In defence of our ignorance – a message from a football fan

Football rarely offers its followers emotions of the middle ground. You are either a winner or a loser, even in the event of a draw there is often one team happier than the other. Take last Saturday’s trip to the Olympic Park where Brighton faced West Ham as an example. A game of such contrasting emotions, where at one point we all thought Graham Potter was an idiot for a seemingly absurd double substitution at 3-1 down. A substitution that in fact turned the game in Brighton’s favour to finish with a seemingly unlikely 3-3 draw. Euphoric joy for Albion supporters contrasting with the crushing disappointment for West Ham supporters.

One of those substitutes who to the surprise of many made all the difference was Ezequiel Schelotto, a player who since his arrival in 2017 has at times delighted, at times not, but mostly been incredibly unfortunate with injuries. But as Michael Cox described in his latest article for the athletic his introduction was a great exploitation of a West Ham’s weakness down their left hand side.

I can understand the surprise at Schelotto’s entrance, he was cast aside by Hughton after just one season and seemed on his way out of the club. And even after being given a reprieve by Potter has only been used sparingly this season. Now with another player who is primarily also a right back joining in January in the shape of Tariq Lamptey, it was easy to assume he had been pushed further down the pecking order and was never to be seen again. But life often has a habit of catching you out when you make lazy assumptions based on half the information, a habit us football fans are famous for.

After the game Schelotto tweeted a self-congratulating and confrontational jibe at his critics when he said: “They judge you before seeing you in action, it is called ignorance. They flatter you when you win, it’s called mediocrity. Less social networks and more support!!!!

It is a tweet which contained a certain level of hubris, of which you come to expect from a professional sportsman. Nonetheless it was a message that from looking at the replies from Brighton fans has gone down well with supporters a plenty.

He subsequently then had to defend himself against unfounded personal accusations from one Twitter user, giving an example of exactly why many professional footballers don’t put themselves out there on social media platforms. And showing why in most cases ignorance isn’t a virtue.

But, despite there always being the odd clown, in general I’m always inclined to side with the fans who are being criticised by people from within the game. People like the fan site We Are Brighton, who tweeted their shock and rage when Schelotto was brought on instead of top scorer Maupay. Or reporters like Ian Abrahams who tweeted his surprise at the same moment. Only for both to later be proven markedly incorrect.

And this is where my defence of the humble football fan comes in. Because part of the joy of being a fan is not being an expert, not seeing what’s coming and revelling in moments like this when your team unexpectedly comes back from 2-0 and 3-1 down to draw 3-3. Or even revelling in the gallows humour of being on the wrong side of such a turnaround.

Supporters like those who run the We Are Brighton fan-page are doing exactly what fans do, expressing the emotions of the moment and revelling in it. Whilst reporters like Ian Abrahams are our narrators who relay the story of the events and emotions of the day to those who are following it from elsewhere.

So to Schelotto and others who accuse supporters of ignorance I say this: Yes, football fans are often a largely ignorant, unduly judgemental and overly emotional bunch, but that is the very culture that our nations football grounds were built on. And what in part drives the hope that keeps us going back every week despite plenty of evidence to the contrary.

Football was initially brought to the attention of the masses in the UK as a game played and watched at the end of a hard working week. Something to take your mind off the hard and often brutal conditions of 19th century factories and workhouses. And whilst it has evolved into something very different in 21st century Britain, at its heart the football fan culture is still very much the same.

But unfortunately with social media saving and displaying users’ thoughts for all eternity, our ignorance is there for all to see, maybe this is why experts like Michael Cox have become as prominent as they have? To educate us to become a more informed crowd and save our blushes.

But then again, there are expert in hindsight, and then there are the true experts. Those like Graham Potter that see the opportunities and make the difference in the moment rather than after the event. And anyway, if you want an informed crowd go to Wimbledon Centre Court or Lords Cricket Ground. Football has never been the thinking man’s game, it’s brilliance is in its simplicity.

In this same week, Brighton announced their season ticket renewals process through a glossy leaflet and email that was sent to all current season ticket holders. And whilst it was great in its intention and production, I took exception to a part of it. Not because of its glossiness, but the spirit of the quotes used from Graham Potter and Tony Bloom. Quotes of “we need you every step of the way” and “your support will always be valued” respectively.

