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.