Twenty things from twenty seasons (part 2)

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

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

This was a level of ruthlessness that it could be said former chairman Dick Knight lacked in his final season. In contrast, the reason Knight gave Micky Adams the job in the first place was mostly through thinking with his heart over his head, then he gave him enough time to disprove the faith shown in him ten times over. Bloom said on sacking Slade: “Russell is a good man, which made it an even harder decision to take, but it is one which has been made in the club’s best interests.”

After Steve Coppell ruled himself out of a return to the Withdean, in his place Bloom appointed Gus Poyet. Gus was a man who unlike Slade and Adams had no managerial experience to fall on despite his high-profile reputation in England from his playing days at Chelsea and Tottenham. As a result of his profile and outspoken nature, Gus was a man who attracted headlines in the national press for good and for bad from the moment he was appointed to the moment he left the club somewhat in disgrace a few years later.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By now Tony Bloom’s investment was starting to make a mark on the club. After appointing Gus Poyet as manager, at the Poyet’s request he put money into improving the professionalism of the club by paying for services so players could concentrate on the football, for instance so they didn’t wash their own kit. He also began investing more so Poyet could build a team in his vision, one that had gone on to win League One and would experience more success in the Championship.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

18/19 season review – Ten games in

Ten games is traditionally the point in the season that the league table starts to take shape and become a meaningful barometer of a team’s performance. As such it feels like a good time to reflect on what’s happened so far this season. Brighton sit 11th in the table with fourteen points from those ten games, a points return and league position that is probably better than most predicted, so let’s take a look at how we got there and what it shows us.

Matchdays 1-3 – The bad, the good and the ugly

We started the season with a wave of optimism. Partly because of the number of new signings made over the summer, including record signing and last season’s Eredivisie top scorer Alireza Jahanbakhsh. But partly because of the way safety was secured last season, earning four points in our final two home games against top four sides Spurs and Man Utd, including that unforgettable 1-0 victory over United.

So as we approached the first game of the season away to Watford there was plenty predicting an Albion victory. But instead what occurred was a 2-0 defeat, the Albion’s eighth 2-0 defeat on the road since promotion the year before and the fourteenth time the Albion had lost conceding more than once in the process, all that in only twenty-four Premier League games.

So, as the team lined up at Vicarage Road it wasn’t long before that optimism faded. Bruno was substituted early through injury and replaced by Bong, with new signing Bernardo moving to right back. Subsequently Bernardo had a tough day up against the former Juventus player Roberto Pereyra, who scored both goals that day and whose second was scored after Bernardo was found hopelessly out of position allowing Pereyra to double the Albion’s arrears. Bernardo’s poor performance and Bruno’s injury opened the door for another new signing Martín Montoya to cement a place in the team in the coming weeks at right-back.

I mentioned in one of my pre-season blogs that I thought Bernardo was being lined up as Bruno’s long term replacement. However, given the subsequent signature of Montoya and the subsequent events on the pitch, it appears Bernardo is seen as more of a left-back by Chris Hughton. So, given Hughton’s loyalty to Bong, a players who’s featured in every game this season, it’s likely Bernardo will have to patiently wait his turn to make amends for his poor showing against Watford.

The team didn’t make it a meaningful contest against Watford and despite promising substitute appearances from new signings Yves Bissouma and Alireza Jahanbakhsh, the Albion took few other positives from a terrible display, with Albion manager Chris Hughton describing his side as “off the pace”.

Thankfully this low level of performance didn’t continue. In fact, if this was the bad, the first three games were a case of the bad, the good, and then the ugly.

So, next up was the good and another victory over Man Utd, although it wasn’t all good for the Albion that day. After captain for the day Lewis Dunk came off injured early in the first half, he was replaced by the new signing and Nigerian international Leon Balogun. However, unlike Bernardo, Balogun was instantly up to the pace and the standard of the Premier League and played well alongside Duffy.

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

Whilst the Albion faithful were in a state of shock to be ahead, a second Albion goal from Shane Duffy sent the AMEX into a state of pandemonium. With Shame Duffy allowed an absurd amount of time to take the ball down he then rifled it home to give the team a two-goal lead. After Lukaku pulled one back with the Albion conceding another goal from a corner, last season’s Brighton player of the season Pascal Gross converted a penalty to regain the team’s two goal advantage going into half time.

