Was FFP to blame for the failed Sami Hyypia regime?

In 2013 Gus Poyet, ever the dramatiser, described Albion’s predicament as “now or never” due to the recently introduced FFP restrictions in the football league. Speaking to the independent he said: “The problem is that after this season it’s going to get even more difficult in the Championship especially with the new Premier League TV money and the parachute payments,” Poyet said. “More and more [former Premier League] teams are going to have more money and the others will have the Fair Play system without that money, which is going to make a difference.

“People think it [Financial Fair Play] will make teams more equal, but it will make things worse. Ten teams will be spending fortunes over three years of parachute payments and 10 teams will be under Financial Fair Play rules. So there will be two Championships: the ones that have been in the Premier League, and the rest. So you’ll have to be unbelievable – very smart at recruitment, players playing at their best, lucky with injuries, and then be a good team on the pitch.”

As we all now know, Albion were promoted to the Premier League four years and three playoff semi-final defeats later. But could the lessons of Sami Hyypia’s failed tenure as manager in 2014 be an example of the difficulties that Poyet pointed to and which Albion would face after not winning promotion that season?

Starting from the 2012–13 season, the Financial Fair Play (FFP) arrangement was put in place across all three divisions of the Football League. FFP rules were introduced after a number of clubs had reported financial difficulties, so that all EFL clubs would become self-sustainable and requires them to limit their losses on operating activities.

The definition of losses on operating activities excludes expenditure on Youth Development Expenditure, Women’s Football Expenditure, Community Development Expenditure and the depreciation of expenditure on long term assets such as the stadium and new training ground. This has still allowed Tony Bloom to heavily invest in the club without increasing its FFP defined losses, but this investment is more for the benefit of the club’s long term gain than in the short term.

It goes without saying that it has been of huge benefit to the club that Tony Bloom has been willing to make such a huge investment in it. The hundreds of millions which he has invested in the new stadium and subsequently on the new training ground have helped to take the club from one struggling in League one all the way to the topflight. But by the time Hyypia had taken charge, many, including one of his predecessors Gus Poyet, had expressed doubts as to whether this investment could take the club that next step and into the topflight.

Bloom’s investment could give the club an edge in terms of infrastructure, but the club was fighting hard to control its operating expenditure so it was FFP compliant. A process mainly confined to the first team players wage bill, which as many studies have shown, the size of which relative to your opponents has a significantly positive relationship with the team’s performance on the pitch. Indeed, even when the club was finally promoted to the Premier League its wage bill was the second lowest in the division and lower than some Championship clubs at the time, including Aston Villa.

There has been recent discussions around the introduction of an £18m a year salary cap in the Championship, proposals that have so far been rejected. How it would work and how it would account for teams coming down from the Premier League with players on topflight contracts is unclear, and whether it would be able to be implemented without some allowances that would potentially give relegated clubs a further advantage over the rest of the league is as yet unspecified. But the fact discussions on this even exist years on from the introduction of FFP show it has not had the desired effect on financial sustainability within the EFL.

The introduction of FFP also had a huge impact on the club’s transfer policy but the club were still bullish about being able to meet its goals. Paul Barber spoke about this over the summer of 2014 saying: “we’re not in a position where we have to sell anyone. We’re in a position where we have to progress, we’re in a position where we want to mount another challenge for getting into the Premier League and that requires us assembling a very, very good squad of players. That’s exactly what we’ll do.”

But in the previous January Albion had already let go Ashley Barnes to Championship rivals Burnley and Liam Bridcutt to Premier League Sunderland, whilst that summer winger Will Buckley and star striker Leo Ulloa were both soon to be sold to Premier League sides Sunderland and Leicester respectively. Furthermore the contracts on first team players like Matthew Upson, David Lopez, Andrea Orlandi and Thomas’s Kuzczak were all not renewed as the club cut its cloth to meet the financial restrictions.

All this meant the team that had reached consecutive playoff semi-finals was not the same team that Hyypia was inheriting. Only three of the players who started the first leg of the playoff semi-final against Derby started the opening day 1-0 home defeat to Sheffield Wednesday.

Some of those that were released didn’t come as a surprise as their influence on the team since Gus Poyet’s departure the year before had reduced. Whilst, Matt Upson was actually offered a new contract but decided to go Premier League Leicester City instead. But the appointment of Sami Hyypia was still a clear move in a different direction, in contrast to Oscar Garcia’s appointment the year before, which was very much trying to build on the work and team that Poyet had built.

This isn’t necessarily an issue in itself, players do come and go and as Paul Barber went onto explain all those who left were either near the end of their contract or keen to move on. The big problem was that in their place arrived an array of sub-standard talent, mostly arriving on loans and free transfers as the club made around a reported £8m net profit from its transfer activity that season.

The two players who were brought in via substantial transfer fees were David Stockdale (who was signed from Fulham) and Sam Baldock (who was signed from Bristol City) and would go onto be key parts of the promotion winning side of 2017. However, many of the others were signed on the cheap, like target man Chris O’Grady who was signed for £500k from Barnsley or the Dutch midfielder Danny Holla who was brought in on a free transfer and would fall by the wayside in the subsequent clear out that followed the nightmare of the Hyypia era.

Ahead of the new season the Bleacher Report described Albion’s transfer business as giving the club “a new lease of life” under Hyypia. Unfortunately that life was one as a team battling against relegation to League One from a team previously challenging for promotion to the Premier League.

Whilst the likes of Holla and O’Grady were signed to quickly fill the gaps that were left by the departure of key players, many others were subsequently brought in on loan to compensate for theirs and others shortcomings.

In comparison the recruitment under the management of Chris Hughton was far more proactive rather than reactive and saw the club make a reported £12m net outlay the following season, the club’s highest ever until promotion to the Premier League markedly changed the club’s finances.

One of the key developments around that time at the club was the establishment of the recruitment team and the appointment of Paul Winstanley as the head of it. Hughton benefited from this just as much as the previous regime had let Hyypia down. They have since gone on to consistently get good value and bring in players who have gone on to become Albion heroes.

Winstanley’s effective predecessor, the Head of football operations David Burke, was sacked on Christmas Eve 2014 for his part in Albion’s poor transfer business just a matter of days after Hyypia had handed in his resignation. Owner and chairman Tony Bloom, a mathematician by education and big on statistics, was moving the club towards a more analyst-driven recruitment policy. And the establishment of the recruitment team was another step in that direction, but one that came too late for Hyypia.

However, it was seen that Hyypia’s lack of knowledge of English players in the Football League didn’t help the club’s recruitment. Ultimately the manager has always had final say and his sign off was not as valuable as it was by any of his predecessors or would be under Hughton. Under Poyet’s management, the club had relied hugely on the Uruguayan’s contacts across from European football and beyond. But with him gone the club has been failing to replicate that transfer-market success.

But you still need to work with what you have and the development of certain players in the Hughton’s era who failed to excel under Hyypia suggests his coaching wasn’t as effective. The likes of Stephens, Dunk, March, Stockdale, Baldock and Bruno, who were all key players under Hughton failed to improve the clubs fortunes under Hyypia.

It didn’t help Hyypia from a coaching perspective that his first choice assistant Jan Moritze Lichte turned the job down for family reasons. This situation was then exacerbated when his second choice Sami Lee, who had previously worked in the Premier League under Sam Allardyce and Rafael Benitez, decided against taking the role just days after agreeing a contract with the club in favour of taking up the post as assistant to Ronald Koeman at Premier League Southampton. This left Hyypia in the awkward position of promoting Nathan Jones to his assistant, after initially demoting him to first team coach upon Lee’s appointment.

