1971/72 season – Aston Villa and Brighton secure promotion from the Third Division

The 1970s began with a heady optimism after the swinging 60s had breathed new life into post-war Britain. In 1970 the self-made builder’s son Edward Heath was elected prime minister promising a “quiet revolution” that would improve the fortunes of the country. However, the combination of an energy crisis, a financial crash and a second miners’ strike in two years would scupper any optimism.

At Albion things were somewhat following that trend. The investment of Property developer Mike Bamber (who would become club chairman in 1972) heralded an era of great ambition at the club. However, that ambition wouldn’t be fulfilled until the end of the decade.

Aside from a brief dalliances with the Second Division between 1958 and 1962 and the Fourth Division in 1963 to 1965 Albion had spent 39 of their 45 seasons as a Football League club in its third tier since joining in 1920. Promotion back to the second tier had been an often unachieved goal for the club.

In contrast Aston Villa had joined Brighton in the Third Division the season before and started the 71/72 season as promotion favourites. Prior to the Second World War Aston Villa had won the First Division six times since being a founding member in 1988. They won the FA Cup as recently as 1957, but their league standing was on the wane and they had a brief spell in the Second Division in the late 50s.

They appeared to have recovered after promotion back to the topflight was coupled with winning the League Cup in 1961, but they subsequently underwent a dramatic decline which resulted in them being relegated to the Second Division in 1967 and then again to the Third in 1970. But fortunes at the club were to take a turn for the better, in no small part down to the sale of the club at the end of 1968 to a group which installed Doug Ellis as chairman.

Albion manager Pat Saward was a former Aston Villa player himself and was part of the 1957 FA Cup winning side and also part of the team that won the Second Division title in 1960. But after retiring he became Albion manager in 1970 and was now going up against his old club in the Third Division.

Saward had been second choice for the managers job when it was given to his predecessor, Freddie Goodwin 18 months earlier. But when Goodwin left the club at the end of the 1969/70 season for Second Division Birmingham, he left a vacancy that Saward would this time fill.

In Saward’s first season, 1970/71, Albion wore an all-white kit with a blue collar. But as part of Pat Saward’s drive to build a stronger bond with supporters, he listened to supporters, and brought back the famous blue and white stripes the following season.

I suspect part of the lack of appeal for the white kit was that Albion were not a success on the pitch in it, as they finished a disappointing 14th. Meanwhile, Aston Villa pushed for promotion but would ultimately miss out finishing 4th in their first season as a Third Division club.

The games against Aston Villa were a rare highlight for Albion that season. A stalemate at Villa Park saw the club earn a respectable point whilst a winner from Kit Napier saw them shock their visitors to take all three points in a 1-0 win at the Goldstone, as Albion pulled away from relegation trouble and put a dent in Villa’s promotion hopes.

A change in kit wasn’t the only change in style at the club as Saward introduced a new attacking style to improve the club’s fortunes. Most prominently, alongside Albion’s star striker Kit Napier was new signing Willie Irvine signed from Preston. With Bert Murray and Peter O’Sullivan providing additional attacking threat from the wings.

Saward spoke confidently about this team’s attacking prowess in the programme of the first home game of the season against Bradford: “I know that all of you who attend the Goldstone regularly will want to see many more goals from the team this season. I don’t think we shall disappoint.” And they didn’t, winning 3-1 that day and going on to score 39 goals in their 23 home games that season, 11 more than the 28 scored in Saward first season in charge.

Kit Napier would go onto notch 19 of the 82 goals Albion scored that season, the 5th and final season he would end the season as the club’s top scorer, the most seasons from any Albion player in its history.

Albion started the 71/72 season well and after drawing their opening game with Port Vale won three games in a row. But the first meeting with Aston Villa was preceded by a 2-0 defeat at home to York, which would become two in a row as Villa secured a 2-0 victory over them at Villa Park which left Villa 5th and Brighton 7th, both on 7 points.

Despite early promise, Albion’s poor form continued and after winning only one of their next seven they fell to twelfth in October. Villa also had a mixed start to the season with a run to the fourth round of the League cup distracting them from their Third Division duties and a defeat away to league leaders Bournemouth saw them fall to fourth and four points behind the Cherries, which given this was in the days of two points for a win amounted to a decent gap.