As the first half ended it was hard to take stock of what had been a whirlwind of a first half. One where the Albion had played with a level of pace and intensity unrecognisable from the defeat to Watford the week before. Despite an improved display from United in the second half they rarely trouble the Albion defence, making the late penalty clumsily given away by Duffy and scored by Pogba a meaningless consolation for the visitors. In contrast to the game against Watford there were so many positives, none more so than the previously mentioned debutants Martin Montoya and Leon Balogun.

Nonetheless the two sloppy goals conceded were a concern. It was four conceded in two now from the Albion and there were more to come.

Which bring us to the Ugly, Liverpool away. Ugly because of the dreadful way the Albion gifted Liverpool the lead via an error from the otherwise impressive Yves Bissouma. After he was dispossessed by the evergreen James Milner in the Albion’s defensive third, Liverpool made no mistake and took the lead which they held onto for the rest of the game to take all three points.

Nonetheless this was a good Albion performance where they minimised Liverpool’s well-known attacking threat (particularly well-known by Albion who lost 4-0 at Anfield as recently as May) and could have nicked a point if Gross or Knockaert had beaten the keeper with good chances to score in the second half.

Matchdays 4-7 – A charitable donation of a 2-0 head start

So, it had been a mixed start for the Albion but one that gave hope for better things to come. But then followed a string of four games where the team gave all their opponents 2-0 head starts and took only two points from a possible twelve.

First up Brighton returned to the AMEX to face a newly promoted Fulham side in good spirits after their first win of the season, a 4-2 win at home over Burnley. But it was Brighton that started the stronger, earning an early penalty, but one that this time Pascal Gross failed to convert.

On this moment the game swung and Fulham took advantage taking a 1-0 lead into half time. Brighton’s defence was again looking shaky and with a newly returned Lewis Dunk looking as if he’d been rushed back too early from injury, the Albion soon found themselves 2-0 down after the aforementioned Dunk was outmuscled by Fulham’s new signing Mitrovic who put the ball past Maty Ryan and into the top corner.

It had been an incredibly frustrating first 60 minutes for the Albion and particularly for last season’s player of the year Pascal Gross. In fact it had been an underperforming start to the season in general for Gross, who was clearly playing through an injury. He was brought off on the hour and hasn’t feature since this season, such is the strength in depth that the Albion now has in its squad.

So Gross was replaced by Bissouma and with some added attacking impetus from his fresh legs and incisiveness, the game swung again as the Albion started an impressive comeback. First after a wonderful run from a reinvigorated Anthony Knockaert, he found Murray in space on the edge of the box to pull Albion back in it. Then after an inexplicable handball from Fulham goalscorer Mitrovic, the Albion were awarded a penalty. One which Murray dispatched to earn Albion a draw.

Next up was Southampton on one of those weird Monday night games Sky Sports insist on organising. And it took Brighton 45 minutes to get their head in the game as what followed was the worst half of football the Albion has produced so far this season. It was reminiscent of many other away performances since promotion, one with poor ball retention, a lack of tempo and intensity in and out of possession, leading ultimately to a lack of attacking intent.

Southampton took advantage, first through a spectacular long-range strike from Hojbjerg. Then after the Albion gifted the opposition another penalty, this time via a clumsy foul by Gaetan Bong, Southampton striker Danny Ings scored to make it 2-0.

So the Albion found themselves once again needing another great comeback and a remarkable improvement materialised. The midfield pushed up, the full-backs made more forward runs and the Albion created multiple opportunities to score. And after Duffy scored again from a set piece, Murray scored a late penalty to make it 2-2 in the second consecutive game.