But despite all this Hyypia still has his supporters. On the podcast “Football, the Albion and me” Albion player at the time Craig Mackail Smith believes this was because “maybe his style of play was a little bit ahead of his time”, going on to compare it to the current system used by reigning Premier League Champions Liverpool and that “maybe we didn’t have the players to play that system.”

Another guest of that podcast, former Albion captain Gordon Greer defended Hyypia, saying “People don’t really appreciate how good of a manager Sami was” and echoed Mackail-Smith saying “We didn’t have the players to play in the system”. Maybe not, but with a few key additions Chris Hughton soon showed this team was capable of much more.

Mackail-Smith reference a notable win of the Hyypia era away to Leeds, where the won 2-1, Hyypia’s first league win as Brighton manager where they scored their first goals of the season after two consecutive defeats.

Hyypia that day praised Albion’s opening scorer Joao Teixeia who had signed on loan from Liverpool saying: “We have a quality player and I am very happy to have him with us.” And Teixeia then scored the winner in Albion’s next game on his home debut, a 2-1 win over Bolton.

But for every Hyypia performance that backs him up, there were plenty more to counter that. Those two wins on the bounce were not to be replicated under Hyypia, in fact the team won just one more league games under his tenure.

The match which sticks out to me is the 1-0 defeat to Millwall, his last home game as manager and a game that was being broadcast live on Sky Sports. Albion were awful, so bad that there were even rumours linking Tony Pulis with the job.

By this this point Hyypia has accumulated over 20 games in charge including a run to the 4th round of the League Cup and there were few signs of anything but regression from their Albion side. In contrast, over a similar period of games Hughton subsequently steered this Albion team to a comfortable survival from relegation and they started the following season with a 4-0 win at home to Nottingham Forest, going on to only miss out on automatic promotion on goals scored and win promotion the following season.

For Hyypia, having won just one game in their last 17 league matches, that defeat to Millwall left Brighton in the Championship relegation zone, while Millwall moved five points and five places above them. And after a draw away to Wolves next time out Hyypia resigned having won just three of his 22 league games in charge.

Whilst Guy Poyet’s statements in 2013 turned out to be proved dramatically incorrect by Albion 4 years later, he did have a point. FFP was making it tougher for Albion to compete in the Championship and smart recruitment was key to the success which followed after Hughton was appointed as Hyypia’s replacement on New Year’s Eve.

It’s a testament to the smart investment decisions of Tony Bloom, as well as the work of those behind the scenes like Paul Winstanley, that Brighton did go on to defy the odds. But it is also fair to say that whilst Hyypia was found wanting during his time in charge of the Albion, it wasn’t entirely a mess of his own making. The combination of Poyet’s management ending and FFP being introduced required the Albion to now work in a different way and Hyypia unfortunately got stuck in the middle of that transition.

Monday Musings- A halfway debrief

As Brighton pass the halfway point of their 2020/21 Premier League season, it comes with a fair amount of frustration despite the great promise shown so far. But it’s a feeling of frustration which has a much more positive glow to it after an important 1-0 win away to Leeds United on Saturday.

Brighton went into Saturday’s game on the back of no wins and just 5 points taken from their last 9 league games, a run which means despite Saturday’s victory means they end the first half of the season on their lowest halfway Premier League points total of 17.

Nonetheless, Albion find themselves in their usual position just above the bottom three but not quite engaging with the battle for mid table positions in the Premier League. And with many of the teams around them having games in hand and recently making gains on them in terms of points, Saturday’s win by no means expunges all of the anxiety.

But it’s still been a season of great promise from Graham Potter’s side, as his project to turn Chris Hughton’s robust and solid Albion team into a free flowing attacking side continues to progress.

But the team have often flattered to deceive. Despite plenty of good approach play and plenty of dominating performances it’s not led to improvements at either end of the pitch. Whilst Brighton have now accumulated more expected goals (xG) than their opponents on twelve occasions this season, of those 12 games Saturday was only their second win.

Going forward Albion’s style of play has seen them gain plenty of plaudits, but in terms of goals scored, their total to date of 22 is the same total scored after 19 games last season and only one better than in the first 19 games the season before.

Offensively Albion’s play has probably been typified by Leandro Trossard. Who has hit the woodwork on 5 occasions this season, the equal most in the division along with Chelsea’s misfiring striker Timo Werner. Trossard is a very gifted footballer, arguably Albion’s most talented attacker, but his shooting leaves much to be desired.

At times it’s his decision making that has let him down. As was pointed out by Jon Manuel this week in an article for Stats Perform “With just 0.06 xG per shot it is clear he is a fan of a more speculative effort and, having taken the second-most shots of anyone in the team, it may be worth asking whether it is sometimes better to pass than shoot.” It’s this habit of going for the shot when there is often a better option available that led to some excessive criticism from Percy Tau’s South African faithful after his debut in Brighton’s win over Newport in the FA Cup.

But if Trossard can improve his decision making in the final third he has almost everything required to be a top class player, as evidenced by his continued selection for the Belgian national team squad alongside the likes of Eden Hazard and Dries Mertens. His one-two with Alexis Mac Allister for Brighton’s goal against Leeds is just one of a number of examples of that talent and if he can make more of the opportunities he creates and less so often go for the speculative shot, expect Albion to start turning far more of thier draws into wins.

In fact it’s been 8 draws this season for Albion, the most in the division so far. And most of them have felt like two points dropped rather than a point gained. In comparison, in Chris Hughton’s last season 2018/19, Albion drew just 9 games all season

Trossard’s place in the team may come under threat from the presence of Percy Tau. Whose impressive performances in his first two appearances for the club since being recalled from loan gives Potter even more options to tinker with in attack. What is clear though is that it is most likely to be a place alongside Maupay who Potter tends to select if available come what may.

Along with Trossard, Albion’s top scorer Maupay has been criticised for not taking enough of his chances, but the faith Potter places in him by regularly selecting him despite these lapses in front of goal shows he adds so much more to the team. No Albion player has been involved in more goals this season (8), with Albion’s nearest other players Gross and Trossard on just 4 each. Maupay may miss the odd chance, but he creates more than enough through his movement and interplay with those around him to compensate.

A positive Albion can take from the first half of the season is that aside from a couple of occasions, away to Leicester and Everton, they have always been in games, losing 5 of their 8 defeats by just 1 goal and drawing a further 8.

But their relatively young and inexperienced squad is proving to cost them in the key moments in games. For example, Ben White, who has rightly been lauded for some impressive displays in his first Premier League season, has been one of a few notable players caught out too often when Albion have been defending set pieces.

Indeed, it’s not all been about not taking chances. Albion’s defending is a clear issue too that has limited the figure in its win column.

There have been 12 points dropped from winning positions so far, the most in the Premier League. But if the team put in more defensive displays as they did against Leeds, where they defended their one-goal lead for 73 minutes, then that should become a much less common occurrence.

But despite Saturday’s clean sheet Albion’s naive defending, particularly when in the lead, has not gone away. Even on Saturday when the defensive display was much improved, Dan Burn still got caught in possession whilst overplaying in his own half and let in Leeds, but fortunately for Albion on that occasion it came to nothing.

Many of the defensive statistics are damming. For example Albion’s expected goals conceded based on the chances conceded is 21, 8 less than actual. Also despite having conceded the 5th highest number of goals this season, they have conceded the 3rd fewest shots.

From open play, Albion do tend of defend well. A fact backed up by conceding only 13 of their goals in that manner, the equal 7th fewest in the division. And having only made 1 mistake that led directly to a goal all season. Of course that doesn’t include all the poorly timed tackles that have led to penalties being conceded, like Burn’s on Traore recently against Wolves, or the poor marking at corners that has become all too common.

