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.