Despite only being promoted from the Fourth Division the season before, Bournemouth had started the season well and many were now taking them as a serious promotion contender. Along with Notts County they would cause both Albion and Villa the most to worry in their search for Second Division status.

For Albion, it was an Irvine winner at Walsall which instigated an eight match unbeaten run and an upturn in fortunes. This included a 2-0 win over fellow promotion chasers Bournemouth on 27th December in front of a bumper crowd of 30,600, a win of intent from Albion. Indeed Bournemouth started that day in second on equal points with leaders Notts County, with Villa in third just two points behind.

But Albion’s good run was ended by a 1-0 defeat to the league leaders Notts County, which saw Albion fall five points back and down to fifth, with Villa just a point behind the leaders in 3rd. It was the sort of result that left many focusing on the Club’s around Albion as promotion favourites. But a brilliant second half of the season would see Albion surprise many.

Meanwhile Villa really turned up the heat in the second half of the season. After losing to Rochdale the week after Albion’s defeat to Notts County, they would only lose a further two games that season, romping towards the Third Division title.

Albion responded to that defeat to Notts County by winning eight of their next twelve games, a run that including an entertaining 5-3 win away to Shrewsbury, where all eight goals were scored in the space of 27 minutes. But that run of games was ended with two defeats ahead of the visit of now league leaders Aston Villa, with Albion sitting 3rd, six points behind them and four points behind Bournemouth in 2nd.

But despite Villa’s loftier league position and good form, it was Brighton who would run out 2-1 winners in a match that was so anticipated, it was featured on Match of the Day.

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Fortunately for the cameras, the game saw one of Albion’s most iconic goals of that period, a spectacular team goal which was finished off by Irvine after being set up by John Templeman and was featured on that season goal of the season competition, and was voted into third place. With the other Albion goal that day being scored by Kit Napier, who else.

It was a win that instigated an unbeaten run of 13 games which helped to secure promotion for Albion. The thirteenth of which being a home game with Rochdale on final day of season that saw a crowd of 34,766, the third largest at home in the club’s history, as Albion got the draw they required to secure promotion and instigate a wild pitch invasion.

John Templeman had given Albion an early lead, but Rochdale managed to score a shock equaliser on the hour. Then suddenly what was up to then a fairly ferocious game is said to have stopped dead in its tracks. With the result suiting both teams, it appears they informally agreed to play the game out as a draw. Something Albion players Willie Irvine and Ken Beamish both attested to in their autobiographies.

Willie Irvine said “Neither side had a shot on goal in those final minutes; nor did either team look to penetrate each other’s defence. It probably wouldn’t happen nowadays because the final matches of the season are all played on the same day, but back then we were playing after the end of the season and so both knew what we had to do.”

Whilst Ken Beamish stated: “We’d played this game at 100 miles an hour until the score became 1-1. At this point I’d noticed Saward and the Rochdale manager talking on the touchline. Somehow the game seemed to slow down dramatically”

As such Albion had pulled off an unpredicted promotion. Manager Pat Saward said of his sides success: “I spent only £41,000 in getting my promotion side together so we were very much Villa’s poor relations in that sense. Notts County were the team that surprised me (Who finished 4th). I just don’t know why they fell away so badly in the end for they had all-important matches in hand. Bournemouth were the most skilful side we faced.”

Saward put down his team’s success to: “Dogged determination to succeed from all the players. We stamped out inconsistency. I got rid of ten of the players I inherited and got together a team built on character. That’s the key quality, apart from skill of course, as far as I’m concerned.”

However, after Kit Napier was sold to Blackburn that summer whilst Willie Irvine was sold to Halifax midway through the next season after falling out with Saward, the Second Division proved too much for Albion. As they were relegated back to the third tier the following season after finishing bottom of the league.

That season Mike Bamber invested a further £700k into the club to take a majority 51% stake and improve the facilities at the Goldstone. He was initially supportive of Saward but in the October of the following season with the club back in the third tier and finding themselves near the bottom of the division, he was sacked and one of the most famous names in the game Brian Clough was appointed as Brighton manager. A story told brilliantly in Spencer Vignes book “Bloody Southerners”

In that book Spencer talks a lot about how Clough’s presence put Albion on the map and helped attract supporters that followed the club during its glory years of the late 70’s and early 80’s, which is true. But this 1972 promotion winning side deserve a lot of credit, pulling an average attendance of 17.6k, the club’s highest for seven years and 8k higher than the season before.