Then there’s Albion’s struggles in goal, which have no doubt contributed to its defensive issues. Albion’s number one since promotion Maty Ryan lost his place after a period of widely discussed bad form. In his place came the young Robert Sanchez who only has experience of playing in England’s lower divisions. Left in reserve are Jason Steele and Christian Walton, whose experience also comes mostly from outside of the Premier League.

Whilst Sanchez has impressed since coming into the side, question marks still remain and it may prove to be too early for the young ‘keeper. With Ryan having been told by Potter that he should take a good offer to leave if he gets one this month, if Albion are to reinforce any area of the pitch this month, a new goalkeeper should be its number one priority.

If the action in both boxes is its weakness, Albion strength is most definitely in its approach play and in the midfield. On the wings Lamptey and March have been consistently dangerous going forward whilst the signing of central midfielder Adam Lallana has proved a shrewd piece of business despite his injury problems. The continued improvement of Alzate and Bissouma has only made Albion stronger in that area of the pitch, whilst Pascal Gross has been revitalised in a slightly deeper area of the pitch as a back up for Lallana.

When it comes to business in the January transfer window, Potter has said on numerous occasions that he is happy to work with what he has. This willingness to do so will no doubt have been part of the reason he was given the job in the first place. In contrast it is fairly well-known that Hughton did have disagreements about recruitment with other senior members of staff at Albion during the end of his tenure.

And given we don’t expect this team to be given any significant reinforcements, it’s a good thing too that there is this willingness from Potter. If the team are going to start turning their dominance in games into victories, they will be relying on some of their younger talents like Trossard, White and Maupay to cut out the errors, be more clinical and repay the faith Potter has placed in them more consistently.

But given this Albion squad is relatively young, we should forgive them for their individual mistakes. However, they will need to learn from their lessons quickly and execute Potter’s plan more effectively in the second half of the season if Albion are to avoid relegation for a fourth consecutive season.

2005/06 – A year of contrasting disappointment for Brighton and Leeds

For Leeds and Brighton, 2020 represented a year of success. For Leeds promotion back to the topflight for the first time in 16 years has seen them shake off the “fallen giant” tag. Whereas for Brighton, Premier League survival has seen them match their longest and to date only other spell in the topflight of four years.

But go back 15 years and things were very different for both clubs who started the 2005/06 season together in the recently rebranded Championship.

Albion were out of their depth financially in the second tier, a period probably best exemplified by a striker shortage solved by reutilising defender and youth team product Adam Virgo as a target man. He went onto be the team’s top scorer with 8 goals as they survived relegation on the last day of the 2004/05 season. It was a problem that dramatically arose after the form of Leon Knight plummeted after he had fired the Seagulls to promotion the season before with 27 goals, scoring just 4 goals in 41 appearances that season.

The summer of 2005 saw Adam Virgo sold to Celtic for £1.5m in a deal described by chairman Dick Knight as “The Best Deal I Ever Did”. Saying in his book he thought Virgo was only actually worth around £200k. It was a price that led to speculation of dodgy dealings between Albion manager Mark McGhee and then Celtic manager Gordon Strachan who would later work together for Scotland as assistant manager and manager respectively. But as McGhee told the Athletic recently: “People have suggested that there was some sort of skulduggery going on between Gordon and I because of the amount of money they ended up paying. I have to give credit to Dick. He was the one who forced it up to that price. It wasn’t me. I kind of stepped back, partly because of my association with Gordon.”

In his place came the “Coca Cola Kid”, Colin Kazim Richards. Nicknamed as such after his fee was paid for when the club had won from the Coca Cola win a player fund. A cheque for the £250k prize fund was presented to Dick Knight at the 2005 Championship playoff final between West Ham and Preston.

It was a fund that Dick Knight said in his book “Mad Man” he originally wanted to use to bring Bobby Zamora back to the club. And having spoken to his current club West Ham’s owners at that game, Dick says they seemed interested in a deal. Until that is when Zamora scored the winner for West Ham that day, which secured the Hammers promotion to the topflight and killed any deal.

So Kazim Richards it was. Unfortunately for Albion, he was young, inexperienced and couldn’t be solely relied on to lead the line and provide the goals this Albion side were missing, like Bobby Zamora had done previously. Compared to the 14 Zamora scored for Albion in an injury-hit 2002/03 season when Albion were also relegated from the second tier, Kazim Richards managed just 6, not scoring in any Albion victories. So whilst in 02/03 Albion were only relegated on the final day after failing to beat Grimsby, in 05/06 Albion finished bottom, 12 points adrift of survival and were ultimately relegated with two games to spare after a dismal defeat at home to Sheffield Wednesday.

Another of mercurial Albion’s strikers Leon Knight, who had been becoming progressively anonymous since his 27 goals inspired the club’s promotion from the third tier in 2004 and was sold to Swansea in the January of this season. But not before being threatened with being kicked off the club coach in the middle of the New Forest by manager Mark McGhee who simply had lost patience with the one time goal machine.

McGhee had already publicly questioned Knight’s attitude in training and after he questioned McGhee’s decision to drop goalkeeper Michel Kuipers before an away match with Southampton, he was first threatened with being kicked off the coach and then subsequently told he wasn’t even welcome in the dressing room. Leon then scored a hat trick on his Swansea debut just four days later, but that was a rare high point of his short time with Swansea and his career saw a quick demise thereafter.

In contrast, Leeds had come from the other direction. Having finished 3rd in the Premier League in 2000, reached the semi-finals of the Champions League in 2001 and begun 2002 top of the Premier League, a sudden financial crisis hit the club that had been building for a while as a result of financial mismanagement and saw a fast and dramatic fall from grace for the club.

By the end of 2002 many of their star players had to be sold and they ended the 2002/03 season 15th. But despite those sales the club’s finances were not under control and they were relegated to the championship the following season, and finished a disappointing 14th the next as the club were forced to sell both their training ground and their stadium to make ends meet.

By the time they had reached the 2005/06 season the Leeds squad had already seen a number of successive seasons of mass overhauls, a job recently inherited by manager Kevin Blackwell and chairman Ken Bates. A host of players exited Elland Road that summer, most notably star player Aaron Lennon who moved to Tottenham. In their place came a host of loan signings and free transfers along with a handful of paid for players including that season’s club top scorer Rob Hulse.

One player that Leeds also signed for a fee that summer was the Albion left back Dan Harding. It was a transfer that went to a tribunal to decide the fee. Despite him being out of contract, as he was under 24 Albion were still entitled to compensation so Leeds were ordered to pay the club £850k. Youth team product Dan Harding was one of Albion’s most prized possessions having been recently nominated by Four Four Two as one of the top 50 players outside the Premier League, but over the previous season he and the club had engaged in drawn out and ultimately fruitless contract negotiations that did nothing for the reputation of either party. But despite a promising start to his season, it was an injury hit one and he moved to Ipswich at the end of the season in an exchange for another former Leeds and Brighton player Ian Westlake.

Given the nature of his exit and the extended contract talks which preceded it, it is little surprise that when the two sides met in September Harding was booed by the Brighton supporters every time he touched the ball in a 3-3 draw at Elland Road. It was ultimately a draw that was harsh on Albion who led 2-0 through a rare Leon Knight goal and a second from Sebastian Carole only for a David Healy double to level the scores, who was fresh from his heroics of scoring a famous winner for Northern Ireland against England at Windsor Park. A Sean Gregan own goal looked to have won the game for the Seagulls but Leeds equalised in injury time through Jonathan Douglas to earn the home side a point.