Whilst well intentioned, what this type of output from the club ignores is the fact that we don’t dedicate ourselves to the club because we are valued but because we value it. We value the community that our clubs are a part of, the history and heritage of our clubs, and everything good that they stand for.

Anyone who has read David Goldblatt’s book “The Ball is Round” that chronicles the history of football will truly understand the history behind our nations complex and confusing relationship with our national game. A relationship probably best summed up by a quote from the late Pope John Paul II: “Amongst all unimportant subjects, football is by far the most important.”.

I fully accept that in the cold light of day football fandom is in many ways absurd and illogical. But the wonderful escapism that can be achieved through it is why so many keep coming back. The genuine passion and emotion we feel for our teams and hatred we have for our rivals is real, if based on admittedly flimsy and flawed logic.

Within the microcosm that is the world of football I can’t think of anything worse than those within the game who try to suppress that culture or even worse monetise it. And let’s be honest Brighton are just as bad culprits of this as any other club is.

Along with the consistent rising cost of going to a match, the club have recently called for an improvement in the atmosphere at home games and fans are continually asked by management and players for their devoted support. Fine, you might think? But just as much as us football supporters are constantly reminded by our ignorance that we should leave the football management to the experts, those within the game should leave the football supporting to the experts too.

Are Brighton paying the price of too much long-term thinking?

This Saturday sees the first of two important matches in Brighton’s third Premier League season, as they travel to fellow strugglers West Ham this Saturday before hosting a rejuvenated but nonetheless relegation threatened Watford the next.

Brighton’s recent “crisis” is put into context when you consider the goings on at their next venue the London Stadium. Since moving from their previous long-term home Upton Park in 2017 with promises of Champions League football and exciting new signings, West Ham have instead experienced three seasons of struggle on the field and strife off it. It makes you glad that at very least we have an owner who cares about more than profit margins and a chief executive that we can trust.

Our following weekends opponents Watford were in all sorts of trouble earlier in the season, when it looked like the continuous upheaval in their playing and coaching staff was finally catching up with them. (Ironically after the first summer break when they stuck with their manager since 2013, two years prior to their promotion to the topflight). But the clubs third ‘permanent’ manager of the season Nigel Pearson has instead improved the club’s fortunes with 15 points in his first 8 games in charge. A total which equates to 2/3rds of the points the club have accumulated all season.

In contrast Brighton’s focus in recent years has been about stability and long-term planning, but the club has come under increasing criticism of late, primarily for its record in the transfer market. Whilst this type of criticism is part and parcel of a bad run of form, Brighton’s current predicament does raise important questions that need to be answered.

Primarily: Can the club be accused of looking too far into the long term and neglecting its focus from short term success?

The initial signs from this season were good. After dispensing with first team manager Chris Hughton for a younger, more exciting and attack-minded coach in Graham Potter, performances looked to be improving. And whilst results at first were somewhat hard to come by, three wins at home to Spurs, Everton and then Norwich won most sceptics over.

Along with that, a MoM performance in front of the Sky Sports cameras by U23 graduate Steven Alzate away at Newcastle, followed by a brace from fellow U23 graduate and last season’s Premier League 2 player of the season Aaron Connolly, added further evidence of Potter’s good work and appeared to justify the trust he has placed in the younger members of the squad to fill the gaps. 

And there is plenty of evidence of his good work, no more so than the team’s change in tactical style. A change in which Potter has innovated and evolved the team from a deep lying defensively-minded team to a more front-foot attack-minded side. 

But change has come with growing pains. Pains not eased by the at times poor execution of Potter’s management. Be that through constantly altering team selections, a growing tendency for panicked substitutions of varying success when his changes in personnel don’t work, or simply asking too much of certain players. All in all, Graham Potter’s relative inexperience in topflight management has been on show, just as much as his innovative and exciting tactical ideas.

Possibly the biggest anomaly so far is that despite how much tactical innovation and adaptability he’s shown, and despite how much ability he’s shown to develop players, this ability is seemingly not enough to get the best out of arguably the club’s two best players from the previous two Premier League seasons in both Glenn Murray and Shane Duffy.