The appointment of Brian Clough may have put Albion on the map nationally, but Pat Saward’s 1972 promotion winning side had already done a lot of the groundwork even if the season and a bit which followed it diminished some of that work.

In contrast Aston Villa finished the following season 3rd but were a significant 11 points behind QPR in the 2nd promotion place so missed out on a return to the topflight until two years later, where Albion would join them a further four years later. But by then Villa had gone from strength to strength, winning two more League Cups (75 and 77) and getting to the quarterfinals of the UEFA cup in 78. Going on to win the First Division in 81 and European Cup in 82.

Brighton’s 87/88 FA cup run

The 1987/88 season saw Brighton return to its spiritual home of the Third Division after ten seasons away, four of which were spent in the topflight.

The team was then managed by Barry Lloyd, whose previous managerial job was with Non-League Worthing and who was initially brought in by his predecessor Alan Mullery during his doomed second spell at the club to manage the reserves and youth team. But was promptly promoted into the job as first team manager after Mullery was sacked just a few months into the job during a period of severe cost cutting and player sales.

Lloyd’s task initially was one of remaining competitive in the Second Division amongst the costs cutting measures. So drastic we’re the measures that during this time The Brighton Argus featured a front page story saying that all the club’s first team professionals were for sale.

Somewhat inevitably amongst such turmoil, the club couldn’t avoid relegation back to the third tier. However, given the circumstances he was working under and after the club had sacked two high profile managers in just over a year, it’s little surprise that the club stuck with Lloyd, despite his inexperience.

Fortunately for Albion, Lloyd proved to be a more than competent coach and a shrewd operator of the transfer market. Despite the club’s financial limitations he began building an exciting, attacking side, focused on a passing style and he managing it despite having to sell high profile players. The likes Terry Connor and Dean Saunders were sold for a profit and replaced with cheaper options like striker Garry Nelson who was signed from Plymouth, and with midfielder Dean Wilkins, who had returned to the club after playing in the Dutch topflight with Zwolle for three years.

Due to their return to the third tier Albion joined that season’s FA Cup in the first round for the first time in a decade, but despite this handicap the cup finalist of five seasons earlier still managed a decent cup run in the competition.

Albion’s run started by beating Brentford 2-0 away from home in the first round, thanks to a brace from Garry Nelson.

Nelson’s first that day has gone down in Albion folklore and is one he described recently on the podcast “Football, Albion and me” as one of his best. He said: “The sad thing and funny thing about it was it was the only goal that season I scored out of the 32 – that and a penalty – that nobody filmed.” Also saying that “At the time the local paper at Brentford said it was one of the best goals they had ever seen at Griffin Park.”

But don’t just take Garry’s word for it. John Vinnicombe the then lead sportswriter of the Brighton Argus said of the goal: “Nelson rated his 68th minute strike as the best of his nine years in the game, and that is saying something. Albion were shading the second half when he took the ball off Keith Jones just inside Brentford’s half and then proceeded to bamboozle no fewer than five defenders before unleashing that rocket-powered left foot. The ball must have been a blur to Gary Phillips as it tore into the top corner.”

Nelson then rounded off the day with an injury time penalty that secured the 2-0 win before Albion faced another away trip to Northampton in round two. A match which they won 2-1, with goals from Kevin Bremner with another from Nelson, setting up a home tie in the third round with then Second Division Bournemouth.

Bournemouth were then managed by a young Harry Redknapp, who would lead the team to a 12th placed finish in the Second Division that season, which up until 2014 was the Cherries highest ever league finish. They had also caused a notable FA Cup shock beating the then cup holders Man United in round four, four years previously. But this Albion team were up to the challenge and deservedly beat the visitors 2-0 to make it into round four. Captain Doug Rougvie put Albion ahead, getting on the end of a Steve Gatting free kick, before Nelson scored his 4th goal of the competition to seal another 2-0 victory.

Albion’s reward in Round 4 was a plum draw at home to George Graham’s Arsenal. This was a highly anticipated tie and saw an attendance of 26,467, the biggest at the Goldstone since the 1983 quarter final against Norwich, and an attendance that earned the club a then record matchday gate receipts of £85k. This was indeed no ordinary game for the club and the Albion players and management prepared for it with a four day summer training camp in Spain the week before.