Whilst Leeds manager Keven Blackwell was adamant his team deserved to win and that Healy “could have had six goals”, “the mighty mighty whites Leeds” fan site is far more magnanimous saying “Leeds were lucky to get anything out of Brighton”.

This wasn’t the first time Albion’s defence proved to be leaky that season, in fact they conceded a total of 71 goals, the second highest in the division. And it was no coincidence that Albion’s former club captain and defensive rock Danny Cullip had left in the December of the previous season. So the young Irish defender Pat McShane was brought in for the 2005/06 season on loan from Man United to fill the still resultant gap.

Despite the defensive issues, McShane’s quality shone at the back and he went on to win the club’s player of the season award, which his centre back partner Guy Butters had won two years previously and McShane remains the only loan signing to have ever been voted as Albion’s Player of the Season.

McShane in part received the award for the appreciation of his contribution to one of Albion’s highlights of the season, scoring the winner in a 1-0 win at Selhurst park over rivals Crystal Palace, which left Albion 20th as at the same time saw Leeds climb to 4th in the table.

As the season progressed it looked as if both teams were in a good place to achieve their respective goals come the end of the season. A win over QPR on Boxing Day put Albion four points clear of the relegation zone courtesy of a Guy Butters header. Whilst a 3-1 win at home to Coventry put Leeds 3rd and closing in on the previously run-away top two, in particular Neil Warnock’s Sheffield United.

For Albion though the joy of their fourth victory of the season was tempered by the loss of captain Charlie Oatway to an ankle injury in what turned out to be a career-ending injury for the central midfielder and the man who inherited the captaincy from Cullip. That it was also against the club he supported as a boy was an even crueller twist of fate and left Oatway on 248 appearances for the club over eight years. His injury hit Albion hard as they lost ten of their next twelve, which left them five points from safety and second bottom of the league going into March.

Brighton’s 2-1 win over Leeds at Withdean in January was a rare highlight of an otherwise bleak winter of Albion. The win was secured by a goal from Gary Hart and lifted them out of the bottom three. It gave Albion belief that a second consecutive survival could be achieved, but a run of 7 defeats and a draw in the next eight would essentially secure relegation for McGhee’s Albion side.

There would be some hope for Brighton. A subsequent run of three straight draws and a win over 3-0 fellow strugglers Millwall gave them a faint lifeline. But as manager Mark McGhee stated ‘It’s probably too late for both of us. But this gives us a chance. Who knows?”

And so it turned out, as four defeats in the final five meant any hopes of a great escape were quickly squandered. With both Brighton and Millwall relegated, finishing 12 and 10 points from safety respectively.

With relegation this side was quickly dismantled. McGhee was sacked shortly after the beginning of the following season whilst Albion’s young striker Kazim-Richards made the move to the Premier League with Sheffield United during the summer. A year later he found himself playing for Turkish giants Fenerbahce and in 2008 he appeared for semi-finalists Turkey at the European Championships, a long way from the Withdean stadium.

For Leeds the defeat to Brighton may have seemed at the time as a blip, but signalled what was to come. A good run of five wins in the next eight left them going into the final ten games very much in the automatic promotion hunt, now only five points adrift of Sheffield United after being 17 points behind earlier in the season. But an end of season slump left them settling for the playoffs with three games to spare. And to rub salt in their wombs the first of those three games was a high tempered affair away to the newly promoted Sheffield United on Easter Tuesday which ended 1-1.

After beating Preston in the playoff semi-finals, the playoff final saw another capitulation from this Leeds side as a 3-0 defeat to Watford cost them promotion back to the topflight and so much more aside. It was a defeat that signalled their continued demise. Further struggles were to follow with relegation to League one next season and the subsequent infamous angry pitch invasion from Leeds fans which followed. Then there was the equally infamous defeat to Histon in the FA cup, it would be a long and winding road back for the Leeds faithful.

At the time there was much optimism at Leeds of what was to come. Chairman Ken Bates said to the Leeds players in the dressing room after the playoff final that: “They had given what they had and they had given their best. I said that tomorrow is the first day of our Championship season.” Little did they know how misplaced that optimism would turn out to be.

I doubt many who saw Leeds lose the 2006 playoff final thought it would take Leeds another 14 seasons for them to get back to the topflight. Or that the 05/06 season would be their highest league finish for another thirteen years, before the arrival of a certain Marcelo Bielsa saw their return to the topflight. Nor that this Brighton team who were then playing in a converted Athletics stadium with a four figure capacity, still battling a lengthy and expensive planning permission battle for a new stadium and out of their depth in the second tier, would return to the topflight three years before Leeds.

When you look back at this period of Leeds’ history, it’s somewhat explains the reprehensible and overly defensive attitude we’ve seen from some of its supporters towards Karen Carney and other critics of the club in recent months.

Having experienced such highs in the 60s and 70s and then again in the 90s and early 2000s, this demise will have been hard to swallow for many of its supporters. Especially given that it was largely self-induced by its own incompetent leadership. And as a result, the club became the punchline of jokes for the rest of the English football community.

It was a trend that would last until the recent Bielsa-led renaissance of the club. Meanwhile less prestigious club’s like Brighton had leapfrogged them into the topflight and Leeds were and still are desperate to put things straight.

Following the 2005/06 season, the next 14 years would see both clubs have plenty of disappointing days and see much concern over each club’s existence. But more recently they have both been had periods of great and historic success.

The current reality for both is that amongst times of great global economic struggles, the Premier League represents a whole new challenge altogether for both.

Monday Musings – Calamity and heroics add more volume to Albion’s goalkeeper debate

As was pointed out after the final whistle of Brighton’s 3rd round FA Cup tie with Newport on Sunday night by Opta Joe, Brighton goalkeeper Jason Steele made just one save in the 120 minutes preceding the penalty shootout and made an error that led to Newport’s 96th minute equaliser, but saved four penalties during the shootout. A story of personal redemption, but also one that highlights Albion’s ongoing goalkeeping issues.

Steele admitted it was his fault for the goal after the game. And fan site We are Brighton posted on Twitter in their usual deprecating way: “Would now be a good time to remind everyone that Graham Potter thinks Jason Steele is a better goalkeeper than Maty Ryan? 👀”.

It’s a fair point and I would add fellow Albion goalkeeper Christian Walton to the debate too. It’s a subject I discussed just last week and one I suspected that we haven’t heard the last of.

Nonetheless I’m gutted for Jason Steele for his mistake, but he’s shown over his career that he’s got that in his makeup. Anyone who watched him play for one of his previous club’s can confirm that. A fact most infamously demonstrated at Sunderland during a difficult period for Steele captured in the Netflix series “Sunderland Till I Die”.

But Steele has constantly shown more than enough stoicism in his career to pick himself up and keep coming back for more. So the fact that after the error for the Newport equaliser he managed to refocus on the task at hand in the shootout should come as no surprise either. Rather than losing his head like some others would in the circumstances, he refocused, remembered his research and followed it to the letter, saving four of Newport’s seven penalty kicks.

Andy Naylor stated in a recent piece for The Athletic: “The club believe a No 2 goalkeeper requires a different skill set. Steele is experienced and was signed as a back-up, which makes him more suited to a place on the bench than Ryan, who is accustomed to life as a No 1.”

It’s a fair point and suggests Graham Potter doesn’t necessarily think that Steele is better than Ryan as per We are Brighton’s tongue-in-cheek suggestion, but rather that he’s seen a good back up keeper to have around. Highlighted by how Robert Sanchez jumped Steele in the pecking order when Maty Ryan was dropped earlier in the season leaving him remaining to warm the bench alongside Albion’s other substitutes.