Whilst Murray’s age can excuse Potter over some of the criticism of his absence from the top scorers list, this coupled with Connolly failing to add to his two goals against Tottenham in early October has meant much of Albion’s goal threat has been placed on the shoulders of the inexperienced if talented Neal Maupay, who has proved at times deadly but at times unreliable in front of goal.

After the club were arguably swept away in the early season optimism, Potter was given what was then an unexpected and what now looks like an unnecessary two-year extension to his already long-term four-year contract. On announcing the news the club said: “In the summer we unveiled a new long-term vision for us to become an established top-ten Premier League club, and we feel even more strongly that Graham as a bright, energetic and innovative head coach, is the right man to lead us there.” Comments that add further suspicion to the fact that the club’s long-term goals might be overshadowing its short-term objectives.

But it hasn’t just been the Brighton Board of directors who’ve been praising Potter’s work potentially too soon. Many jumped to praise him after the 3-0 win away to Watford on the opening day, a win that looks far less impressive in hindsight given how Watford’s season then played out. Others have added high praise following the wins over Everton, Spurs and Arsenal, wins that look more like anomalies than signs of improvement considering the more recent disappointing results and performances.

But Potter’s work and the club’s senior management have certainly still got plenty to be proud of. It pays to think about the long-term, but a key element to success is finding a balance between a focus on long-term goals with an equally important focus on short- and medium-term objectives.

Short-termism has become an unattractive characteristic amongst much of English football in the Premier League era, but long-termism can be just as dangerous. As Ken Favaro said in the Harvard Business Review “You cannot sacrifice the short-term for the long-term and expect to have a future any more than the other way around. In other words, long-termism is just as bad as short-termism.”

For Brighton, having the long-term goal of becoming a top-half topflight club certainly adds value to the club’s operations. But without achieving the short-term objective of another season of Premier League survival, that goal becomes much harder to achieve and moreover becomes an implausible prospect to have faith in.

Whether the club has and will continue to find that balance and avoid the harm to its long-term goals that would come with relegation to the Championship will become much clearer over the next two matches.

A Euphoric start to the Potter era built on the foundations of the Hughton era

After all the talk and excitement, the new Premier League season finally arrived, and how! Last season Brighton travelled to Watford on the opening day where they lost 2-0 putting in one of the worst performances of the season. By contrast this season’s opener saw the Albion’s equal-biggest away win since promotion as they ran-out 3-0 winners at Vicarage Road.

One of the big question marks over whether Potter’s methods would be successful was that this squad was of questionable qualities in offensive areas and when in possession of the ball, could they play his style of football. But yesterday showed this team were capable of stepping up. And with a starting eleven made up entirely of players Hughton managed last season, the passing accuracy was up 5% on last season’s average, the possession up 8% on last season’s average and the % of short passes up 2% on last season.

But this wasn’t a case of Tika-taka style possession-based football, or completely dominating the opposition, but being braver and more offensive-minded when the opportunities arose.

As expected, Potter’s Brighton lined up with a 343, but unexpectedly all the new signings were on the bench and probably the biggest surprise was that Gross started, which is odd given how key he has been over last two seasons. But the fact it was a surprise just demonstrated the flux the team had experienced since the end of last season.

The use of the 343 and the extra centre back allowed the midfield 4 to push up and support the front three in attacks which overloaded the Watford defence and led to most of Albion’s chance creation. Something Alan Shearer highlighted well on Match of the Day.

And it was the two rocks in the middle of the pitch over the last two years, Davy Propper and Dale Stephens, who excelled and pushed forward the play when required, being involved in attacks far more than either had generally been seen previously.

Generally Propper went forward with Stephens providing defensive cover, but at times Stephens would add additional support in attack too. For example with the first goal where after intercepting the ball on halfway he pushed forward to the edge of the box and chipped the ball to Gross at the far post whose cross was turned into the net by Watford’s Doucoure.

But as well as the added attacking impetus from central midfield there was a keen focus down the right through Martin Montoya, who was playing in a less familiar right midfield/wingback role. The focus of the team toward the right-hand side was in part no doubt, targeting Watford’s left back Jose Holebas, notorious for his indiscipline and attack minded style of play. There will be days where the play is instead focused down the left or more evenly but on this occasion, Montoya excelled getting forward whenever possible.

