Jingoistic Xenophobes or Jolly Revellers?

The booing of the Germany national anthem by a number of England fans at the European Championships match between the two countries on Tuesday caused much discontent among the watching public. Unfortunately it’s a habit that’s been happening at most England games for years, decades even, along with some other more deplorable chants, particularly about the Germans.

It’s worth saying however that it happens at many other international matches too, including at other matches of the current European Championships. Even the Germans have been known to do it when they play other countries at home as well.

For the majority it is simply part of the pantomime of football, but it also speaks to a hostile nationalist xenophobia that exists amongst a minority of the England Men’s teams regular supporters, as well as among many other national football teams support. It is the type of behaviour you wouldn’t see amongst many other sports national teams support.

However, I think major international sports events bring out far more good than bad, even football tournaments. Something masked by our habit as human beings of focusing on the shocking behaviour of a few plastic chair throwing, racist chanting idiots, over the vast majority of jolly revellers enjoying a major international event. Even if they partake in some practices you find offensive.

Look at the reaction to the taking of a knee by England’s footballers, yes some boo, but the vast majority have been supportive by cheering to drown that booing out. Football supporters, just like most members of society, are largely good people.

We seem to live in such a polarised society right now, where everything is being seen through the prism of a ferocious culture war. A war that has accelerated since the Brexit referendum in 2017, which split the country in two distinct camps, and which subsequently appears to have influenced the culture of ever-polarising debates ever since. So no surprise that the countries national sport and favourite pastime, football, is going the same way.

Football has always had an unattractive element to its fanbase. For many years attitudes of Xenophobia, racism, sexism and homophobia dominated the terraces, but then again they also dominated in wider society. In the 1980s when Justin Fashanu was hounded by the public and the media for his open homosexuality, so much so it eventually led him to taking his own life, 75% of the UK public thought acts of homosexuality were mostly or entirely immoral.

Much has changed, back then it would have been hard to imagine the captains of both England and Germany football teams wearing rainbow colour captain armbands in a show of solidarity with the LGBT+ community, but that’s exactly what happened on Tuesday. But whilst football now leads the way in terms of messages of support in the fight against various forms of discrimination, major international tournaments still shine a light on the rotten elements of the football family, people who unfortunately represent unwelcome attitudes that still exist in society. However, it still leads to the entire football family being tarred with the same brush.

Football doesn’t help itself either. The tribalism and polarisation of discussions has been encouraged in football for decades by media outlets attempting to drive interest and traffic. And football supporters now seem to be falling over themselves to take polarising positions about managers or players that drive a wedge between them and many of their fellow supporters. You only have to look at the debate surrounding many of England’s star players to see evidence of this.

Football tournaments of the 90’s and 00’s seemed to bring the country together, but in contrast the more recent football tournaments seem to highlight the great divisions that exist in our society and the animosity that exists towards the England football team. No more so than in the reaction to the continuous references by England fans to the famous song “It’s coming home”.

“Football’s coming home” was the tag line to the 1996 European Championships, a tournament hosted in England, and so the official England song written by David Baddiel, Frank Skinner and Ian Broudie of the Lightning Seeds repurposed it and the rest, as they say, is history.

There is a misunderstanding of what was meant by “Football’s coming home” both by some of those who use it and those who disparage it. It was never about imperialism nor some kind of misguided arrogance, nor is it not saying, “we own football”, although it’s convenient for some to interpret it in those ways.

The tag line itself references the fact that the original rules of Football originate from England in 1863 & were then adopted by FIFA in 1904 in what is now the world’s most popular sport.

At the time the originator of the phrase, Chris Thomas who also designed the marketing for Euro 96, said “it’s intentionally simple but let it rest in your head… we think it has infinite possibilities.” Many in hindsight now admit the line was bit crass, and it has been re-engineered and reinterpreted as arrogant when it was never meant as a boast about success.

As David Baddiel said during the 2018 World Cup “Three Lions is a song about loss: about the fact that England mainly lose. We as fans — as English people — invest an enormous amount in the idea of England, and then, as experience suggests, England let you down. We know this and yet we still — as the 98 version put it — believe. Football fandom is this, it’s magical thinking, it’s hope over experience.”

Despite its origins many of the past examples of great global football era aren’t English. The tika-taka of Barcelona, the Total Football of Johan Cruyff’s Ajax and Netherlands, the great flowing football of Brazil, or the contrastingly stern but effective Catenaccio of the Italians. All of which are part of the beautiful evolution of the world favourite sport, a sport which originated from rules set and exported by our country. It’s something internationally recognised by the football family too, with the 4 home nations still making 50% of The governing body of the laws of the game, IFAB.

English football has had huge influence globally, including on some of the great sides previously mentioned. In particular in Brazil where British settlers played a huge part in the establishment of the game. Brazil’s first game was played against the travelling English club team Exeter, whilst Brazilian giants Corinthians took their name from the English amateur team Corinthian Casuals. Meanwhile Italian giants Juventus play in black & white stripes after taking inspiration from another English club team Notts’ County

The protests against the European Super League proposals earlier this year galvanised football fans and showed us how powerful we can be as a society if we use our collective voices. But more recent examples of Tottenham and Everton fans protesting against potential managers before they have even been appointed, including a banner being left outside Rafa Benitez family home warning him not to take the Everton job, show that this power can and is used equally for destructive purposes.

But the power of football is used for good more often than for bad. Even if we ignore the less trivial elements already mentioned such as the use of its platform to tackle all forms of discrimination, football has great powers for good in many other ways too. Most prominently in the way many of us use it as a way into a conversation with people, an ice breaker or a bonding technique with friends, family, work colleagues and acquaintances. Forming bonds that can bring happiness and joy to so many lives.

There will always be those who try to spoil the fun by accusing those supporting their national sports teams of jingoistic tendencies or getting emotional at our club teams success as just utilising it to express repressed emotions, but in reality they are the ones who are losing out on one of the world’s greatest pastimes.

Look at the power of the London 2012 Olympic Games or Euro 96. Huge international sporting events that took place in this country that are both still spoken about to this day in such glowing terms. Some will point to faults in the event and it’s organisation, sure there were a fair few, but just as with most things in sport the overriding effect was a wave of positivity and joy. Personally I’m choosing to continue to ride that wave of joy rather than the one of misery and consternation.