Steele was generous in his moment of glory after the game in praising Albion’s goalkeeper coach Ben Roberts. Who is credited with much of the improvement that’s been seen in many of Albion’s goalkeepers in recent years, including that of David Stockdale in Albion’s Championship promotion winning season.

In Steele’s defence, Goalkeepers often make mistakes after being exposed by their defence. In many cases where Steele has struggled in his career he’s been playing in a struggling teams, last night being no exception. For the equaliser, Albion should have stopped the cross from occurring in the first place. No cross, no error.

We can focus on Steele’s mistake, just like many did Dan Burn’s from the week before. But how did Albion even give Newport the chance to put a cross in the box from their left-hand side whilst defending a 1-goal lead in the dying moments of injury time, having had a throw in on their right-hand side at halfway less than 30 seconds before? As has been far too common this season, it was a case of naive play from Albion whilst in possession that again cost them a crucial lead.

Moreover, as one person on Twitter also pointed out to me, Albion had just switch their left back too, replacing match winner March for Bernardo. Something which adds to the Potter “over-tinkering” debate, but that’s another can of worms entirely.

Overall, a calamitous 30 seconds for Albion and a 5-minute period from scoring to conceding the equaliser that encompasses almost everything which Albion’s season has been about so far. As Graham Potter said after the game “Traumatic”.

Brighton v Newport (2013)

Newport County just keep causing cup upsets. It’s helpful not just for the South Walians but also for Albion, with each one making Albion’s defeat at their hands in 2013 look ever less embarrassing.

Back in the early stages of the 2013/14 season Albion were still reeling from the aftermaths of the previous season’s playoff semi-final defeat to rivals Crystal Palace. Following the very drawn out and public sacking of manager Gus Poyet which followed over the summer, the former Barcelona B team manager Oscar García had been brought in as his replacement to manage the team and finish the job that Poyet almost managed but ultimately fell short of, get Albion into the Premier League.

So a weeknight League Cup tie against a League Two side recently promoted to the Football League hardly seemed like a priority, but nonetheless was an opportunity for García to get his first win in charge of Albion after a 2-1 defeat in his first game away to Leeds. But despite that, Albion made a number of changes to a team that featured then young prospects and now current Albion regulars, Solly March and Lewis Dunk as unused substitutes.

Albion started the game the dominant team and quickly had the ball in the Newport net after a Kemy Agustien cross found Jake Forster-Caskey, but the goal was ruled out for offside. Not long after Albion did go 1-0 up with Ashley Barnes putting away a Will Buckley cross at the end of a typically aesthetically pleasing quick passing move. This was exactly the type of football that Gus Poyet had spent his time at the club working towards, and why Owner Tony Bloom had decided to bring in the former Barcelona man Oscar Garcia to replace him so he would continue that work.

Newport battled and created a couple of chances of their own, but Albion continued to have the better of the game and again had the ball in the net but it was again ruled out for offside. However, the game changed on the 67th minute when a 50/50 tackle between Albion’s right back Inigo Calderon and Newport Captain Byron Anthony resulted in a red card for the Albion man and a double leg break for Newport captain. It was an injury that took a while to treat on the pitch so you couldn’t say it was more serious than it looked, but that didn’t stop some unwelcome boos from a minority in the home crowd.

With that the game swung in Newport’s favour and constant swathes of Newport attacks followed. And with nine minutes to go Newport equalised through a Danny Crowe header.

And with the game into extra time Danny Crowe double his tally with a spectacular finish from outside the box to make it 2-1 to the visitors. And as Albion pushed forward in search of an equaliser Newport made it 3-1 as Connor Washington capitalised on some absent Albion defending to break clear, take it round the helpless Albion ‘keeper Casper Ankergren and put the ball into an empty net.

Ultimately an impressive win for the Football league newbies and despite the shock of the serious injury to their captain Byron Anthony, they impressively rallied to win the game with some gusto. As then Newport manager, the late Justin Edinburgh suggested after the game his side “won the game for Byron”.

However in his typically honourable style he showed no resentment towards Inigo Calderon also saying in his interview about the incident that: “I don’t think there was any malice in it – I know there wasn’t – but we’re really disappointed for Byron and it takes the gloss off tonight’s result really.”

A statement backed up by Calderon’s manager Oscar Garcia who said: “I know Calde. He went to the ball and it was a 50-50 challenge. It was unlucky for the Newport player. We have seen the video and we can see the action of Calde was legal.”

The Albion manager went into say “We had many, many chances to finish the game and win it before and they had three or four chances and they scored them all.” A cruel game for Albion to lose, but it’s a lesson that Albion have since learnt too many times this season too, having dropped 12 points from winning positions so far in the 2020/21 Premier League season. If you don’t finish off your opponent’s, you’ll pay for it.

Although Byron Anthony made a brief return to playing the following season, the injury would eventually result in his retirement. Following that, he was appointed as a youth coach at Newport and was eventually promoted to academy manager after a brief spell as the interim manager, but resigned in 2018.

For Albion, 2013/14 was another season that would result in a Playoff Semi-final defeat and a subsequent summer of managerial recruitment following Oscar Garcia’s resignation after that semi-final defeat, this time at the hands of Derby. Even more unfortunately was that in his place came Sami Hyypia, but that’s another story…

Subsequent links between the two club’s are mostly through Albion defender Ben White, who is set to return to Rodney Parade after a loan spell there in 2017/18. As the 2017/18 season drew near and being on the fringes of the Albion first team at the time, White was sent on loan to Newport for the season to get some game time.

Whilst there, he came up against England striker Harry Kane in Newport’s impressive run to the 4th round of the FA Cup that season, which also saw them beat his future loan club Leeds in the 3rd round. A 1-1 draw in the original tie against Spurs saw White mark Kane admirably as Newport pulled off a shock draw at home to earn a replay at Tottenham’s temporary home, Wembley Stadium.

Ben said of his time there: “The cup run was amazing, what we achieved and the manner in which we secured the game with Tottenham Hotspur was brilliant. Then we nearly beat them in the home tie, but to then play at Wembley Stadium was a dream come true. Facing Harry Kane was great for me and I feel like I more than held my own against him.”

White came to the attention of many clubs and many Albion fans during this loan spell at Newport. Whilst the club had finished a fairly underwhelming 11th place in the league, he had greatly impressed. Both to the masses in the cup run and the locals throughout the season, winning four of Newport’s player of the season awards, the Doc Heffernan Shield for Young Player of the Year; the Brian Tom’s President’s Cup Player’s Player of the Year Award; the Supporters’ Club Player of the Year and Young Player of the Year. County’s manager Mike Flynn described him as an “outstanding talent” and the best loan signing the club had ever made.

That was just one season of many that has featured Newport’s cup upset exploits and it’s lazy to typecast Newport as some archetypal long ball League Two club either. Anyone who has been paying attention lately will know they are having a great season and sit one point off top of the league. And having beaten Watford in the League Cup earlier this season they then gave Newcastle a fright in the next round only to lose on penalties.

That said, the Rodney Parade pitch is often in a terrible state at this time of year due to its use by multiple sports teams, and the recent postponements due to a waterlogged and frozen pitch respectively are a cause for concern. Whilst many will be aware of Newport’s cup exploits in recent years, those still involved at the Albion who remember that defeat in 2013 will want to make sure Albion don’t become serial victims at the hands of the South Walians.

Monday Musings – Albion’s search for safe hands

Saturday saw a further three goals conceded by Albion in a dramatic 3-3 draw with Wolves, leaving them having conceded a total of 28 goals this season. Not only is it the 5th highest goals conceded in the division so far this season, it’s the most the club have ever conceded at this point in a Premier League season.