But if you followed my blog last season, you’ll know Hughton’s side did have many good days, even in the much derided second-half of the season. But this was about taking chances. For example when these sides met at the AMEX back in February Brighton had 55% possession and 21 shots, but only 4 hit the target, failing to score in a nil-nil draw.

This in contrast was a performance of clinical attacking that was out of character with last season’s slump. Whilst there wasn’t a huge amount of chances created by the team, registering only 5 shots, almost half that of last season’s average of 9.8 per game. And just under four less than the away game average of 8.7. With of course the own goal not counting towards yesterday’s shot tally.

This wasn’t a team playing as the attacking behemoth that has in places been suggested, but one that took their chances and took advantage of opposition errors. So much of last two season has been about the reliance on Glenn Murray for goals and the lack of chances being taken by others. Yesterday two of the other strikers, Florin Andone who struggled with injuries last season and new signing Neal Maupay who scored one each to show the pressure on Murray’s shoulders could be much less this year.

Can Maupay make the step up and be clinical enough to score the goals in the topflight that Albion require? Paul Merson questioned whether he had the ability to take enough of the limited amount of chances compared to the Championship. But after coming on in the 64th minute for Locadia, he scored from his only shot of the game, clinical indeed.

But there will be days when those chances are missed and when Brighton don’t get lucky by going 1-0 up via an own goal. And don’t manage to block two goal-bound shots in the 6-yard box.

There will be tougher days ahead, and the previously discussed lack of experience and questions over the squads leadership qualities will then be tested, but this was a great day for the club after all the flux and uncertainty over the summer and a day that should rightly be revelled in.

But whilst the club sat 3rd in the table at the end of Match of the Day on Saturday night, memories of an opening day win away to Burnley from 2002 come to mind. An equally glorious win that was followed by a injury to star player Zamora, a run of 13-games without another win and ultimately relegation.

Those were very different days at the club and the fact last season’s star signing Jahanbakhsh didn’t even make the bench and that the summer before’s star signing Izquierdo missed the game through injury, just goes to demonstrate the strength in depth that the team now has.

A quality that is a legacy of the continuous strengthening of the squad over the past five transfer windows since promotion. The very transfer policy continuously criticised over the past year.

But this was more than a Potter-ball revolution, this was a victory built on the foundations of the Hughton era. Amongst all the talk of what Potter could get this team to do with the ball, the team had to spend long periods without the ball seeing off some heavy Watford pressure. Particularly in the second half with the game at 1-0.

Both Dunk and Duffy made blocks in the six-yard box to keep Albion 1-0 ahead, and with the imperious pair playing alongside the impressive Dan Burn and with £20m defender Adam Webster sat on the bench the defensive foundations of the team built by Hughton and added to over the summer give this team a basis and confidence to be able to attack with Potter’s new approach.

Unlike in the Hughton era, Potter made two attacking subs and the team showed more bravery to attack when the opportunities arose despite being under lots of pressure from their opponents Watford. Yes this was a defensive performance built on the foundations of the Hughton era, but with extra attacking intent and added clinical finishing in front of goal that everyone had hoped for.

When Potter was questioned about his quest to change the style of play and resolve the issues of last season in his interview on BBCs Match of the Day with presenter Gary Lineker, he instead spoke about how he inherited a team wherea fantastic foundation had been laid, a lot of good work [had gone before]”. And then admitted despite the good result thatwe haven’t found the answers today but it’s a nice start for us.”

The most striking thing here is the humbleness of Potter. After weeks of anticipation and no doubt plenty of stress, as most of the media wrote his new team off as certainties for relegation, his work had paid off. And straight afterward he’d have every right to go on national television and be smug and self-congratulating. But instead he plays the situation down and praises his predecessor. And as soon as he answered Gary Lineker’s question in this way I instantly knew this was the person I want managing our club.

Potters continued referral to the foundations laid by Hughton and the fact he’s spoken about not wanting to change too much too soon is equally encouraging. Many would like to see all the good of the last two years thrown out with the bad and for him to start again, but Potter is showing himself to be more pragmatic than many expected.

A good start yes, but he will be more conscious than anyone that with 37 games still to play and 111 points still available to play for, there is a long way to go. But I for one can’t wait to see what happens next.