Next up it was Spurs at the AMEX, who were on a three-game losing streak meaning there was optimism of an upset. But after a third sloppy concession of a penalty so far this season, this time via an inexplicable Murray handball (a matter of feet away from the spot where Mitrovic conceded a penalty via the same fashion as in the last home game) the Albion were 1-0 down at the break. Then Erik Lamela finished off a wonderful team move to give Spurs a 2-0 lead. The Albion rallied and attempted another unlikely comeback but could only muster a late Knockaert consolation goal. If only he’d taken the chance he had from only a few yards out earlier in the second half with the game at 1-0. Ultimately, the game swung on moments of skill and good decision making that goes to show the quality the Spurs squad has in greater supply to the Albion.

A trip to Champions Man City followed where an ever-greater supply of quality players was on offer and it was like Albion were lambs to the slaughter. That said, having put five past Burnley and Cardiff and six past Huddersfield, despite losing two-nil the Albion can take many positives from the performance if not the result. In conceding twice despite having only 20% possession the defence had to dig in and concentrate for long periods to avoid a thrashing, which they did, and it was a sign of things to come.

So although ending match-day seven with two consecutive defeats, the City game was still an improvement on the performances away from home that we’d seen previously given the standard of opposition the team were facing.

In fact considering the calibre of opposition the Albion had faced in the first seven games, (which included playing all of last season’s top 4 and an in-form Watford side) a five-point tally coupled with some good performances against the top teams was satisfying. However, taking account that the only win came against United at home rather than against Fulham at home or Southampton away it suggested a certain amount of missed opportunity and meant the next three games, two at home with the away game to winless Newcastle, had a bit more riding on them than they should have.

Matchdays 8-10 – 1-0 to the Albion, defensive solidity at last!

So if the first seven games showed signs of a team with a habit of conceding soft goals. The next three games that followed demonstrated the team were capable of the exact opposite. There were two 1-0 home victories courtesy of Glenn Murray’s 99th and 100th goals for the club, which were sandwiched between a hard fought 1-0 victory away to struggling Newcastle.

This run made it seven one-nil wins since promotion for the Albion, and thirteenth clean sheets, a good record all things considered. Hard-fought one-nil wins have been a regular feature of Hughton’s tenure at the Albion, with six coming in the promotion season alone.

The first of the three consecutive wins was one of those special Friday nights at the AMEX. A night where we welcomed West Ham, a team the Albion convincingly beat twice last season and a team we would beat once more.

Wins over the teams around you at home is always important in a battle for survival from relegation, but in a game like this where the Albion were under pressure from West Ham attacks for so much of the game it is all the sweeter.

Hughton started with a changed midfield, with Stephens and Gross out, Kayal and Propper started in deep lying central midfield roles and Knockart and Jahanbakhsh played on the wings with Solly March surprisingly getting nod to play in the number ten role in a three behind Murray. And it worked for much of this and the following two games, with Stephens replacing Propper and Izquierdo replacing Knockaert in the following two games.

It was a sign that the impressive player recruitment the Albion have continued to make since winning promotion is paying dividend in the form of options for and unpredictability in Hughton’s team selection. We rotated mainly between the same 15 or 16 players throughout most of last season with no decent back up in many positions. In fact we have already used 18 players this season and whilst this is comparable to the total this time last season, it’s no doubt that the standard of the second-string players has improved significantly. With the remaining players from the squad like Florin Andone and maybe the odd development squad player likely to be used at some point in the near future, there are real signs of the added options and strength in depth available to Chris Hughton.

This is most true in attacking areas and that night against West Ham the adapted system meant the three behind Murray provided lots of threat through runs on and off the ball, with March particularly causing the opposition lots of problems. This left space for others to exploit. Something which Kayal did exactly that for the goal, finding space on the left wing to cross the ball to Murray in space at the back post.

The return of Izquierdo was a welcome positive, but the three games were dominated from an Albion perspective by the return to powering dominance of the centre-back partnership of Dunk and Duffy. Who were no doubt buoyed by the good display in the previous game at the Etihad. Before the West Ham game it was announced they both signed five years deals and if performances like this continue over that period, they should go down as the best centre back partnership the club has ever had.

A week later the team travelled to the North East to face a Newcastle side who’d lost all their four previous home games this season, and Albion would make it five with another hard fought 1-0 win.