Within those 28 conceded are 6 from penalties, 7 from set pieces and far too many examples of sloppy defending, which is not up to the club’s usual standards. Whilst the aftermath of the draw with Wolves has focused on Dan Burn’s mistakes, there is a bigger issue here that needs resolving.

Many of the defensive statistics are damming. For example Albion’s expected goals conceded based on the chances conceded is 20, 8 less than actual. Also despite having conceded the 5th highest number of goals this season, they have conceded the 3rd fewest shots.

From open play, Albion do tend of defend well. A fact backed up by conceding only 12 of their goals in that manner, the equal 8th fewest in the division. And having only made 1 mistake that led directly to a goal all season. Of course that doesn’t include all the poorly timed tackles that lead to penalties being conceded, like Burn’s on Traore on Saturday, or the poor marking at corners that has become all too common.

So it may seem odd that I don’t think the issue is the defence, but more an issue of discipline and concentration that stems from the insecurity over Albion’s goalkeeper.

It’s too simplistic to say it’s simply due to bad goalkeeping, after all we’ve seen plenty of examples of bad defending from the Albion defence, as mentioned above. But more striking than that is how Maty Ryan struggled before being dropped.

Despite the relatively few shots faced, his goals conceded per game was 1.7, the equal third highest in the division. Only less than Sam Johnstone of West Brom and Illan Meslier of Leeds, both of whom play for teams where they are left significantly more exposed by their defences. Furthermore, Ryan’s save percentage of 50% is one of the worst in the division this season and significantly down compared to the 68.3% he achieved last season.

In a recent interview with The World Game Ryan said he will fight for his place unless the right offer comes in after being told by Graham Potter that he is free to go in January.

Ryan’s place has been rumoured to be up for grabs for a while now and that seems to have affected his performances this season. The problem is the other options at Potter’s disposal are all young, inexperienced goalkeepers who probably aren’t quite good enough yet.

Yes, Ryan’s replacement Robert Sanchez has impressed with some good saves and performances, but he’s also made a few mistakes and is still very young. It may be too early for him to take the number one shirt just yet.

Solve the Goalkeeper issue and I think a lot of the panic and hesitation from Albion’s defenders that has led to the high number of goals conceded goes away.

The more I look at the stats and rewatch the highlights from this season, the more a new goalkeeper looks like the solution to a lot of Albion’s issues, much more so than a new striker. Albion are creating chances and despite widespread frustration have been taking a fair few of them. In contrast to goals conceded, the 21 goals scored is the highest at this point by the club in a Premier League season.

Te problems at the back have come from a consistent lack of discipline and concentration. A reliable goalkeeper usually leads to a better organised defence and also puts less pressure on the forwards to take every chance going. So don’t be surprised if Albion go looking for a new Goalkeeper in the January sales.

That said, like with Albion’s problems up top there is no “silver bullet”. And as with a potential new striker, I suspect Potter is happy to work with what he’s got, if so fine. But I don’t think a talented youngster is the solution for the goalkeeper position where experience is key, however good Sanchez has been or however promising Walton is.

Maty Ryan’s Australian national team assistant coach Rene Meulensteen said recently on Albion’s goalkeeper situation: “While Sanchez is very talented – he hasn’t had a run of games previously at this level, let alone high-pressure games. For me, Maty is too good not to be involved. Leaving him out is risky when you consider what he has to offer, especially in crunch matches. I’d like to know the reason he’s not in the team but from Maty’s perspective he hasn’t downed tools and is working away in the knowledge that things could quickly flip again in his favour.”

Personally I agree. I would not have dropped Ryan, he’s been fantastic for the majority of his three and a half years at the club and from the outside looking in, he appears to be a key figure in the dressing room too. But as Potter’s been more loyal to other players when out of form, (including starting Burn on Saturday) and given the surprising links with the club to other goalkeepers in the summer transfer window before Ryan had even lost his place, we can only assume Potter simply doesn’t fancy him.

Highlighting the team’s goalkeeper issue is not to absolve Dan Burn of his blame in Wolves three goals, nor any of his defensive counterparts for theirs this season. But more that it’s easier for them to do their job properly when playing in front of a settled and experienced goalkeeper that they can fully trust. Especially if they are a player coming into the side after a period on the side-lines or playing in a defensive position that they haven’t recently, something that has happened a lot under Potter’s management.

Steve Claridge – A brief Albion hero at Upton Park and plenty more besides

When it comes to football league ex-professionals Steve Claridge may well be the most well-travelled. His was a playing career that spanned 34 years, saw him play over 1,000 matches and took him briefly to a number of the league’s member clubs including the Albion where he was part of a famous and unlikely victory.

By that point he was an old hand at the job and had accumulated much of the experience he later used to his advantage as a pundit on football league matters at the BBC for many years.

Given his start in life it’s possibly no surprise Claridge demonstrated a great worth ethic during his career. His life started unstably when was adopted at six weeks old and then was diagnosed as having a heart problem at 12, but made sure nothing held him back.

His heart was something that he struggled with as a child. He once said “If I did any exercise my heart used to go mad. After just five minutes it felt like I had done a five-mile run.” But he was eventually prescribed medication that enable him to manage the problem and slow his heart rate.

In 1988 at the age of 22 he had a brief spell with Crystal Palace when he was still a novice having spent the three years previous with non-league Weymouth. But with Palace on the verge of the First Division and some iconic years for the club he failed to make an appearance due to their wealth of striking talent including a certain Ian Wright. But years later took his chance to show them what they had missed, something he made a habit of throughout his career.

It was after a move to Fourth Division Aldershot where Claridge first caught the eye scoring 22 goals in 76 appearances and winning supporters’ player of the season in the 1988/89 season, before making a move to John Beck’s famously no nonsense Cambridge side.

Claridge was a unique breed throughout his career and the story of him running out of petrol on the M11, abandoning his car on the hard-shoulder and hitchhiking to the Abbey Stadium on his first day of training as well as another of him punching manager Beck in the face in an altercation between the pair are just a couple of example of this.

That is a Cambridge United team fondly remembered mostly for his fellow strikers Dion Dublin and John Taylor. And whilst Claridge is not necessarily held in the same regard as either from that time at the club, his energy and work rate meant he became a fondly remembered figure.

After ending his second spell at Cambridge in 1994 Claridge made a £350k move to Birmingham during Barry Fry’s ignominious period as manager of the club. But despite the club’s difficulties he top scored with 25 and won the club’s supporters player of the year award as they won the Second Division and the Football League Trophy.

As Claridge’s career was on the rise, Brighton were going in an opposite direction. As whilst Birmingham won that season’s Second Division Brighton finished a lowly 16th and would be relegated to the football league’s basement the following season.

But as Albion’s demise continued Claridge’s rise did so too and in early 1996 after losing favour with Barry Fry at Birmingham he made a £1.2m move to Martin O’Neill’s Premiership promotion chasers Leicester City. Whilst they had a wealth of attacking talent and despite making a largely unimpressive start to his time there including a debut in a 4-2 defeat to Ipswich where City were 3-0 down inside 12 minutes and he accidentally wore his shorts the wrong way around, he quickly had a crucial impact.

But it was a noticeably difficult start that had carried on from his old team Birmingham and lead to a 19-game goalless run. He and his new manager wanted to get to the bottom of what was wrong. “I explained what was happening to me and we decided I should go and see a specialist.”

Blood tests revealed that he was suffering from an under-active thyroid gland and which could have been a side-effect of the pills which Steve was using to regulate his heart. The doctors prescribed different drug for his heart, and his thyroid and as such Steve has said he’s now on three pills a day for the rest of my life. “Two for my thyroid and one for my ticker.”