But I think the England manager Gareth Southgate summed it up better than I could in his brilliant Players Tribune piece prior to the tournament. “The reality is that the result is just a small part of it. When England play, there’s much more at stake than that.”

“It’s about how we conduct ourselves on and off the pitch, how we bring people together, how we inspire and unite, how we create memories that last beyond the 90 minutes. That last beyond the summer. That last forever.”

Mings, Coady and White all in contention for a starting place as England gets ready to Host(ish) a Home(ish) European Championships

England go into the much delayed Euro 2020 with high expectations and the manager Gareth Southgate having an increasingly exciting and talented young group of players to pick from. Hold on, haven’t we been here before?

Maybe, but it does feel like a different England under Southgate. Whilst you cannot please everyone, the team now come across as far more likeable than many of its previous incarnations and that’s backed up by success on the pitch too with two consecutive semi-final appearances now to their name. There is an air of confidence in this team without the arrogance of old and a firm belief in its ability without the brash cockiness seen in past eras.

England start the tournament as favourites to win their group and as one of the most highly fancied teams in the entire tournament, but they won’t be caught by surprise by any of their group opponents with each one in its own way a familiar face.

Each match will be tough, but in many ways the second match with Scotland is looking like the toughest test after an impressive run of results under manager Steve Clarke who has transformed the previously much maligned home nation. Which makes beating England’s World Cup semi-final nemesis Croatia in their opening game all the more important and that won’t be easy opponents either.

Whilst Czech Republic’s win over England in qualification, the success of Czech internationals Tomas Soucek and Vladimir Coufal at West Ham last season, along with the success of the countries invincible domestic league champions Slavia Prague over British teams in the Europa League last season all ensuring England are well aware of their threats too. All three matches mean any speculation over potential last 16 opponents and possible routes to a prospective semi-final and final at Wembley will have to remain on ice for now.

Southgate said after England’s friendly win over Romania last weekend that he had just one place in the starting eleven for Sunday’s opener against Croatia that he was still unsure of, and I wonder if it’s his choice over defensive shape and personnel that this quandary is in relation too.

Much has been made of Man United Captain Harry Maguire’s injury in the lead up to the tournament and if he was fit he would almost certainly start alongside John Stones, but someone’s loss is another person’s opportunity and England’s back-up centre-back options of Mings, Coady and the late addition of our very own Ben White will all likely be in his thoughts.

The pre-existing members of the England squad Tyrone Mings and Conor Coady would appear to be at the front of the queue despite much derision being put their way on social media. Mings as a no nonsense defender may be Southgate’s go to option alongside Stones in a back four, whilst Coady would probably be more likely first pick in a back three.

Mings in particular has seen his fair share of criticism after a couple of unimpressive performances in England’s warm up games, but as many have already pointed out these games are more about gaining/maintaining fitness and avoiding injury than performance. Whilst his two years at Villa in the Premier League marshalling their defence to survival and then an impressive 11th place last season show he’s more than capable to fill the hole in the back four if required. As the Aston Villa online blog “Under A Gaslit Lamp” said recently: “Regardless of the occasional below par performance, Aston Villa are a better team and club due to the fact that Tyrone Mings is a part of it and he will be vital, as Dean Smith tries to steer the club into the upper echelons of the Premier League and back into Europe.” Unfortunately for him, in tournament football any mistake is likely to be amplified and ultimately this may count against him.

As an Albion fan I will be hoping that is the case and it is instead Ben White who gets the nod against Croatia, a player who’s versatility to be able to play in a number of positions along with his potential to improve appears to be what has secured him a place in England’s 26 after the injury to Alexander-Arnold.

White has continued to impress since coming to the attention of the Albion faithful during his multi-award winning season on loan at Newport County and his Rookie Premier League season saw him continue his impressive rise and surprise a few last weekend to win the club’s player of the season award, albeit seemingly with the help of his old friends from Leeds.

Whilst he only made his Premier League debut less than a year ago and his England debut less than two weeks ago, I doubt Gareth Southgate will be afraid to throw him in if he feels that he’s his best choice. After all Southgate himself was handed a surprise call up and subsequent selection to start as centre back for England at Euro 1996. Having only made his England debut seven months before, he started the opener against Switzerland alongside captain Tony Adams with just four caps to his name.

If it is Ben White who starts for England, it will be a huge personal moment for him and his family. But also for the Albion and everyone involved at the club. It is 23 years ago this week that the club made the signing of the Withdean era legend Gary Hart for £1,000 and a set of tracksuits from non-league Stansted, who went on to be the club’s joint top scorer in his first season. That youth team product Ben White has made the England squad this summer, let alone is being discussed as in contention for a start in the opening game, shows just how far the club has come since then.

Ollie Robinson’s Tweets

Last week was one of contrast for Sussex cricketer Ollie Robinson with the joy of his successful England debut matched with the ignominy of various historic offensive posts he had made on Twitter coming to light during his debut test match appearance.

The tweets in question that Ollie Robinson posted were abhorrent and rightly caused outrage, but he did sincerely apologise for them and has shown a genuine attitude to want to educate himself and be a better person. So I’m not really sure why this needs to go any further?

The fact they’re historic, he was much younger then and they were not made when he was a public figure are also very relevant here. If he’d sent them in the weeks in the lead up to his England debut I don’t think an apology would be sufficient. But the context here is very different, our response to this type of thing often ignores such context and is far too vindictive.

People like Ollie Robinson who’ve made the kind of offensive tropes and stereotypes he did, of course need to be put right. Not only for their benefit, but more importantly for the benefit of the people who those kind of remarks harm. But do we need to gang up like some kind of mob and put his head on a spike to prove a point? That’s not fighting for equality, that’s just seeking vengeance.

At my school in the 1990s and 2000s, like many, the kind of tropes he used were regularly banded about on the playground and in classrooms. I particularly remember many kids insulting others by calling them “gay” and I don’t remember one teacher calling kids out on it. I do however remember a teacher being effectively hounded out of the school by pupils and teachers for being openly gay. Whilst I also remember one occasion at primary school where two boys were punished because they kissed each other. Schools weren’t to be seen to encourage such things in those days, but times have thankfully changed.

