Monday musings – Got spirit? let’s hear it!

The sun is shining, the first signs of spring are here, the cherry blossoms are beginning to flower, the tide of this terrible pandemic that we have been experiencing for a year now appears to be turning in our favour and Albion have one of the most talented teams in its 120 year history. And yet you’d be hard pushed to find any optimism amongst Albion supporters after a frustrating 1-0 defeat at the Hawthorns on Saturday.

It will have come as no surprise to most that Saturday saw yet another promising Brighton performance which saw plenty of scoring opportunities created, be again spoilt by poor finishing and poor defending from set pieces. Groundhog Day. Well, I did say it was the first signs of spring.

This has been a season built on the gutting and slicing up of Albion’s promotion winning side. Yes we’ve replaced those individuals who many saw as surplus to requirements, with a group of arguably higher quality players. But, have we built a team with the replacement parts? The fact Albion keep coming up short in games suggests not quite yet.

This is clearly a very well coached, talented group of players with a clear idea of how they want to play. But, that they keep getting found out in the key moments in matches suggests that as a collective there is still something missing.

One of the key attributes of the existing group of players that Potter inherited and has overseen a clear off of, was its unity and team spirit. A quality that was so consciously and carefully cultivated by his predecessor Chris Hughton.

Hughton held great stock in ensuring the team was full of the right types of personalities, or as Maty Ryan once famously put it – “no Dickheads”. So much so that there has been suggestions made that part of the reason Hughton was sacked was for his disagreements with others about transfer policy in order to protect the teams bond.

We have seen examples of it still existing at the club from this group of players. Most notably in the second half comeback at home against Wolves and the hard fought 1-0 win away to Leeds United. But this kind of collective performance has not been evident enough this season. Albion’s key players now need to step up and be counted.

Grit, stoicism, that intangible quality which comes largely from failing and having to pick yourself and go again, call it what you want. Hughton’s team had it by the bucketload. And no wonder after it had been to hell and back together both professionally in terms of the way it missed out on promotion in 2015/16, and in some cases personally, such as with Anthony Knockaert’s well documented personal issues. But in both cases they collective stood together and came out of those situations stronger because of it.

However, this team and set of players do not appear to have the same collective industry. The fact we’ve seen ex-players not be exactly complimentary about the club and existing ones use their agent to attempt to embarrass the club in order to get the right deal they want, is hardly the sign of a harmonious collective spirit.

Another example of this is its defending from set pieces, where we have regularly seen players find space in the gaps and score. This to a degree is an inherent problem with zonal marking when the ball drops between players ‘zones’, but man to man marking has its fallibilities too.

For me this isn’t about whether we use zonal or man to man marking, it’s about individuals taking person responsibility to stop the opposition scoring. Too often we’ve seen examples like Kyle Bartley’s goal on Saturday, where players run around one man and into a gap between two or three static Albion defenders to score.

Albion’s team is relatively young team and contains players who you’d somewhat expect lapses in focus and concentration throughout the season. This is where you need your players with more experience to be constantly communicating and reminding players of their jobs.

Brian Owen from the Argus stated earlier this season that “Adam Webster’s is one of the voices we hear quite clearly up in the stands during these behind-closed-doors matches (like Lallana and Ryan).” Three player not on the pitch at the time of the West Brom goal.

It’s not a surprise that Adam Webster’s absence, who is becoming a real leader of this team, saw an end to Albion’s clean sheet run. He’s been Albion best defender this season and talk of an extended absence is a really worry for Albion’s hope of turning this bad run around.

When it comes to spirit, it’s hard not to notice Neil Maupay’s is waning. Albion’s number nine started the season with 4 goals in 5 games, but his subsequent 3 goals in the last 22 tells its own story.

Clearly he’s lacking confidence, otherwise he’d have taken at least one of his recent chances, as well as possibly stepping up to take at least one of the penalties against West Brom. Especially when you consider he has an 80% penalty conversion rate at Albion and 3 of his 7 goals this season were penalties.

The football coach and analyst Harry Brooks spoke about the Maupay conundrum after the game on Twitter and stated that he believed “there’s a reason Brighton players keep missing these types of chances. They can’t take them. So therefore, Potter has to change the type of chances they create”.

And whilst I think we can all agree this is a harsh assessment and I don’t take his criticisms of Potter too seriously, the fact Albion have beaten teams like Leeds, Villa, Liverpool and Spurs this season when playing on the break with less possession and getting more runs in behind suggest that he’s got a point.

In fact, in the games Albion have won lately they have played a hugely contrasting style to their last three matches, which saw them pick up just one point. Brighton’s average possession in its last 3 games was 68% but their average possession in its last 3 Premier League wins was 38%, almost half!