That Leicester team had a reputation as an unruly bunch and just as at Cambridge, Claridge had a reputation as one of the key figures. Aside from his outspoken personality that helped him later forge a role as a successful pundit, Claridge also later admitted in his autobiography, “Tales from the Boot Camps”, that he had a 10-year gambling addiction, which had cost him £300,000.

Nonetheless once he got going at Leicester, he enjoyed probably the best spell in his career scoring some important goals including one in a 3-0 win against his old club Birmingham in the penultimate game of the season that helped secure Leicester a playoff place. A goal he celebrated by running in front of his old manager Barry Fry and one which was not welcomed by his old club’s supporters who waved pound notes in the air in disgust at Claridge’s move. And then he scored probably the most famous goal of his career, the extra time winner against another of his old teams Palace in the playoff final to earn the Foxes a place in the Premier League.

In the topflight Leicester and Claridge initially excelled finishing 9th in their first season and winning the League Cup, with Claridge leading the line top scoring with 15 goals including the winner in the replay of the League Cup final.

Unfortunately for Claridge his time at Leicester quickly took a turn for the worse and after failing to score the next season, he lost his place in the team and was soon loaned out to Portsmouth before being sold to Wolves.

But after five months at Wolves with Mark McGhee he was given little playing time and regularly criticised by fans so was sold to Portsmouth the following summer. There he spent three years and scored 34 goals including a hat-trick against his old club Wolves two years later, yet more revenge against an old club for Claridge. But his time with Portsmouth was ended after a short 25 game spell as player/manager, his first of a few experiences in such a role.

Claridge was then reunited with Mark McGhee at Millwall and was part of a team that got to the semi-finals of the Division one playoffs. But left the club at the end of the 2002/03 season to become player/manager of his old club Weymouth in the Conference South who he almost led to promotion but was sacked in his second season in charge after a poor start and a FA cup exit.

So after two short spells in management it was a surprise for some to see him rock up at Withdean stadium in 2004. Mark McGhee once again signed the veteran striker this time on a one-month deal, which would see him make 5 appearances for the Seagulls including a debut in a famous 1-0 away win at West Ham.

It was an unlikely victory by Albion, the ultimate smash and grab as they were dominated by their hosts or as scorer of the match winner Guy Butters put it: “the absolute Alamo”.

Manager McGhee praise Claridge saying “We kept the ball up front more which is important. Steve Claridge was key to that. He is one of the fittest players I’ve worked with and I have no doubt that after 18 months away from this level he would be able to perform.”

But that game was the high point of his spell with the club with his 3 other league appearances yielded three defeats and no goals for the Seagulls. Whilst the other saw a narrow one goal victory over Rotherham in the FA Cup. But despite the disappointing run, Claridge had impressed for the seagulls and looked like he could be the tonic to the club’s striker problem.

Non-league to the second tier is no regular move for a player, especially as a veteran, but Claridge’s is no regular career and this was no regular Brighton team either. They were out of their depth financially in the second tier, a period probably defined by a striker problem solved by reutilising defender and youth team product Adam Virgo as a striker, who top scored that season with 8 goals. It was a problem that dramatically arose after the form of Leon Knight, who had fired the seagulls to promotion the season before with 27 goals, severely tailed off scoring just 4 goals in 41 appearances that season.

Unfortunately despite this opportunity for the club to fill this gaping hole in its squad after he impressing in his short spell, finances were incredibly tight at the club with the stadiums planning permission battle taking hold of activities and it seems they couldn’t stretch as far as was required financially.

As such Claridge couldn’t agree a deal with the Albion and continued his nomadic career in the Football League by moving to Brentford. He later had spells with Wycombe, Millwall (again), Gillingham, Bradford, Walsall and then Bournemouth, where he played his landmark 1,000 career appearance.

Whilst later working as the BBC’s football league pundit for its TV highlights show he upset then Albion manager Gus Poyet by describing his teams football as “flicky, flicky” and that “as you go up leagues, there is no way that Brighton will be able to play that way against better players as better players are stronger”. Maybe not his finest punditry prediction, but we all get it wrong from time to time, even someone of Steve’s experience.

Steve Claridge may be a player who struggled to hold down a place at a club for a long period of time, had his own personal demons and also had conflicts with many managers. But at most club’s where he played at he left positive memories. Even at ones like Albion where his time was incredibly short, his part in that night at Upton Park is still fondly remembered.

Further patience is required for Potter as Albion continue flattering to deceive

Graham Potter’s Albion side have often been a contradiction since he took charge of his first competitive match as manager of the team back in August 2019. That 3-0 win over Watford turned out to be more a signpost of where Albion’s opponents were rather than themselves, as another season of relegation struggle followed. But then again, it’s not surprising considering the level of overhaul he was required to oversee in his first season at the club with relatively limited funds.

After Hughton’s sacking, Potter was tasked with creating a more entertaining team that also progressed up the table towards its long-term goal of an established top half place and away from that dreaded relegation zone, all whilst blooding youngsters and replacing the unwanted but previously important squad members.

Given the amount of change required, we all knew it wasn’t likely to be a bed of roses and patience would be required well into Potter’s second season and beyond. But in a year of such uncertainty and anxiety the patience required is understandably thin on the ground. So it should come as no surprise that it now appears whether he is still managing to do a satisfactory job depends on who you speak to.

Whichever side you fall on, I think it’s hard to not appreciate the progression made by the team during his tenure. He took over the most defensive team in the division and in the space of a year and a half has turned them into one praised for its attacking and entertaining style of play, a team that has dominated most games it’s played this season in terms of possession and chances created, whilst albeit also rightly criticised for its wastefulness in taking the opportunities it has created.

You will likely already know about Albion’s incredibly poor performance in comparison to its expected goals measurement (XG), which is the worst in the division this season. But there are many other statistics that demonstrate Albion’s attacking progression not demonstrated in the league table.

For instance (according to FBref.com) in Chris Hughton’s last season in charge Brighton had the lowest number of touches in the opposition penalty box of any Premier league team, but in the following season (Potter first in charge) they ranked 10th with a 32% increase. A trend continued into the 20/21 season with Albion now having had the 5th highest total touches in the opposition penalty box in the Premier League so far this season.

There are plenty of other examples too. Comparing the last Hughton season (18/19) to the first Potter season (19/20), season on season:

• shots were up 23%,

• shots on target up 38%,

• possession was up 23%,

• shot creating actions were up 20%,

I could go on. Ultimately, Brighton have attacked more frequently and more effectively.

An attractive style of play is one thing, ultimately it has to be backed up by results and the relative stagnation of Albion’s league position has frustrated many (17/18 – 15th, 18/19 – 17th, 19/20 – 15th, 20/21 – currently 17th). However as I’ve discussed in more depth previously, Albion are far from alone in what is a competitive field of clubs in the search for the top half of the topflight.

Many have focused on Albion’s recent poor home form having recorded just two home wins in all competitions in 2020 so far going into their final home game of the year against Arsenal on Tuesday night. A fair point, but you can’t focus solely on home form. Away from home it’s now 5 wins 4 draws and 3 defeats (to Spurs – 6th, Leicester – 2nd & Everton – 4th) in the 12 games since the restart, which would have been an unimaginably good record when Potter took over considering Albion achieved just 5 wins in all of Hughton’s 38 Premier League away games.

Nonetheless it is a poor run at home that’s been highlighted by the recent failure to beat struggling West Brom, Burnley and Sheffield United. However, the value of those results depends on your perspective.