After Murray came off injured with a nasty looking head injury, Kayal opened the scoring by deflecting an Izquierdo shot past the Newcastle ‘keeper. What followed was another display of defensive solidly from the Albion as Duffy and Dunk once again showed why the club had just extended their contracts, whilst Maty Ryan made multiple saves to earn his second clean sheet of the season.

Then came the third win in a row and it was becoming a case of Groundhog Day for the Albion. Another 1-0 home win, another Glenn Murray winner, more great defending from Duffy and Dunk, and some reliance on a few top saves from Maty Ryan to keep the clean sheet.

It wasn’t just any old 1-0 win though, Glenn Murray cemented his place as only the second ever player to score one-hundred goals for Brighton. He also becomes the highest post-war goal scorer, taking over from Kit Napier on 99 goals.

And he did it in typical Glenn Murray fashion. He spoke in Nick Szczepanik book ‘Brighton Up’ about how he would often find space in the box by standing still, whilst others moved around him. This day was no different, as the ball fell to Bruno on the right side of the box the Wolves defence shifted in his direction. In the same motion Murray stayed almost stationary but alert to find himself in acres of space at the far post to score his century goal.

But that day and in fact across the last three games it wasn’t vintage Albion. Hughton admitted after the Wolves game that the team were not at their best, citing the problem of poor ball retention that has been a bad habit throughout the first ten games of the season.

As centurion Glenn Murray stated after the win over Wolves it was ‘back to basics’ for the Albion. Keeping it tight at the back by defending deep and not giving too much away to the opposition and then relying on taking the odd chance you get at the other end. Whilst this worked over the past three games and was a system that kept us safe last season, there’s plenty of flaws in this tactic.

For me, the biggest example of this is the amount of draws last season that could have been wins. We entered the final third of last season having been hammered by Chelsea and mainly as a result of all those draws, relying on winning the home games we had left. We did this emphatically and partly through allowing the team more attacking licence and creating more chances to score. Swansea and West Ham at home being the best examples. But given the amount of sloppy goals conceded in the first seven games a back to basics approach was required.

A ten-games in summing up

There is plenty to be pleased with out of the first ten games, nothing more so than the points tally. But let’s not get carried away it’s a tally of 14 not 40, and none of Albion’s wins were emphatic. What the first ten games have shown, as we all knew before the season started, is that there is very little difference between all the teams that will fill the bottom end of the table.

One stat that’s been mentioned a lot since the Albion’s recent run of wins is that the team have conceded the second most amount of shots in the Premier League this season, whilst having the least amount of shots ourselves. But stats are sometimes misinterpreted and given the way the fixtures have fallen and the easier run of games ahead for the team, I suspect that both statistics will revert to a similar level to last season.

As we quickly approach the winter period of the season, one thing that has proved founded, despite the early bump in the road at Watford, is the wave of optimism from back in the summer. Many of the new signings have given the squad a strength and versatility that was not on offer last season. These additions have allowed the Albion to make changes in personnel and tactics more often as well as making changes during games that have helped towards achieving the points total amounted so far.

The idea the team could have coped with the absence of Dunk, Stephens and Gross for long periods in the first ten games, whilst playing such high calibre opposition and find themselves with the outcome they have so far this season, would have been unthinkable this time last season. Whilst this season has been and will continue to be a scrap, the investment in player recruitment made by the club and led by Paul Winstanley and his team in the recent transfer windows, looks to be making the difference for the Albion. Long may it continue…

The Curious Case of Abdul Razak

Abdul Razak is a player with an unspectacular record and is quickly gaining a reputation as a bit of a Nomad

Abdul Razak is a player with an unspectacular record and is quickly gaining a reputation as a bit of a Nomad. A quick look on Wikipedia will tell you he’s played for a variety of clubs, starting in the academy with Palace (boo), onto Manchester City, Portsmouth, Brighton, Charlton, onto Anzhi in Russia, back to England with West Ham, onto Doncaster… and more recently to Sweden where he’s currently with his third club.

Abdul Razak joined City as a teenager adding to their Ivorian contingent at the club. Then manager Roberto Mancini is reported to have thought of Razak as the most promising youngster at City’s growing academy and under him he was given a number of first team opportunities.