I think football is a good example here too, where in the 1970s and 1980s many of the people attending matches would precede to racially abuse black footballers or direct homophobia towards Justin Fashanu and others. These people haven’t disappeared, most have just learned better behaviours and learned better of those attitudes.

In 1988 when section 28 was introduced, a British law that prohibited the “promotion of homosexuality” by local authorities, a survey found 75% of the population thought that homosexual activity was “always or mostly wrong”. And that legislation was only repealed in 2003. Views change and move on for the better. As a society we need to start recognising that more.

Banishing Ollie Robinson from Cricket would be like pretending none of us have ever said or done anything offensive…. Well, I’m calling out bullshit on that one.

The former England Cricketer Mark Ramprakash spoke eloquently on the subject on BBC Breakfast and made a good comparison when referencing Boris Johnson’s more recent offensive comments about Muslims. But he’s now our Prime minister, was then a huge public figure and yet failed to show even a fraction of the sincerity in his apology that Ollie Robinson did.

Boris Johnson and one of his cabinet members Oliver Dowden called the ECB’s decision to suspend Robinson an overreaction. But then again given the Prime minister’s track record with offensive remarks, he would think that. But as Mark Ramprakash said in his BBC interview the ECB had little choice or would have been seen to not have taken evidence of racism and discrimination seriously. I think it is more a sign of how poorly their due diligence was prior to his selection that they are effectively having to now play catch up.

But in contrast to Boris Johnson’s brash ignorance on the subject, Ollie Robinson showed the correct amount of regret in his public apology that I would be surprised (assuming the subsequent ECB investigation finds no further fault on his part it) if the ECB and the England team aren’t willing to welcome him back.

Furthermore it would be an incredibly powerful image to see Ollie Robinson, following his apology, welcomed back into the England team, one of mixed ethnicities and backgrounds. That’s the sort of healing our society needs right now, not more ignorance and acts of vengeance.

The Tweeting Seagull awards 2020/21

It’s been a season like no other and one that the players deserve a great deal of credit for their perseverance in such difficult and uncertain circumstances. So here I’ve picked out a few of the best and worst moments from the season just gone.

The Guy Butters Award for defying initial judgements – Dan Burn

Dan continues to defy the expectations of him as well as the at times inane derision put his way in equally emphatic measure. His winning goal against City, whilst scrappy, was just rewards for the frequency of his forward runs and upfield impact that he has had in the second half of the season since coming into the team after injuries to both Tariq Lamptey and Solly March.

Burn also played a huge part in the other highlight of Albion’s season, their 1-0 win away to Liverpool. That night Graham Potter described him as “incredible”. Going onto say about his detractors: “Anyone that criticises someone like Dan Burn doesn’t understand football, ultimately, I wouldn’t listen to them. It’s irrelevant to me. Dan just gives his best every day.”

Many of his critics will reference his performances against Leicester away in late December and Wolves at home in early January, which drew much criticism. TalkSPORT described his performance in the draw with Wolves as “a night to forget” whilst the Guardian described him as “helpless”.

However, it’s hard to find an Albion player who hasn’t had a few bad games this season. Even my pick for player of the season Lewis Dunk has had his moments, including that recent red card which ultimately cost Albion all three points in Albion’s return match with Wolves.

Nonetheless, so bad were a couple of Burn’s performances that many questioned his suitability on the left or even in the topflight entirely. Whilst his selection in the Albion team continues to draw a huge amount of confusion and contention despite his consistent dependability in numerous positions.

But he’s been hugely important for Albion throughout the season, which is a testament to him and his mental resilience. His importance to the team, despite not being in many Albion fans first eleven, is demonstrated by the fact that he has still been involved in 27 of Albion’s Premier League games this season and 10 of Albion’s 12 victories in all competitions, only Pascal Gross with 11 has played in more.

The Mark McCammon Award for most cringeworthy moment of the season – Albion fans booing Man City onto the pitch for their guard of honour.

We’ve been here before, back in 2019 Kyle Walker was booed whilst receiving his Premier League winners medal, so we shouldn’t be surprised that Albion have their fair share of petty supporters willing to spoil another teams moment of joy.

The irony that after a season which saw the near crumbling of the competitive structures of the game as we know it, and with it the integrity of the competition, that the team who won the league fair and square were then booed during a guard of honour held to congratulate them on their victory, shouldn’t be lost on us.

Evidence of petty and pathetic behaviour like this is racking up from the AMEX faithful and it isn’t a good look.

The Award for the most irritating and most repeated line of Albion punditry – “Neal Maupay embodies Brighton problems in front of goal”

Some will be surprised by this one, but I’m a huge supporter of Maupay and think Albion are far worse off without him.

Anyone who has watched Albion without Maupay this season should recognise that the team has struggled offensively without him. The bluntness of the attack on the final day defeat to Arsenal was telling of how he offers so much more than just scoring goals.

Albion’s recent win over Man City is the exception to this, but City were down to 10 men for most of the game, which makes it difficult to draw definitive conclusions from. The other four games that Albion played without Maupay this season (Fulham away, Spurs away, West Ham home & Arsenal away) saw the team struggle going forward. In all those 4 games the team created less shots (average across those 4 games was 7.5 shots pg) than the season average shots per game (12.8), scoring just twice (half their average goals per game rate).

As a part of their end of season reviews the Guardian were quite typical in the national press’ distain towards Albion’s top scorer. Going in hard on Neal Maupay by naming him as one of the “Flops of the season”.

Yes, he has missed big chances and should have scored more goals. But it is worth noting that he’s scored 22% (18) of Albion’s goals over the past 2 seasons, whilst taking 18% of their shots. Maupay isn’t blameless, but Albion’s problems in front of goal don’t just lie with him.

In fact, it doesn’t make sense to blame a teams lack of goals on the player actually scoring a significant proportion of its goals. Instead we should look at others. For example the likes of Gross, Lallana, Jahanbakhsh and Trossard who should all have scored more this season too, between them have only matched Maupay’s 8 goals.

The idea of Albion needing to sign a 20-goal a season striker is a huge red herring, the only two who actually scored that many in the Premier League this season were Harry Kane and Mohammed Salah, players unattainable for the Albion. If we look at two teams Albion have been competing with in previous seasons that managed to lift themselves up the division this season, Aston Villa and West Ham, neither had one player on 15 goals, let’s alone 20.