Those draws along with the one away to Fulham do make Albion unbeaten against its fellow members of the league’s current bottom five. And whilst they did fail to win all four matches, that lack of a defeat combined with Albion’s away form continuing to improve could mean those results prove to be a beneficial rather than a damaging factor in Albion’s season.

Despite only winning two games so far this season (currently 9% down on its consistent 23% average win percentage across the last three seasons), it’s still fairly early days and Albion have shown through its increased attacking threat detailed above that they are able to give anyone a game. And given they are yet to be beaten this season by a team outside the current top 7 in the league, they can feel confident going into most fixtures.

However, that confidence continuing may well be dependent on Albion capitalising on opportunities to win games more often than they have so far this season, starting with their next three fixtures against West Ham, Arsenal & Wolves respectively. Fortunately all three opponents are ones they have a good record against, taking a accumulated total of 29 points from a possible 48 in the Premier League, whilst recording just 1 defeat in those 16 matches.

Considering their shortage of victories, Albion could certainly do with that run continuing this season. But in order to do so it needs to start turning draws and victories based on expected goals into actual wins and three points. But as the old football adage goes, you’d rather be creating chances and missing them than not creating chances at all. The signs are good, once again let’s give Graham Potter the patience to get it right.

Excess despondency ahead of a decisive few weeks

2020 has been a year where many of us have been reminded of our own frailties and of the instabilities that everyday life holds. Alongside all that Albion’s current concerning run of form is quite frankly small beer, but with all this instability around the uncertainty of the club’s Premier League status will no doubt be adding to Albion fan’s anxiety.

Whilst many have suggested this incarnation is the squad of players that the club has ever had, the points they have accumulated after 12 games is the lowest of its four Premier League seasons since promotion.

But, given that of the 12 teams Albion have faced so far this season, eight of their opponents currently sit in the top half of the league and only two are in the bottom eight places, there is reason to believe that the promise and potential which we have seen and discussed of Graham Potter’s Brighton over the last 18 months may materialise in the coming run of matches.

However, turning potential and promise into fruition is more difficult than it may appear on paper. Something highlighted by the recent demise of Sheffield United, a team who pre-lockdown in March were being spoken of as challengers for Champions League football having picked up 43 points from their first 28 games. But having subsequently won just 12 points from the subsequent 22 games, they are all of a sudden very much relegation fodder.

In comparison, Albion’s fairly consistent total of 22 points from their last 21 league games over the same period looks lucrative, especially given the previously mentioned relatively high standard of opposition faced so far this season. Not that the discourse amongst Albion’s fans after last Sunday’s 3-0 reverse away to Leicester would have suggested as such.

Mainly because it’s a result that leaves the club in a perilous position, just two places and two points above the relegation zone, ahead of two increasingly important games against teams beneath them in the table, first away to a rejuvenated Fulham and then at home to the aforementioned Sheffield United.

Lose those and Albion’s record of avoiding a prolonged stay in the relegation zone since promotion could quickly end and given the lack of stability in the UK at the moment, there may never be a worse time to lose their place at the top table of English football, especially given that the EFL is facing its own crisis.

Despondency can quickly have a spiralling effect and can quickly exacerbate the issues we face. I’m sure we’ve all experienced this most pertinently in our own personal lives. Be it from a professional or personal perspective, when you’re stuck in a rut everything becomes that little bit harder, and your goals, however big or small, can feel increasingly more difficult to achieve.

Throughout the club’s time in the Premier League it’s as moment like these appear that Albion have often managed to conspire to pull out a run of positive results, which keep its head above water and keep spirits high. The next two matches are a huge test of that ability to continue to survive at this level.

After Albion’s win away to Aston Villa, I spoke about how anxiety levels had been lowered somewhat as the team found themselves marooned in that mid-bottom-half league position that has become very familiar to Albion fans since promotion. But results since have meant that whilst the league position hasn’t changed, anxiety levels have increased as the teams below them have closed the gap.

Unlike the macro economic factors that will likely dominate our lives in the UK and further afield for the coming decade, and possibly longer, the transformation in the mood of football fans from despondency to euphoria – and back again, can happen in the space of just 90 minutes. Feelings that are only magnified for all the teams in the bottom reaches of the Premier League due to the fragility of their top flight status’.

However, just as with the fortunes of the country, Albion now find themselves with a decisive few weeks ahead, which could have huge implications for the coming months and years ahead.

Restructure plans add to an increasingly tumultuous week

I started my most recent blog about the Premier Leagues recent Pay Per View scheme by suggesting that it had been a tumultuous week in the history of Premier League, and that was before the proposed plans for the restructuring of English Football were released.

Project Big Picture has been largely derided by most on-lookers, but it appears to have a great deal of consensus from those with the game. Matt Slater of The Athletic stated “If it went to a vote of the 92 clubs in the top 4 divisions, I think it gets 2/3 majority. It’s not. And it won’t. But what next?”

In the early 2000s Brighton chairman Dick Knight cashed in a number of future incentive based payments in a transfer deal with Aston Villa for the former Albion youth player and future Villa club captain Gareth Barry for £500k. These incentives included a 15% sell on clause, which after in 2009 he was sold to Man City for £12.5m effectively cost the club £1.8m alone.

But with Villa using their power to stall on payments, (one of which had to be deducted from their TV broadcasting fee and paid to Albion instead after Doug Ellis had refused to pay it) the club simply needed the cash to ensure its short term survival and couldn’t risk further delay in future payments being made effecting cash flow any further.

It’s on a similar basis I assume that the latest Premier League restructure plans have been able garner EFL support. Amongst great economic uncertainty and widespread threat of clubs going out of business throughout its three divisions, survival is paramount. Even if it is at the expense of future revenue and leads to a decrease in opportunities for success.

Part of the restructure plans would see the League Cup scrapped. A competition much derided but which forms a huge part of the EFL’s £119m a year TV deal. Yes, the increase in redistribution of the Premier league’s TV broadcasting revenue would see significantly increase revenue for EFL clubs. But at what expense?

What’s then to stop the Premier League from changing its mind and greatly reducing the distribution of funds a few years down the line?

Put simply the big clubs behind this like Liverpool and Man United are exploiting the adversity faced across English football for their own gain.

The Guardian journalist David Conn has been a rare voice in support of the plans and said “There should be a fight over ‘Big 6’ plans for Premier League power, but proposal to share 25% of TV deals with the EFL could secure the pyramid, and should not be swept off the table. The other 14 Premier League clubs have come up with nothing like it.”

It’s a fair point, I’m no fan of these plans but David’s right, intervention is needed to secure the futures of many clubs in the EFL and beyond and what are clubs like our own proposing?

No help whatsoever seemingly. Brighton’s CEO and Deputy Chairman Paul Barber has instead spent the last few weeks arguing that Premier League clubs need to protect their own interest first.

Yes Premier League club need to look after its own interest. But there is a huge difference between looking after your own business and doing so at the expense of others in your industry.

Paul Barber talks a lot about football clubs being a business, and they are. But unlike most businesses they’re hugely reliant on their competitors to increase the industry’s spectacle for their own financial success.

He’s come in for a lot of well-earned criticism lately, but it should be said that Paul Barber is a great Chief Executive and always represents the club well. However, in an industry in crisis with income plummeting across the board due to no fans being allowed in stadiums in English football’s top 6 tiers, protecting every job may sadly be a fallacy.

Brighton and Hove Albion Football Club prospers most when the entire football community prospers, losing clubs helps no one.

During the late 1990’s and 2000’s the club attracted funds from various sources to make ends meet amongst its lengthening stadium battle. Without the prosperity that the depth of the English football pyramid offers, who knows if that funding would have been forthcoming.

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we all need each other a lot more than we previously appreciated. Premier League clubs need to do better to remember that.