive, possession based approach at the club all the more difficult.

Under Chris Hughton, Brighton’s success was built on stability and consistently, something that has gone missing for large parts of 2019. In response the club’s decision to appoint a manager who will aim to revamp the club’s approach comes with added risk of going against that mould. Especially considering Brighton don’t appear suited to it when you look at the stats. For example, they had the fourth lowest average possession, the fifth lowest passing accuracy and the second lowest shots taken per game in the league last season.

Some will reference the drastic change in style of play that Gus Poyet achieved at the club after his arrival in 2009 as a worthy comparison here. And whilst that’s true and that was also with a team that had narrowly avoided relegation the season before, that he went on to lead to win the league the following season, this was in a very different environment. He arrived when the club were underachieving, whilst the same cannot be said of now, especially considering last season was the club’s fourth highest ever league finish. Moreover when Poyet took charge the club were competing in a far less competitive league where playing such a style made them an outlier in contrast to the Premier League of today where possession is very much king.

Potter will be expected by many to hit the ground running from the start. As Hughton found to his cost the expectations at the club are probably higher than ever and if he doesn’t achieve a more comfortable survival from relegation whilst playing more attacking football, the nature of his arrive coming at the cost of Hughton in such dramatic fashion will mean he will likely be seen by some to have failed to a degree.

Potter’s problem in keeping fans on side may also be that unlike Hughton and many of his top flight contemporaries, he has neither the experience nor the credit in the bank with the fans at his club to fall back on if he comes up against a run of bad results. A replication of the performance from the team seen against Watford on the first day of last season in the first game of the coming one could spark a beginning of mounting pressure, that could considerably negatively affect such an inexperienced and relatively weak squad of players. A squad who have shown a lack of confidence across most of the second half of the last season.

Once the Euphoria of his appointment and the excitement and optimism that comes with a new season subsides, Potter will be required to show why Tony Bloom has placed his trust in him. If we’ve learnt anything from last season, it’s that whilst it’s great to be optimistic, it only gets you so far. We all remember how excited we were when the club signed both Locadia and Jahanbakhsh, neither of whom have met those early euphoric expectations.

Over the course of a season, a team’s quality, experience and depth will tell in its final league position, much as it did for Brighton in the season just gone. And realistically another 17th placed finish would be a success for the club. To achieve the sort of transformation in style of play at Brighton many envisage Graham Potter has been brought in to do, he will need time and I hope he gets it.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, neither can we expect instant results. Changing the style of play won’t be instant and at this level will prove harder than when Poyet did so in third tier or as Potter did at Swansea in the second tier. It may even take in relegation, but if we are to go down this road I hope then Potter is afforded that time and the odd bump in the road given the limitations he has counting against him.

Of course, given the way Chris Hughton was treated by sections of the fanbase, possibly the most successful manager in the club’s history, it’s far more likely that a bad run of results will tell for Potter before he is given the chance to do that. This is far more likely than those who said they’d rather see Brighton play attacking football and get relegated than play Chris Hughton’s more defence-minded style and stay up stick to their word when it is tested.

I’m all for optimism and at halfway last season genuinely thought Brighton could match or better its best ever finish of 13th in the top flight. And whilst a terrible second half of the season in the league ended those ambitions, to blame Hughton entirely is naive. Whilst his sacking was arguably justified the problems outlined above still remain and explain much of the team’s shortcomings.

It’s not going to be easy for Potter. In my eyes equaling Hughton’s achievements of Premier League survival would amount to a very good season. My concern is whether it will be deemed enough by others.