And the break appeared to have done Albion good, as they started the game well and created a flurry of chances on an admittedly poor Goldstone pitch. Those chances included one for that man Garry Nelson, but he put his shot straight at the Arsenal goalkeeper John Lukic. And despite the home sides pressure it was Arsenal who took the lead on the run of play through Kevin Richardson, a goal the Brighton programme described as “soft”.

But Albion continued to press and equalised after Garry Nelson turned in a Dean Wilkins headed cross with a spectacular flying volley scissor kick, to score his fifth of the competition.

That particular goal is said to have “caused one of the biggest terrace surges in North Stand history at the Goldstone Ground.” But despite all the excitement and anticipation, Albion couldn’t muster a second to take the lead. They did have their chances, including one for Nelson’s strike-partner Kevin Bremner who had probably the best chance of the game after being found at the near post by Alan Curbishley, but his cross come shot was fired harmlessly across the face of goal.

It seemed like the tie was destined for a replay at Highbury, which given the club’s mounting debts would have been a useful financial reward for the club. It would also have made for a special return to Highbury, the location of Albion’s most famous win in the competition, 2-1 over Sheffield Wednesday in the 1983 FA Cup semi-finals. That was until Perry Groves scored a 78th minute winner for the visitors. A victory the Brighton programme described as “rather fortunate” also commenting: “Now you know why they are known as lucky old Arsenal”.

Indeed Garry Nelson told the Brighton programme last year in a feature about this game that “we were gutted” and “we all felt we deserved a replay and gave a brilliant account of ourselves. They were more clinical but there wasn’t much between the teams.”

This may have ended Albion’s 1988 cup run, but there would be further success in the competition as the club made the 4th round in four out of the next five years. In fact from 1978 through to 1993 the club made it to at least the 3rd round every year making two quarterfinals, one further 5th round appearances and nine further 4th round appearances. A period of relative success in the competition unmatched until recent seasons.

A win in Albion’s following game away to Blackpool saw them move up to sixth. And a 2-1 win at home to Bristol Rovers on the last day of the season would see them finish second, behind Sunderland, securing automatic promotion back to the Second Division and avoid the dreaded playoffs, which had only been introduced the season before.

Including his five goals in the FA Cup Garry Nelson scored 32 goals in total that season. But despite this impressive season he eventually lost his place after promotion as the team pushed for a further promotion back to the First Division in the 90/91 season. However the success on the pitch led by Barry Lloyd’s management was masking the financial troubles off of it, which would come to a head later that decade.

In contrast, Arsenal would go on to beat Man United at home in round 5 before losing in the quarterfinals to Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest and finish 6th in the First Division that season, before going on to win the First Division the following season in that dramatic end of season decider against Liverpool, chronicled brilliantly in the documentary “89”.

Social Media and Scapegoats

This week saw Albion striker Aaron Connolly deactivate his Twitter account due to the amount of abuse he had received from other users after missing a clear cut chance to score a second goal for Albion in Sunday night’s win over Tottenham.

Whilst examples of this are becoming all too common, social media has become a useful tool for football club’s and their players to engage with supporters in an increasingly detached industry. Particularly at Premier League level where the lifestyles of its players have become increasingly diverged from that of its supporters as a result of the increasingly eye-watering salaries that players are now paid.

But Social Media platforms, like the rise of Internet forums prior to their mass adoption, have also given football supporters a much larger audience to voice the vociferous criticism of their team.

It’s often the players who are on the receiving end of this fury, and has led to many example of them being scapegoated by fans expressing their fury in the heat of the moment, which can sometimes lead to the kind of deplorable abuse that Aaron Connolly recently received.

Of course this isn’t a truly modern phenomena, Scapegoats have always existed. Going back into the English football archives prior to the Internet gives you plenty of examples of fans targeting individual players on the terraces, or in fanzines and even by journalists in professional sports media.

A notable example is the late Ray Wilkins, who had a prestigious career for both club and country. Albion fans will remember him as a part of the 1983 Man United FA Cup winning team, as well as for making 84 appearances for England, which included playing at two world cups as well as making ten of those 84 appearances as captain. Yet his career was played with criticism as he was unfairly typecast as “Ray the Crab” for his perceived tendency to play too many sideways passes.

Scapegoats like Ray are often picked out for criticism not necessarily because they are doing their job particularly badly, but because it defines something about the style of the team that the fans don’t like.