Instead, both teams had a number of players with multiple goals. West Ham’s top scorer was Antonio on 10, but they had three other players on 8 goals or more. Admittedly Villa’s top scorer was Watkins 14, but they also had El Ghazi on 10 and Traore on 7. In contrast, aside from Neil Maupay, over the past two season no Albion player has matched Danny Welbeck’s 6 goals in the a single season.

The only player to do that in their four Premier League seasons is Pascal Gross in 2017/18 with 8. But his more recent goalscoring form in particular is a concern. Since moving into a slightly deeper role he has scored just 8 across the next three season, only 2 of which from open play. Whilst still crucial to Albion’s play, he’s become far less effective in front of goal under Potter.

I don’t think anyone in the squad this season, maybe Connolly aside, shows the same kind of instinct to get in the box like Maupay does. So in that sense, compared to the too often goalshy likes of Trossard, Gross, Lallana and Jahanbakhsh, he’s the antithesis of Albion’s problems in front of goal. If Albion had more players with his mindset to get in the six yard box and take a risk then Albion would have turned far more of those many draws into wins.

At the start of the season I said an improvement from Albion would be partly contingent on Maupay showing the kind of second season improvement in his goal tally as he did at Brentford in the Championship, but that hasn’t happened. In fact he’s scored 2 less than last season’s tally of 10. So just as his goalscoring rate has largely stood still, so have Albion finishing 16th compared to last season’s 15th placed finish.

Much like at Brentford he’s been asked to play a role that is the focal point of the attack, but this doesn’t necessarily mean the team always plays to his strengths. At Brentford you’d often see him getting on the end of crosses or picking up second balls, but he doesn’t really get much of that kind of delivery at Albion and is often expected to deal with short sharp balls to feat, which has often seen him get his feet in a muddle and miss the chance.

I think to get the best out of Maupay next season Albion need to add a bit more variety to the balls going into the box. They need to be a little more direct from wide areas, and/or find a taller striker for Maupay to play off and pick up the scraps from. But whether Graham Potter would want to forgo an element of the teams slick and sharp forward play that has drawn so much admiration from pundits and caused opposition defences such concern but not yet seen the deserved improvement in the goals and points tally to go with it, is yet to be seen

The Billy Sharp Award for best opposition player performance at the AMEX – Reece James

Reece James progression as one of the most exciting young players in Europe continues somewhat under the radar because of the prominence of so many other top class English right-backs. But in his first full season as an established first team player at Chelsea, he started as he meant to go on with a match-winning performance for Chelsea in their 3-1 win over Albion at the AMEX.

Even on this night, he was somewhat overshadowed by his former Chelsea teammate Tariq Lamptey’s impressive performance at right back for Albion that actually earned Albion’s right back the BBC’s man of the match award.

But given it was James who with the game tied at 1-1 grabbed it by the throat and won it for the visitors, he should ultimately take the plaudits. Firstly he was given a bit of space on the edge of the box and took no hesitation in rifling the ball home into the top corner of the net. Chelsea’s third then came from his attack down the right hand side winning a corner off Solly March, whom he had tormented all night, then sending in the corner towards Zouma, who turned it home to make it 3-1 and put Chelsea out of sight.

Whilst in the second half of the season his success was somewhat curtailed by injury and a change of management, his impressive first half of the season shows the potential and ability that he has. So good was he that he was named by Alan Shearer in his Premier League half-way team of the season and was involved in two of England’s qualifiers back in March including the crucial 2-1 win at home to Poland.

That night at the AMEX the Guardian’s Barney Ronay described Brighton’s performance as “impressively slick and a little unlucky”. Start as you mean to go on as they say. However unlike on many occasions this season where it has been Albion’s poor finishing or sloppy defending when ahead that has cost them points, on this occasions it was largely down to an impressive performance from arguably England’s best right back.

The Scott McGleish villain of the season – Maty Ryan

What a difference a year makes. This time last year Maty Ryan was Albion’s number one and considered pretty untouchable in that position. A year later he has lost his place, been loaned out and found himself as the unfortunate figure of hate from a significant portion of Albion’s social media supporters.

In Albion’s second Premier League season Ryan was deemed so important to Albion that his absence for a short period to appear in the Asia cup for his native Australia was one of that season’s regular narratives of concern. As it turned out Albion would manage ok without him, but he was still instantly reinstated on his return.

However the improvement of the young Robert Sanchez, who started the season as Albion’s 4th choice goalkeeper after returning from loan at League One Rochdale and ended it by being named in his national team Span’s European Championships squad, alongside a run of bad form for Ryan that stretched back to the end of the previous season, saw Ryan quickly replaced as Albion’s number one.

Maybe links last summer between Albion and Emiliano Martínez, who would ultimately sign and star for Aston Villa, should have given a hint that Ryan’s days at Albion were numbered. But when he was initially dropped away to Spurs and then again for Albion’s trip to relegation rivals Fulham, there was a great deal of shock, but Sanchez has quickly proved his worth and no one has looked back since.

Ryan was completely isolated from Albion’s Matchday squads and loaned to Arsenal after becoming a figure of blame for Albion’s woes from some on social media. But his subsequently interview with Australian broadcaster Optus Sport only served to increase the animosity.

In that interview Ryan went into detail about his private conversations with Albion manager Graham Potter about being dropped, before going onto describe his move to Arsenal as a step up and revealing that he viewed Brighton as a stepping stone to a bigger club. Comments that I think just described the situation honestly and frankly, but that appear to have upset the more sensitive and insecure members of Albion’s support.

Furthermore, Albion’s current transfer model is just that, to become a stepping stone to bigger clubs for young and talented players like the often praised Yves Bissouma. Maty Ryan’s comments show a level of ambition the club should expect of its players and is an attitude the supporters are going to have to accept as the new normal, even from players they don’t rate as highly as Bissouma.

Despite this and Albion’s Chief Executive Paul Barber defended Maty Ryan, saying he felt his comments had been misinterpreted, but some Albion fans still seem keen to stick the knife into Maty Ryan at every opportunity.