Thanks Chris and welcome Graham

ITV Digital – A tale of greed and speculation

It’s been 18 years since the digital television provider owned by television companies Granada and Carlton, originally known as ON Digital then subsequently better known as ITV Digital was granted the rights to Football League and League Cup live TV coverage. What began with optimism and spending levels in the Football League of an unprecedented nature to that date, ended in chaos and outrage. But how did it all happen and what lessons can be learnt?

The infamous tale began as David Lister put it with “a rush of blood to the head”. A fee of £315m was agreed with the Football League for which ITV Digital were getting exclusive rights to show live Football League and League Cup games for three years starting in the 2001/02 season. A monumental sum compared to the current deal at the time, and in fact only £14m a year less than the 5-year deal just agreed with Sky due to start in August 2019, nearly 17 years after the ITV Digital deal started.

In David Lister’s Independent article, he talks about how the ITV Digital venture was “doomed to fail from start”. He goes on to detail a long list of mistakes that led to the ITV Digital failure. For example, how in November 1998 there were not enough set-top boxes to meet the demands from the Christmas period. Lister also details how “in three-and-a-half years, ITV Digital consumed £750m of the ITV companies’ cash to attract 1.2 million subscribers. The break-even figure was 1.7 million. Sky has 5.5 million”. ITV Digital’s intention was to provide competition to Sky, but it ended up only reinforcing its dominance in the market.

By the end of the first season of the new TV deal ITV Digital had collapsed and the Football League was in crisis. As the crisis came to a head the late Tessa Jowell, then UK Government Minister for Culture, Media and Sport spent time encouraging the company to keep going, but it was to no avail, leaving the Football League without its main income source.

Subsequently Minister for Sport Richard Caborn warned financially troubled clubs that the Government would not mount a rescue operation. In fact, going as far as stating that there were “four very famous clubs who will probably not be in existence at the end of the season”. But this was a threat that proved untrue, but a threat that was spoken of a lot at the time.

Then Manchester United chief executive Peter Kenyon spoke out on behalf of the top clubs in the country in favour of halving the number of professional clubs in the league pyramid. Amongst others the PFA and Football League objected and ultimately won out, but Kenyon wasn’t alone in calling the current Football League structure “Unsustainable”. John Williams, the director of the football research unit at Leicester University agreed with Kenyon, but the number of full time clubs in England remains as high today as it was then.

The argument of reducing the number of professional clubs is an old recycled argument from the dark days of English football during 1970s and 80s, one that was driven by the top clubs wanting a larger share of the TV revenue and went away when the introduction of the Premier League markedly increased the size of the market and the proportion of revenue going to the top clubs.

However, it’s no wonder that the Football League has survived as it is when you consider the breadth and depth of support for Football in the UK. You only have to look at stories like that of my club Brighton to see how the threat of a local community losing its football club can pull everyone together in a show of support.

Many saw the deal with ITV Digital and the subsequent chaos that followed largely because of clubs speculating on money that they had not received yet. But as former Barnsley chairman, John Dennis put it clubs like his saw it as “perfectly reasonable to assume the terms of a properly negotiated contract with a properly constituted company would be honoured”. Barnsley who hadn’t long been relegated from the Premier League were one of the clubs who subsequently went into administration to stave off the threat of extinction.

How wrong they were and with many clubs left with players on relatively lucrative long-term contracts, many players were released, some players like those at Watford and Grimsby instead agreed a pay-cut and many other clubs were left with financial difficulties to manage for years to come. According to one Guardian report at the time 30 of the Football League’s 72 clubs were at risk of going under and 12 went into administration in the immediate aftermath.

Those 12 teams included Bradford City, who were also suffering from a recent relegation from the Premier League and the accompanying subsequent fall in revenue. As a result, they found themselves unable to meet the contractual demands left over as a legacy of their Premier League days and also went into administration.

At this time Leicester were another recently relegated team who coupled with Premier League debts, the collapse of ITV Digital pushed them over the edge and into administration. And it wasn’t until a Gary Lineker headed consortium enabled the club to exit administration in 2003 and secure its long-term future.

Administration is a tool used in business for an organisation to restructure and keep running as an organisation under a new directorship whilst paying a reduced amount to its outstanding creditors, and as such appeals more to football clubs than other businesses. This large influx of football clubs entering administration was also partly so they could utilise loopholes in British law under the “football creditors rules”, which prioritises other football organisations and staff over non-footballing creditors.