Dale Stephens, a midfielder who plays a similar role, received similar criticism to Ray Wilkins during his time at Brighton and certainly fell into that category. He often played as Albion’s one or one of two holding midfielders in a very defensive team that lacked much forward invention. As such he was often unfairly picked out for not playing the right pass or giving away the ball, despite having one of the best, if not the best, passing accuracy records during his time at the club.

Glenn Murray defended Stephens during their time playing together for the Albion saying: “I think Dale Stephens is a footballer’s footballer. He does a job that goes very unnoticed, especially to the untrained eye.”

Stephens’ fellow Burnley teammate and another former Albion player Ashley Barnes was also picked out for regular criticism during his time at Albion too. In fact, fans of another of his former club’s Torquay thought he wasn’t even good enough for league 2 during his time there, yet he has since gone on to recently score his 100th goal in senior football in Burnley’s win over reigning Premier League Champions Liverpool, a goal which was also his 40th goal in the Premier League.

Unlike Stephens, Barnes at times made a rod for his own back through his lack of discipline, but despite that and his occasional wastefulness in front of goal, he was valued by then Albion manager Gus Poyet for his versatility and selflessness, an underappreciated attribute common with that of many scapegoated players.

The animosity directed toward Ashley Barnes was at times so high that you’d be forgiven for forgetting that he was top scorer for the Albion in the 2011/12 season, ahead of Albion’s then record signing Craig Mackail-Smith and helping to fill the gap left by Glenn Murray after his move to Crystal Palace the previous summer.

It’s interesting that both of these players have found a place at Sean Dyche’s Burnley, a proudly unfashionable side who are not afraid to play a style of play which is more physical and less easy on the eye, but one that values these usually underappreciated players like Barnes and Stephens.

Sean Dyche seems confident in his own mind with what he wants from his side and unapologetically unconcerned in trying to please supporters. In 2019 he commented after receiving some criticism for his teams style of play that: “I’m always a bit confused with what the masses want now…But I don’t mind a tackle, I don’t mind a challenge. Maybe it’s me, maybe it’s a thing of society. If you get touched now, it’s like everyone’s dead, everyone’s properly dead. I just find that peculiar, I don’t know where that’s all at.”

It may not please people aesthetically, but Dyche’s Burnley sides more physical style of play and squad of underappreciated players have consistently been overachieving since promotion to the topflight when you take into consideration their relatively meagre resources.

Maybe Dyche’s own career has shaped his views in this regard. In his own career he earned a reputation as a no-nonsense centre back and made a move to Bristol City at the age of 26 in what was a big move for both him and the club at the time. Unfortunately, during his time there he struggled with injuries and was often singled out by supporters for criticism when he did play. After 20 appearances in 18 months he was first loaned to Luton before being sold to Millwall, where he was far better accustomed.

However, it’s often the strikers like Barnes and Connolly which tend to get the brunt of fans criticism as they are the ones who miss the game changing chances to score goals. Score and you’re a hero forever, as the likes of Glenn Murray, Bobby Zamora, Peter Ward or Tommy Cook show. But as the contrasting examples of Connolly and Barnes show, this is far from always the case.

Some players are able to deal with the criticism better than others. Former Albion striker Mark McCammon once called into the BBC Sussex’s post game phone-in to argue his case after feeling unfairly criticised by supporters and the phone-in host Ian Hart. Whereas most others choose to do their talking on the pitch.

Whilst, McCammon actively went out of his way to listen to the phone in and take on the criticism he was receiving before infamously phoning in, players are now being directly contacted by users for abuse, simply as a result of having a social media presence.

As Sean Dyche admitted back in 2017 things are very different now. “The game has radically changed off the pitch. It is a whole different profession now, even to when I was playing. I just think it (social media) opens up an unnecessary moment… Unfortunately with life, often people want to vent. And if they have got a chance to vent directly at you… well, I just wouldn’t put myself up for that. That’s my view on social media.”

If more people don’t learn to cut out the online abuse and social media platforms don’t start introducing more severe punishments for those who don’t, we will likely see more footballers go the way of Sean Dyche and Aaron Connolly and just not engage with it at all. Which would be a huge negative for an industry which is becoming more and more detached from its consumers by the day.

Was FFP to blame for the failed Sami Hyypia regime?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday Musings- A halfway debrief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will Shane Duffy be offered Mercy by Graham Potter?