But he is person who represented the club with such distinction for three and a bit years both on and off the pitch. Yes, substandard performance meant he was ultimately deemed surplus to requirements and he was possibly naive and tasteless in the honesty of his comments in this now infamous interview, but that doesn’t diminish his previous three seasons of commendable service to the club, a period where he was a hero to many.

And yet because some have taken exception to something he said in an interview they will continue to abuse him at every opportunity. Franky, they need to grow up.

Dunk out and White in as Gareth Southgate names his provisional 33-man England squad

Poor old Lewis Dunk, he has the season of his life and whilst many have called for his inclusion in this summer’s England squad for the European Championships, he has instead been usurped by his rookie teammate Ben White.

It’s a game of opinions I guess. And given Gareth Southgate does have a pretty decent record as England manager, you will have to excuse me for trusting his judgement.

Good record you ask? Yes, Gareth Southgate in fact has the second best win percentage of all England managers. Add to that getting to the semi-finals of both the World Cup and Nations League, as well as two comfortable qualification campaigns all to his name in just four years, I believe his record looks rather impressive. Especially whilst also managing a huge turnover in players.

Many Brighton fans (along with a few others) have said that based on form Lewis Dunk should be in the England squad, and even if we accept this as true, I don’t think you can base an international squad selection purely on form or that he’s been at the heart of Albion’s impressive defensive record.

Many talk about Dunk’s form in reference to an interview Southgate did in 2017 with the Daily Telegraph where he talked about selecting players based on form rather than reputation. But this is taking what he said out of context. There are many other factors which also need to be considered than simply form, no international manager picks a squad purely based on form. This isn’t Garth Crooks selecting his team of the week after all.

Here’s the full quote from that interview: “I’m very conscious I’ve got to get the balance right because ultimately my responsibility is to produce a winning England team. I never pick on reputation — form has to come into it. You have to look at the opposition and the type of game you’re expecting and select the players best suited to that.”

Going onto say: “We’ve got to be better, everything we do has got to be better. Even being second in the world isn’t good enough, we have to be the best we can be, and that’s the best.”

Building a squad of players, as Albion have found in the Premier League, is hard. Most importantly you need to have depth, experience, a range of characteristics and versatility in terms of position. Unfortunately for Dunk, he appears to have fallen just short in Southgate’s eyes compared to his other defensive options.

Southgate did reference Dunk’s impressive season and how important he is to Brighton in his press conference. But in reasoning Ben White’s selection (along with the also uncapped Ben Godfrey) over Dunk he referenced both White’s potential to improve and his versatility, both areas that Dunk does fall down on compared to other options available to England.

Dunk has had his chance with England too and clearly failed to sufficiently impress. In The Athletic earlier this season Andy Naylor reported that Lewis Dunk fell well below the training levels expected during his only England call up and that Dunk’s training was also an issue at Brighton earlier in his career under Guy Poyet. It may sound like a harsh and rash judgement, but these things do matter in terms of setting the type of winning mentality and attitude that Southgate referenced back in 2017.

This of course won’t be the only factor in Southgate’s thinking. If we look back at Southgate’s 2017 interview he talks about the balance of the team as well as the opposition they face as factors in his mind when selecting a team. Some have said Southgate has an anti-Dunk agenda or even an anti-Brighton agenda. I think his agenda is simply that he prefers Mings, Coady, Maguire and Stones to Dunk in terms of what he wants from his squad. That’s his job to make that call after all.

Many say Dunk deserves to be in the England squad and I don’t dispute that he is more than good enough. But so are many others. For example, Aston Villa’s Ezri Konsa and AC Milan loanee Fikayo Tomori were also specifically mentioned by Southgate in his press conference, whilst James Tarkowski and Michael Keane have both been in England squads more recently than Dunk, all of whom miss out too. We are lucky to have such competition for places.

Some have suggested Dunk’s omission is because of a smaller club bias, but that Ben White has also been included is a huge contradiction to this. And that nine of the fourteen non-“Super Six” Premier League Clubs are represented in the provisional squad also massively contradicts this notion.

Gareth Southgate has consistently been willing to pick players from a wide variety of clubs, even those overseas most of us don’t see as much or those like Brighton not competing in a European club competition.

Much like many of those clubs represented, for Brighton, Ben White’s selection is a feather in the cap for the growing reputation of its academy. It’s one that they will hope to be the first of many and not simply for the odd one cap that Lewis Dunk is currently stuck on.

White’s talent, potential and versatility appears to be what saw him saw him beat others into the provisional squad, but getting into the final 26 is likely to be a much tougher task. As Southgate yesterday suggested, he’s there more as one for the future than for these Euros.

However, I wouldn’t be too despondent. The last and only time a Brighton player was picked by England at a major tournament, Steve Foster in 1982, Albion were relegated from the topflight the following season. So if White is overlooked like his Albion teammate Dunk, then maybe we should all be grateful.

Brighton v Everton (1924)

Brighton and Everton aren’t teams who’ve come up against each other much in their respective histories. Prior to Albion’s promotion in 2017, and aside from their other brief spell in the topflight between 1979 and 1983, you have to go back to 1924 when the sides had last met, in the second round of that years FA Cup. A game that saw one of Albion most famous victories prior to the Second World War.

Brighton had played their first season after the First World War in the Southern League in 1919/20 finishing 16th, before joining the expanded Football League with the rest of the Southern League’s best club’s for the 1920/21 season.

Charlie Webb, who had scored the winner in Brighton’s 1-0 1910 Charity Shield win over Aston Villa, had since retired and taken over as manager in 1919, a position he would hold until 1947. And his first task was rebuilding the team after the horrors of the First World War.

Webb was known for his shrewd transfers, but this was in part forced upon him due to circumstance because of a relatively limited budget at the club. Restrictions which at times during his tenure led to bad relations between him and the board, and which were made worse due to accusations of undue influence on team affairs.

Until the 1920’s, Football Managers had been little more than trainers who picked the side and did little to influence how they played. But this was the decade of the emergence of the modern manager, largely influenced by Herbert Chapman’s success with Huddersfield in the 1920s and later more notably at Arsenal in the 1930s.