He made a surprise debut as a late substitute for City in 2011 in a 3-0 win against West Brom. Coach David Platt said: “We didn’t have many midfield players and I’m not too sure the gaffer would have thrown him on had the game been a bit tighter, but he has ability, no doubt about that.” This was not the City of now. Whilst they had Sheikh Mansour’s investment by then and had built a great first team side that would win the league that season, they weren’t the empire of hoarded young talent they are now. So Abdul got a chance, but ultimately this was one of only a handful of first team appearances he made during his time at City with minimal impact.

Despite this, when he arrived on loan with the Albion he’d built up a reputation of being a promising talent. With this reputation came the inevitable Yaya Touré comparison. However, aside from the similar physical characteristics, the shared nationality and position, it would later become clear that they were worlds apart as players.

He joined the Albion on loan from Man City in February 2012 along with fellow City youngster Gai Assulin. Razak was brought in to fill the gap left by an injury to Gary Dicker. Then Albion manager Poyet said on signing Razak: “Abdul is the type of midfielder I have wanted to bring into the squad for some time. He is someone we have been aware of for a while”.

The Albion were in good form and still had an outside chance of the playoffs, but nonetheless he went straight into the team for his home debut against Ipswich. He started in a midfield three with Alan Navarro and Liam Bridcutt and despite being amongst established players, Razak was the one that starred in the 3-0 win, getting the Man of the Match award and plenty of plaudits in the process. Poyet said Razak added “Power, Strength and Speed” to the midfield that the Albion had previously lacked.

I can confirm that Abdul was fantastic that day. He really suited the way Poyet wanted the team to play, I personally was mesmerised. I went to the game with my mum as my usual compatriot couldn’t go and she had told me a few times that she was keen to experience the AMEX for herself in person. As I’ve said in previous blogs, she’s not a football fan and she’s not been to many games since, so for all she knows Razak could now have gone on to become a star of world football once he returned to City.

Gus was so taken with Abdul he stated after the game “We will try and keep him until the end of the season, and hopefully use him all the time.” However Abdul played only 5 more times for the Albion having an ever diminishing impact on the team, and produced no better performances than that day. This would be his high watermark, for the Albion and looking at his career since, possibly to date.

Abdul stated to the Man City website soon after that performance about his time at Brighton: “I’m enjoying it, I like the way that Brighton play their football.” He also spoke at the same time to the BBC about his aim to improve, saying: “I’ll keep learning. I hope I can show to people I can do more on the pitch.” Sadly this improvement didn’t materialise as he’d hoped, certainly not at the Albion.

As his impact quickly diminished, he was left out of the squad for the matches against Blackpool and Portsmouth and after playing just six times in his two month spell, when Gary Dicker returned from injury, the clubs mutually agreed for him to go back to Man City ahead of schedule.

Both club websites reported his departure in short blunt statements. However, rumours circulated there was more to it and Abdul’s nomadic record of clubs ever since also suggests he can be a disruptive figure that fails to settle at clubs. Rumours at the time suggested that as Abdul’s spell went on and his performances began to drop, he eventually fell out with manager Gus Poyet and soon after inevitably left the club. Poyet officially cited a move to decrease the number of loan signing at the club soon after his departure, but this wouldn’t have been the first or the last time either party would fall out with their colleagues.

Further evidence of Razak’s disruptive character was shown, when a year later he was sent home from an Ivory Coast squad after fighting with fellow player Jean-Jacques Gosso. After that, he was only included in two more national team squads and hasn’t played for them since.

Razak’s career was already starting to feel like a case of unfulfilled potential. He left City in 2013 and a move to then sugar daddy fuelled Anzhi in Russia followed. However, this ended after only a few months when the opportunity to return to England came about with West Ham the following January but he failed to make any kind of impact there. Subsequent short spells here, there and Doncaster followed and Razak is now attempting to rebuild his career in Sweden but since joining Gothenburg in January 2017 is now with his third Swedish top division team, the lesser known IK Sirius.

At the age of 25 there is still hope that Razak could return to a big European league once again to fulfil the potential that those such as Roberto Mancini saw of him as a teenager. Maybe he’s learned from previous mistakes but you feel he may have burned too many bridges along the way for that to happen in England at least.