Brighton have struggled all season with defending set pieces, conceding plenty of soft goals along the way. And whilst I’ve written at length recently about Albion’s problems in goal, its defence has to take a fair share of the blame too.

Meanwhile Albion’s on loan defender and 2018/19 player of the season Shane Duffy is receiving widespread criticism for his performances at Celtic as they struggle to keep pace with leaders Rangers. So there has been suggestions he may return to the Albion. Something Graham Potter has suggested won’t happen, but could Duffy be the answer to his teams issues at the back?

Maybe he’s not a Potter-type player like Webster, White or Dunk, all of whom have the top-level passing ability to be a naturally ball playing centre back to the extent which is desired. But as last season proved, having a more diversely attributed squad is important to meet the varied demands that it will be put under over the course of a Premier League season. Last season Duffy had a huge input in key games which secured Albion’s survival and despite only playing 19 games, his win percentage of 26% and goals conceded average of just 0.95 per game, the lowest of any Brighton Centre Back, show just that.

It’s easy to forget that when Graham Potter inherited this side Shane Duffy was the club’s reigning player of the season and considered by many the most important player at the club. Chris Hughton had built his team around the best players he had, namely the stern centre back partnership of Shane Duffy and Lewis Dunk.

When Graham Potter was appointed he was given the task of developing Albion’s style of play and creating a more entertaining and attacking side. The (as some saw it) “mere” survival and defensive heroics of the Dunk-Duffy led Hughton era were to be a thing of the past and a big part of that has been breaking up Hughton’s side. In Duffy’s place came Adam Webster, much more of a ball playing centre back. But as We Are Brighton said back in 2019 “you still need to be flexible and pragmatic enough to realise that on occasions, you need to adapt to the challenge facing you. And that means that Potter should have room for both Webster and Duffy.”

Yes, the new playing style Potter has brought in has not played to Duffy’s strengths, but needs must and as he said to Andy Naylor in The Athletic last season “football changes quickly”. And some form of change is probably what Albion need given its problems with set pieces this season and more pertinently being seemingly unable to defend a lead. Both are issues that will need to be resolved quickly if a fourth consecutive season of Premier League survival is to be achieved.

Albion need wins and Shane Duffy’s stats tell me that he is the centre back Albion need to achieve that. He has the highest Premier League win percentage of any Brighton Centre Back with more than 10 EPL appearances (25%) and the lowest goals conceded per game rate (1.32). Even last season he statistically outperformed the rest of Albion’s centre back options in terms of win percentage (26%) and goals conceded per game (0.95). These kind of stats don’t tell you much about him as a individual, but they do suggest Albion have a much more effective defence when he is a part of it.

Then there’s Albion’s other issue, scoring goals. Something Duffy is fairly effective at too considering he’s a centre back, having score six times in his 96 Premier League appearances, a goals per game ratio equal to that of Dunk and Webster. And anyone who’s seen Duffy play in the green of Ireland will know he has the potential to offer even more to offer in that area too. Put simply he’s a player that is good in both boxes, something you can’t say of Albion this season.

Then there’s his experience. Over the course of Graham Potter’s tenure Albion’s team has become progressively younger and more inexperienced. The losses of Murray, Duffy, Mooy, Stephens last summer and more recently Ryan has meant a team who’ve been far too naive too often over the past year is also becoming less and less experienced, which feels counterintuitive. The presence of a Shane Duffy on the pitch and on the training ground could be just what some of the younger players need to up their game in those key moments which are currently going against the team.

Even in some of the teams more inferior performances of the past few seasons Duffy came away with credit. Always playing with a level of passion and determination, which is just what is needed in Albion’s current relegation fight.

As Shane admitted himself, football is a world that changes quickly. After his recent struggles some will now see him as a cast-off or a has-been, particularly given how dramatically that it appears to not have worked out for him at Celtic. Shane’s had a tough time recently personally too having had to deal with the death of his dad last year. Maybe the move to Celtic, one which as a Celtic fan himself was a such huge deal for him personally, hasn’t come at the right time. Right place, wrong time.

But the evidence from a bad half a season at Celtic is far outweighed by the evidence of the four fantastic seasons at Albion prior to that. His record from which stands up against any player in that position at the Albion, both past and present.

Maybe Shane Duffy’s story at the Albion is already written and his time has passed, or maybe he could be just the solution required to solve the team’s problem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brighton v Newport (2013)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday Musings – Albion’s search for safe hands

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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