This trend led to clubs succeeding under administration being heavily criticised for utilising this loophole as a financial advantage. In particular Leicester City, who after exiting administration in 2002 achieved promotion at the end of the 2002/03 season back to the top flight. Subsequently the Football League brought in rules meaning clubs would be subject to penalties such as points deductions if they were to utilise the administration route in future.

Of course, many clubs like them should and did take their fair share of the blame for financial mismanagement. For many clubs, ITV Digital’s collapse was simply the final straw in a long list of evidence of financial mismanagement. And considering what has already been said of ITV Digital and its flawed business model it’s surprising clubs were as fast and loose as they were with the money that was to be never forthcoming.

Stories like the demise of Bradford’s fortunes and subsequent stories like that of Portsmouth have led to the introduction of greatly increased parachute payments for clubs relegated from the Premier League and financial fair play regulations for all Football League clubs, including a salary caps.

The issues that clubs had financially were exaggerated due to a temporary collapse of transfer market. With many Premier League clubs like Leeds and Chelsea along with many of the Football League clubs experiencing financial difficulties, the financial trouble couldn’t be fixed as easily as it could now by a club selling off their top players for a quick injection of cash and reduction of the wage bill.

Unlike now where the Premier League riches filter down the English football pyramid via the transfer market, it simply didn’t exist at the time. For example, due to their own financial difficulties the pre-Abramovich Chelsea stated they would concentrate on home-grown talent, how times have changed.

The transfer market is often a get out of jail card clubs use to paper over the cracks, much as my club Brighton did in the late 80’s. And is ultimately often just a tactic used to delay the inevitable effects of this mismanagement. Many shared this view, for example David Taylor, then chairman of Huddersfield Town said: “Many clubs have been guilty of paying out silly wages in an effort to get success. The demise of ITV Digital brought home that you have to be more realistic in the wages you pay.”

At my team Brighton, the chairman at the time of the ITV Digital collapse, Dick Knight reassured fans that the club’s finances were secure. In fact after stepping down, in his book ‘Mad Man’ he wrote about how he and Leyton Orient chairman Barry Hearn were both sceptical from the start. So much so that Dick Knight said he told the board of directors that they weren’t going to rely on the money turning up at all, but as it has already been shown many other club chairman didn’t have the same foresight.

However, to a certain degree it’s hard not to sympathise with the football clubs and their owners given the circumstances they are working in. If you consider the pressure they are under it’s no wonder clubs speculated to make the most out of the anticipated financial windfall. It’s a well-accepted culture in the Football League for clubs to sail close to the wind financially and rely on windfalls from generous benefactors to make ends meet. Just look at my club Brighton in the Withdean years and imagine what the club would have achieved without the generosity of some of the directors at the time, I suspect a much more modest period in the club’s history would have followed.

It’s also true that fans believe this is the duty of the board of directors to part with their cash for the better of the club. Dick Knight, now a club legend and a man who took the club from a perilous position in exile to stability and success during the years at Withdean Stadium, was nicknamed ‘Dick Tight’ by many of the fans on the website North Stand Chat because of his perceived lack of willingness to get his chequebook out. The ambitions of fans are often forcing owners to take financial risks whilst at the same time not being irresponsible with regards to the club’s financial sustainability. Two requirements that have little correlation with each other and create little synergy.

Sky benefited from all this chaos, with the Football League returning after only one season away. In some ways it saved the day and, in the process, got a cut price deal for Football League TV rights for the next four years totalling only £95m. Many complained of Sky’s opportunism, but they’d been supportive and constructive partners of the Football League for a number of years up to this point. In particular, helping in no small part to make the Football League playoffs, the highlight of the English football calendar it is today. It was the Football League that decided to walk away from this partnership in search of better things, something that in hindsight looks greedy and foolish.

Furthermore, unlike ITV Digital, Sky have always met the contractual financial demands they have agreed with footballing authorities for TV deals. And they were the established market leader in digital TV. So, it’s fair to say that the Football League and its clubs deserve some criticism for entering into this deal with a company that instead were without a proven track record or established subscriber base, even with the backing of the ITV brand.