However, at the time Everton were still managed by the club’s secretary manager Thomas McIntosh, and it wasn’t until Theo Kelly was appointed in 1939 that the club appointed their first manager in the modern sense. Whilst for Brighton, Charlie Webb oversaw a period of great modernisation in the role, but the tales of conflict suggest it wasn’t a quick transition.

Although consistently in the upper half of the Third Division South table, Albion’s chief successes during the 1920s and 1930s were in the F.A. Cup, with its first and one of its most notable giant-killing successes coming when they beat Everton 5-2 in the second round at the Goldstone Ground.

Albion had already knocked out higher ranked opposition at home in a first round replay in the form of Second Division Barnsley, and the visit of Everton brought a then record crowd of 27,450 to the Goldstone.

Everton were a regular in the top half of the First Division before the war, which they had already won twice. But the club’s performances since the end of the First World War and the resumption of the Football league had been inconsistent. Their 7th placed finish that season being one of their better seasons until the great Dixie Dean was signed from local Third Division North side Tranmere Rovers and transformed their fortunes.

Nonetheless they were strong favourites and named no less than six internationals in their line-up. So it was no surprise when they opened the scoring through John Cock and despite Tommy Cook quickly equalising the visitors were back in front through Wilfred Chadwick on 25 minutes. However, Albion were giving as good as they got and a Wally Little penalty made it 2-2 at half time.

After the break the game turned quickly in favour of the hosts as Albion dominated the second half. Tommy Cook scored two in the first twenty minutes to complete his hat trick, before Andy Neil made it 5-2 to add a bit of extra gloss on a magnificent result for the club. A display manager Charlie Webb described as “the best Cup exhibition of any Albion team under my management”.

The Sunday Post exclaimed: “Brighton surprise Everton.” Going into state that the result “was one of the biggest surprises of the round, but none would deny that it was deserved.”

The Liverpool Daily Post said “Brighton’s best were Wilson, at outside left, Nightingale, in the second half, at outside right, and Coomber [Albion’s captain], at centre half, together with the snap-chance artist Cook” The aforementioned Ernie “Tug” Wilson had joined the club in 1922 and spent twelve years with the club in the inter-war years going onto become Brighton’s record appearance holder with 566 appearances, a record he still holds.

And he wasn’t the only prospective club record holder playing that day. Albion’s hat-trick hero Tommy Cook would go onto become the club’s record goalscorer with 123 goals, once again a total yet to be beaten. He had joined the club on an amateur basis in 1921 and became a regular in the first team the following season. Part of the reason for Cook’s prolific record in front of goal was that this hat-trick was one of eight for the club, his first coming against Gillingham in only his third appearance, after which he never looked back until leaving the club in 1930.

Cook was described that day by the Sunday Post as “one of the most dangerous centres in England”. And despite playing for Albion in the regionalised third tier he went on to win an England cap, in a 2-1 win against Wales in a Home International in 1925. However, despite being praised he was never chosen again for his country.

The Liverpool Daily Post said of his performance that day “Cook did not stand out on his own in spite of his three goals. He just kept his position, kept the ball going, and shot instantly the chance showed itself. That was why Brighton scored so heavily.”

Albion went onto host another First Division team in the next round of the competition in Man City, but this proved one step too far as they were heavily beaten 5-1. They went on to finish 5th that season missing out on promotion to the Second Division by 8 points. And it would be another 34 years before they achieved their long awaited promotion into the second tier in 1958.

Everton and Brighton would have to wait 55 years before they met again, this time in the First Division, after Brighton were promoted into the topflight for the first time in their history.

Dan Burn – conveniently unconventional

He may not be the most technically gifted player in the team and probably doesn’t get into the Albion’s first eleven when everyone is fit, but Dan Burn has been pivotal for Brighton this season.

He is one of only five players to have featured for Brighton in all six of its league wins this season (along with Yves Bissouma, Lewis Dunk, Ben White and Neil Maupay). And he is also the only Albion player to have featured in all nine of Albion’s wins in all competitions that were inside the normal 90 minutes.

Some may be surprised to hear of his record, but it is a sign of Burn’s positional and tactical versatility, which gives Graham Potter something most others in the squad do not. An attribute that makes him so important to the squad, especially for a manager like Graham Potter who regularly alters his teams system and approach.

In Jonathan Wilson’s book about the evolution of football tactics – “Inverting the pyramid”, he ends it by foreseeing that the next stage of football’s tactical evolution would be universality within a team, leading to increased tactical fluidity and the end of set roles. Graham Potter’s management approach and Dan Burn’s adaptability are good examples of this beginning to come to fruition. Burn’s positional adaptability under Potter has turned him from a rarely used fringe player under Hughton to a key member of the Brighton squad under Potter.

Even during the early periods of the current season where Burn spent much of his time on the bench for league matches, he was often brought on as a substitute. Being used by Potter to switch the formation and adapt to the issues that were arising in the match.

But of late he has taken advantage of the opportunity that injuries to other teammates has given him, starting the last eight games in a row, his best run since last season where he was near ever-present, starting 33 of the 38 league matches.

The first of those eight matches was a perfect example of his versatility, which was used to the team’s benefit to surprise the opposition in the victory over Liverpool at Anfield. In that match, rather than in the more defensive role he is accustomed to, he was used more as wide target man/left winger.

Jurgen Klopp said after the match that his team struggled to deal with Albion’s attacks which he described as “Chipping the ball to Burn and go from there.” It certainly wasn’t a role Burn had played often before if at all, so it’s not a surprise it caught Liverpool out and was so effective. And Burn’s role in subsequent matches has seen him stay in that position further up the pitch than he’s played previously, filling in for the absent Solly March.

This trend goes back to Albion’s defeat at home to Southampton during the early stages of the 2019/20 season, when after starting the season in a back three alongside Dunk and Duffy, he was switched to left back after Florin Andone was sent off and Potter switched to a back four. Despite the defeat, his marauding and effective full back performance was a real positive and was a role Potter went onto use him in for much of the rest of the season.

Former Fulham manager and Man United coach Rene Meulensteen said of Burn last season: “He’s an ideal player for a manager because he can play in multiple positions. He’s decent on the ball with his feet for a big, tall lad. Skill-wise, he’s very well equipped.”

However, it’s not been plain sailing for Burn this season. Most notably his first half performance against Wolves when he struggled to deal with Wolves winger Adams Traore so much that he gave away a penalty, got booked and scored an own goal as Albion trailed at half time 3-1 and he was eventually subbed off part way through the second half as Albion recovered to draw the match 3-3.

But Potter was defensive of his utility man saying after the game: “Dan Burn a couple of years ago was at Wigan in League One. Rather than being critical of Dan Burn, we should be proud of him. He puts himself there, he gives his best every day, gives his best every match. It’s easy to be critical in this world and he is a fantastic professional, a fantastic person.”

Graham Potter is clearly conscious of the criticism his players are getting, particularly after making mistakes whilst being asked to fulfil at times unfamiliar roles and take big risks defensively, such as the amount of space sometimes left in defence by Burn’s marauding runs forward. And is keen to not be overly critical of his players.

But Burn is a player Potter has regularly had to come to the defence of, saying after his eye-catching performance away to Liverpool “Anyone that criticises someone like Dan Burn doesn’t understand football… I wouldn’t listen to them. It’s irrelevant to me”.

As well as the criticism, Burn has drawn praise from many areas, not just from his manager. Last season Premier League pundit Adrian Clarke said “Burn does not look like a left-back, but he has taken to his new role wonderfully” Going into say “He is comfortable moving the ball through the lines…Meanwhile, his height and defensive ability are assets out of possession.”

Even prior to March’s injury which saw him return to the left hand side, he had made the left back role in a back four his own last season and has often been used in games this season as a left sided centre back in a back three able to switch to a left back in a back four if Potter makes one of his regular in-game formation switches. An adaptability that has regularly allowed Potter to save using a substitution.

Indeed he has had to adapt and find a less conventional route throughout his career to get to the point of playing regular Premier League football. He was initially on the books of Newcastle United but was released at the age of 13 and had to work his way through a more obscure route via the youth team Blyth Town and onto Blyth Spartans. From there he was picked up by League Two Darlington before moving to Fulham in 2011.

Whilst at Fulham two loan spells followed in between a handful of appearances for the club in the Premier League. Before playing more regularly for them in the Championship after their relegation in 2014. A move to Wigan followed in 2017 where he caught the eye of the Albion scouts despite their relegation to League One and was signed by Brighton under then manager Chris Hughton in 2018.

Hughton described Burn upon joining the club as having “a wealth of experience” going into say “He’s an imposing figure and had an excellent season helping Wigan to the League One championship”. And yet Burn was initially loaned back to Wigan for 6 months before being used sparingly by Hughton mostly in cup matches, as he favoured the tried and tested partnership of Lewis Dunk and Shane Duffy.

Indeed it’s been a long road for Burn who admits he initially struggled during his time at Newcastle, saying: “I wasn’t very good… I was struggling to grow into my body and a little bit all over the place.” To add to the difficulties he faced whilst he was still growing into his body, he also lost one of his fingers on his right hand, when it caught on a spike while he was climbing a fence.

Yes there are many things about Burn’s development and career that are unconventional, which in many ways makes him very suited to Graham Potter’s Brighton side.

Graham Potter’s own route into Premier League management is similarly unusual. Having started as a lower league footballer, he studied at the Open University and then at Hull University before working as an administrator for Ghana’s women’s team at the 2007 women’s World Cup. He then had his first chance in management in the Swedish Fourth Division, where he took Ostersunds into the top tier and then into European competition before he moved to Championship side Swansea and then onto Brighton in 2019. An experience which means he is clearly not overly influenced by a players track record, as his treatment of Burn shows.

It’s often the case that criticism of individuals in team sports comes from the audiences confirmed bias of that individual and an ignorance of the bigger picture. I think this is often the case when it comes to Dan Burn.

For example you hear it said a lot that “Dan Burn can’t win a header despite being so tall”. This simply isn’t true. Dan Burn has won 71 aerial duels so far this season, the most in team and the 19th most in the division. Whilst last season he won 141 aerial duels, again the most in the Albion team and the 10th highest in the Premier League.

The Secret Footballer has spoken about how ignorance from supporters often leads to unfair criticism of players, including how on many occasions when a misplaced pass is made, it’s often that a teammate didn’t make the right run off the ball rather than the player passing the ball being at fault.

Potter’s Albion are a team that takes more risks than many of its competitors, particularly the players in Burn’s current role at wing back. Graham Potter seems unafraid of his teams making mistakes and is happy to place his trust in those who have made them on multiple occasions previously. In fact, it would be hard to find a player in the Brighton team that hasn’t made a few mistakes this season. But at 6”7 and playing as an eye catching marauding wingback, Dan Burn stands out more than most when they do occur.

When players reach their late 20s as Burn now has, it isn’t unusual for them to reinvent themselves positionally to adapt and maintain their position in the game. However, it isn’t as commonplace that you see a centre back doing so as an attacking wing back, let alone one that is 6”7 tall. But if history has taught us anything it’s that neither Graham Potter nor Dan Burn are conventional.

Temperament and Temper Tantrums

I took great joy in Brighton’s run to the FA Cup semi-finals in 2019 which ended with that grand day out to Wembley. Yes we’d lost 1-0 but we’d still enjoyed a wonderful occasion. The moments after the final whistle where 35,000 Albion fans stayed behind to applaud and cheer their side, drinking in every last moment of the day, will stay with me for a long time.

As an Albion fan, days like that are rare and I was hopeful that many would share my enjoyment of the day, but much of the media coverage of the game was negative. I felt many had missed the point in their comments, in particular Jermaine Jenas who in Match of the Day’s live coverage described it as a “missed opportunity” for Albion.

A few days later I listened to the Guardian’s football podcast, a regular on my podcast listening list. Their panellists were also less than complimentary about the match, with it being described in the introduction as “a game of walking football”, and the disparaging comments went on from there.

I once again felt the media was missing the sense of occasion and in the heat of the moment I took exception to their scorn and sent a critical message on Twitter. However, I was subsequently, and rightly, put in my place by the Guardian journalists I’d called out. Who in the space of a couple of hundred characters made me look like a real wally.

To me it wasn’t just any old game, this was the game I’d been waiting to see for the past two decades. Albion at Wembley in the FA Cup. Who cares if it was only a semi-final, this was Wembley in the cup! After all like many Albion fans, I was still sore from missing out on a trip to Wembley for the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy final after losing on penalties to Luton Town in the semifinals ten years previous.