To add to this, it became clear the Football League had not ensured the contract was as watertight as it should have been. When they later took their claim for damages against ITV Digital to the high court, the judge ruled against the Football League’s claim. The judge said that it had “failed to obtain the necessary written guarantees”, because the final contract hadn’t been signed. Which was further damming evidence of the Football League’s incompetence in this whole fiasco.

Around the same time as the ITV Digital collapse, a Scottish football pay-per-view tv deal known better as “SPL TV” was being planned for the Scottish top flight but at the last minute the idea was scrapped due to the high risk of the venture. Once again, the club’s greed got the better of them and after rejecting a much larger deal with Sky had to accept a far less valuable deal with BBC Scotland. As well as the initial financial loss this deal also meant Scottish football has been out of sight of much of the UK ever since.

There could be lessons in this story in the current discussions surrounding the deal just agreed with Sky for Football League (now better known as the EFL) TV rights, with talk of a breakaway by some of the top Championship clubs. The bigger clubs such as Leeds, Aston Villa and Derby are said to be unhappy with the deal and in particular the affect the increase in live midweek fixtures could have on attendances.

The problem is that these same clubs were happy to take Sky’s money when it suited them. Now Sky knows it’s TV rights deal for the EFL games constitute such a high proportion of those club’s revenue, it can hold the clubs and its fans to ransom and to hell with the consequences for anyone else. In fact, the cynic in me says it would be encouraged by the potential of decrease in attendances as it would only increase dependence from those same clubs on Sky’s TV rights deal revenue. It’s hard to see anything but a Sky win here.

And whilst BT Sport seem to have established themselves as a secondary party to Sky in the fight for Premier League TV rights, the latest round of bidding was overshadowed by rumours of their financial insecurity. Furthermore, any substantial deals with new partners that were spoken of like Amazon (who after rumours of grander intentions bought only the smallest TV rights package, showing only two full match-days), will likely be ignored due to the risks played out in the story of ITV Digital.

And ultimately that’s the main legacy of this story, as well as the increased financial regulation that exist for English football clubs today, is the increased power and influence of Sky in British football.

Additionally, and unlike many predicted at the time, the number of professional football clubs didn’t fall, in fact the Football League has the same composition now as it did then and after years of recovery is in as strong a position as ever.

Just look at the recent England squads and the number of players involved with Football League clubs on their CV (like Brighton’s very own Lewis Dunk), or the number of Premier League teams who were not that long ago playing in the lower divisions of the Football League. There are plenty of examples which show that the Football League’s influence on English Football is still very strong, and long may it continue.

18/19 season review – Ten games in

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A ten-games in summing up

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

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

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

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

Brighton’s away form amounts to Gross Negligence

Last Saturday saw a convincing 2-0 defeat for the Albion at the hands of Watford. This was nothing we haven’t seen before, particularly away from home. In their 19 games away from the AMEX last season Brighton gained only 11 points, the worst away record in the league. This included seven 2-0 defeats, so this was much the same as last season.

To underline the point, let me throw a few stats your way. Away from home the Albion scored the second lowest amount of goals (10) in the Premier League last season whilst conceding 29. Three of those goals coming in one game against West Ham. The Albion created only 121 chances in those games, the 15th lowest in league. So even when coming up against Watford, who conceded the most goals at home in the league last season (31), it was unlikely to lead to much optimism from the Albion faithful.

Pascal Gross’s performances demonstrates this marked difference in away games the best. The Albion’s player of last season recorded a Squawka combined performance score at home of 306, the best score from any Albion player. However, away from home he received a score of -5. No wonder as all of Pascal’s goals and 6 of his 8 assists came at home last season.

There were clear differences in style when the Albion played at home compared to when they were playing away. The Albion play much deeper and retain less possession away than at home, averaging 46.3% possession at home and 43.8% away last season. This may not sound like a big difference but it equates to an extra 2 minutes without the ball and chasing the opposition, which can make all the difference. It also means when the team do have possession it’s more often in deeper areas of the pitch meaning attacking players like Gross have a diminished effect on the game.