But for everyone apart from those 35,000 Brighton fans, it was just another game and a not very entertaining one at that. Anyone still needing more convincing just need look at our opponents Man City’s tickets sales from that day, who left whole blocks empty with some being handed to Brighton to help fill the stadium.

Life as a football fan often has a habit of making us behave irrationally, letting our emotions get the better of us. Whilst social media can have a habit of reinforcing our shaky opinions the more we post them, getting likes and retweets from our fellow ignorants. You’re either in or out, and never in between, let alone changing your mind. Whether that’s with Brexit, Graham Potter’s competence or anything else, we all end up finding reasons in the things we see to reinforce our own confirmation bias and berate those who dare to disagree.

One area there has been a lot of emotion invested in of late is the aforementioned Graham Potter and his role in the Albion’s season. It’s been a bizarre season for many reasons, and the week just gone for Albion which saw defeats to rivals Palace and West Brom is yet another chapter in that story. Despite controlling on average 72.5% of possession and having 40 shots, they scored just one goals and managed to lose both games. And whilst much of the scorn has been poured onto Albion’s front line, Graham Potter has yet again taken a fair amount of flack.

It was, to a degree, just the same old story for Brighton this season. More missed chances in front of goal and more sloppy goals conceded at the other end against the run of play, all despite dominating the play. On this week’s Guardian football weekly podcast Barry Glendenning spoke about how one Albion fan had described this Albion team as equally the best and the worst in his 40 years supporting the club. I wouldn’t go that far, anyone who remembers the 1-0 defeat at home to Walsall under Micky Adams doomed second tenure as manager in 2008 would probably agree that this team is at least better than that one! And let’s not even delve into the Gillingham years.

Despite Graham Potter’s assertion this summer that he wanted to work with the players he had and coach more goals out of this team, particularly Neal Maupay, the team remains goalshy and ever more continue to justify the loud calls in the summer by many supporters to bring in a “silver-bullet” striker. Maupay himself was bold in his claims of him solving Albion’s longstanding issue with scoring goals before the start of this season, stating his hunger for more goals in his second season just as he’d done at Brentford previously.

Graham Potter has refused to publicly criticise the £20m striker, or any other players. But he didn’t shy from the wider problem of scoring goals in his post-match interview after the defeat to West Brom, admitting that “clearly” scoring goals is the issue. But went onto stress that “this is elite top level football… you’re going to suffer sometimes that’s how it is”.

We shouldn’t be surprised that whilst many fans like myself have expressed much frustration, Graham Potter stayed grounded. It’s what he does, never too high, never too low, never giving much away. Just like his predecessor Chris Hughton, and a quality seen in many Albion managers since Gus Poyet’s eventual sacking. A quality which I believe has helped consistently keep the relegation zone at arm’s length, so far that is.

Poyet’s time at the club was often tainted by his sometimes-absurd media outbursts and his relationship with the board of directors was often strained by his constant criticism of the club’s transfer policy and threats that he would leave if he felt the club had “reached its ceiling”. This rollercoaster ride culminated in a fittingly chaotic climax, which began with the play-off semi-final defeat to rival Crystal Palace. After the game Poyet made several comments suggesting he might resign and with the ultimately unrelated story of human faeces being found in the away dressing room at the AMEX hanging over the club like a bad smell, both literally and metaphorically, Poyet was initially suspended and later sacked for Gross Misconduct.

He was a brilliant manager, and a revolutionary one in many ways for the club at a time when it really needed it. Having been close to relegation to the fourth tier shortly before his arrival and with the new stadium soon to arrive, he put the club on the path it continues to follow. But his off the pitch behaviour left a cloud over his on the pitch achievements and brought unnecessary attention to the club when it often wasn’t beneficial.

So it’s no surprise that since the club have stuck with more considered personalities as head coach/manager. First the quiet Spaniard Oscar Garcia was brought in, then the unassuming Finn Sami Hyypia, before Chris Hughton and then Graham Potter were brought to the club.

Graham Potter is the next step in the evolution in terms of mentality at the club. This is in many respects, including a job title of head coach rather than manager, a degree in Social Sciences, masters in Leadership and Emotional Intelligence and a track record of working with and developing youngsters at his previous clubs he really fits the bill on paper. And the potential is there for it to be realised in practice too.

However, he has come under some warranted criticism this season. But the players have really let him down in recent matches, a subject I discussed earlier this week. However, Graham Potter kept his cool and remained calm in his recent post-match press conferences under no doubt intense questioning. I know many will disagree, but I’m pleased to see him not criticising his players in public, god knows he’d be entitled too!

As Chris Sutton said in this week’s Monday Night Club on BBC 5live about the Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel’s public criticism of some of his players since taking over recently, “[criticism in private] that’s the game, everybody has to accept criticism” but said “as soon as you go into the public arena with that, what’s the positive which can come out of that?”

Club captain Lewis Dunk told the Club website after the match at the Hawthorns – “it doesn’t help to dwell on the past – we look ahead to next Saturday against Leicester City now.” – I’m sure words will have been said in the dressing room and that’s where it should stay.

Some will point to Fulham’s recently promoted squad who may have been seen to have reacted positively to being publicly criticised a few times by their manager Scott Parker this this season. Yet they are still in the relegation zone and struggling to win games just as much as Albion, which suggests there has been little positive effect.

I also doubt if Albion’s young and inexperienced team would have reacted in a positive way to such criticism. Particularly the likes of Aaron Connolly who has recently had to delete his Instagram profile for the second time in quick succession after a torrent of online abuse. Given the amount of criticism some have had to deal with lately, the last thing they need is their coach turning on them too.

Graham Potter has his work cut out to turn around Albion’s season and avoid it from nosediving after a terrible week on the pitch. So the last thing he needs is a demoralised group of players off the back of some unwise and emotive comments that he’s made in the media.

Us supporters will no doubt continue to get into a frenzy about this Albion team, for good and bad, whilst pundit will no doubt continue to wilfully dissect the at times comical aspects of Albion’s performances. But Graham Potter will no doubt continue stay as cool as a cucumber right to the end, and we are all the better for it.

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.