As Gross lacks the pace of other attackers, this lack of possession and deeper defensive line means he has more to do and more ground to cover in order to create chances when the Albion have the ball. His role in the team is often to create chances but his lack of pace means that away from home attacks would very often break down before they had started. Whereas at home, the team’s greater attacking intent allows him to start from a more advanced position on the pitch and allows him to thrive.

On Saturday against Watford there was a clear difference in the impact of Gross and his 60th minute replacement, new signings Yves Bissouma. His replacement Bissouma notably had a greater effect, adding some much needed drive and pace from deeper positions. Exactly what Gross lacks. But for me this doesn’t suggest we drop Gross over Bissouma but rather we deploy an adapted system that best incorporates both whilst minimising Gross’s shortfalls. He was our most effective player last season, without him we’d be playing Championship football this weekend.

Another factor though is at the other end of the pitch. As has been pointed out by all and sundry, the Albion conceded a lot of goals from set pieces last season. In fact the most in the Premier League, conceding 22 from set pieces of which 16 were from corners. But this issue is exacerbated by the lack of goals scored away from home. Scoring more than once away from home only in that wonderful night in East London against West Ham. Excluding that game, Brighton scored a goal away from home only once in 2.2 games.

Conversely the team also scored very few goals from set-pieces last season. Scoring a total of 5 goals from this method, which again was the lowest in the league last season. This is despite Pascal Gross creating more chances from set-pieces in the Premier League last season than any other player (36). This lack of others taking those chances from set pieces will no doubt have exaggerated the low performance score Gross received away from home, as the old saying goes, goals change games (whilst masking other deficiencies in a performance). If Brighton had taken a significant amount more of their chances from set pieces many of the issues away from home could be ignored.

The manager Chris Hughton has stated that the team have focused on set-pieces in training a lot of late, but it’s something he’s been struggling with since he took charge. In December 2015 when talking about conceding goals from corners in a home defeat to Middlesbrough, Hughton told The Argus: “It’s a big worry, something we need to eradicate”. Let’s hope the worrying ends and the hard work on the training pitch finally pays off.

Burnley are a team that Brighton can aspire to match, and I’m not talking about their fans behaviour. In their first season following promotion in 16/17 they accumulated just 7 points away from home, but managed to earn a total four times that amount (28) last season, more in fact than they earned at home that season (26). Even more surprising is that last season they earned less points at home than they did in their first season (33), despite finishing 13 places higher in the league.

They achieved this by working on the defensive side of their game, conceding only 22 goals away all season compared to 35 the year before and in doing so made a league low last season of 2 defensive errors. Even more impressive considering that this was done despite taking a defensive approach similar to the Albion’s, whilst achieving only 45% possession away from home.

Burnley have been reliant on their defence to stay tight, despite their good away record they scored only 19 goals, averaging only one goal per game. Albeit this is almost double the Albion’s total in the same year, it meant they couldn’t afford the kind of errors that were made by the Albion last season to accumulate the points total that they did. Whilst Watford last weekend won’t give us Albion fans hope of better things on the road, Burnley’s success last season goes to show what defensive solidity and discipline when combined with an extra clinically edge in front of goal can achieve.

The Albion going forward away from home will look at their new signings to offer more attacking threat going forward. As the positive impact on Saturday of Bissouma and Jahanbakhsh as second half substitutes will demonstrate. But they also need to cut out the silly defensive errors and goals conceded last season. Burnley’s year-on-year improvement shows what can be achieved if this is done.

Whilst last Saturdays defeat was another example of their poor away record, Brighton’s home record has been fantastic and was their saving grace last season. They accumulated 29 points at the AMEX and scored 24 goals in the process, the 8th best home record in the league last season and only bettered by the top 6 and Everton.

Whilst some have called for Pascal Gross to be dropped for Yves Bissouma, I wouldn’t suggest such a change. The home record we achieved last season was largely as a result of using a system that got the best out of Pascal Gross. The Albion must instead find a system that gives him and them the same level of success away from home that they have achieved at the AMEX.

That said, despite that home record last season including a win against our next opponents Manchester United, we shouldn’t be overly optimistic for Sunday’s rematch. United’s away record last season was only bettered by Champions Man City. So Sunday’s game shouldn’t be considered a good chance for a repeat of that great night last May, but oddly enough does appear to be a better chance of getting a result than last weekend’s trip to Watford.