Saturday’s defeat was the fourth time that Brighton have had over 60% possession in a Premier League game this season, and yet they have failed to win all four of those games, accumulating just 2 points. Meanwhile, they have had less than 40% possession 3 times, winning 2 and accumulating 6 points.

The trend is arguably more striking when you look at the bigger picture. With the team having had more possession than their opponents 14 times this season, winning just one (away to Newcastle) accumulating 10 points in that time, an average of 0.71 points per game. When they have had less possession than their opponents (9 times this season), they’ve won on 4 and occasions and picked up 14 points 1.56, an average of points per game.

The Premier League’s record goalscorer Alan Shearer also commented in a question and answer session for the Athletic this week about the team’s goalscoring problems. Saying that “it would definitely frustrate me as a player, because of that extra pass. The ball could come into the box a lot earlier.”

Going onto say “I’ve always said the time to worry is when you’re not creating chances. But when you’re missing as many as they are it has to be a concern. You have to look at the ability of players to be at this level.”

I’ve spoken as recently as last week about the importance of giving Graham Potter the time and patience to get it right and accepting that during this process, mistakes will happen and that very much stands. But, following these last two defeats I think that this is now far beyond a successions of individual mistakes and has become a real issue that the club has to overcome.

Patience goes both ways and Potter also has to accept that he needs to be patient in making these changes. I think some of the problems this season have come from the club trying to do too much too soon. Particularly in regards to some of the changes in personnel referenced earlier. However, it’s admittedly a tough balance and one most teams struggle with at this very competitive level.

Potter managed to get the balance right last season. A damming 1-0 defeat at home to Palace left the team one point above the drop zone with just ten to play and saw many drafting Potter’s managerial obituary. But he trusted his team, slightly switched the teams approach to a more back to basics style and Albion got the results they needed to get over the line to safety.

But regardless of your opinion on style, the players are the ones carrying out the work and need to repay Potter’s trust. Albion should have beaten Palace and West Brom this week, take those opportunities and no one is critical of Graham Potter.

Last week and frankly too often this season the players have let down Graham Potter and his coaching. And what some of the above criticism of him obviously doesn’t excuse is the two penalties that were missed on Saturday.

This is no longer Chris Hughton’s solid and reliable, if often unimaginative outfit. Graham Potter has successfully evolved this team into a very different outfit with a very different set of players. One that is arguably Albion’s most talented squad of players ever, and yet this is arguably the most perilous position of its time in the Premier League.

These are the moments that make or break a season. Where legends and villains are formed. It’s time for the current Albion team to show their spirit and earn their stripes.

1976/77 – Albion are finally worth promotion!

After winning the Fourth division in 1965, Brighton spent ten of the next eleven seasons in the Third Division and went into the 1976/77 season having a bit of a reputation as a perennial third tier club.

In fact of the 56 seasons since joining the Football League, they’d spent 49 of those at that level and even the arrival of the great Brian Clough in the Autumn of 1973 couldn’t change the club’s fortunes.

Clough’s eight month spell at Brighton is best chronicled in Spencer Vignes book “Bloody Southerners”. After which his assistant Peter Taylor stayed on to try to finish the job, failed and resigned in the summer of 1976 to join Clough in the Second Division at Nottingham Forest, a club that they would lead to become National and European champions.

In Taylor’s place Albion chairman Mike Bamber appointed the former Tottenham captain and England international Alan Mullery to take on the task of freeing Brighton from its self-induced Third Division detention.

Unlike Bamber’s previous appointments, Mullery was a complete novice in football management having only recently ended his distinguished playing career which included 35 England caps. However, thankfully for Mullery he didn’t have the usual squad upheaval task that most new managers had as Peter Taylor’s legacy was the impressive squad that he’d built and left behind. Many of whom would go onto thrive under Mullery’s leadership.

This squad of players included experienced full back and future Albion manager Chris Cattlin, who was one of Taylor’s final signings on a free transfer from Coventry.

After starting out at Second Division Huddersfield, Cattlin moved to Coventry where he spent eight seasons playing for for the Sky Blues in the topflight before moving to Brighton. After retiring at the Albion in 1979, he remained at the club on the coaching staff before going onto manage the club himself for three years after its relegation from the topflight in 1983.

Another of Taylor’s recruits was the young striker Peter Ward, who’s been signed from non-league Burton Albion the previous summer and had made his mark on his debut towards the end of that season by scoring in a 1-1 draw away to Hereford in front of the Match of the Day cameras and the BBC commentator that day John Motson. Under Mullery, Ward would go onto have a breakout season at Brighton and played a huge part in him becoming one of the most iconic figure in the club’s history, but more on that later.

The season started with a 3-2 two legged League Cup win over Fourth Division Southend United ahead of the start of the League campaign. And it was a good omen, as the club started their league campaign as it meant to go on, remaining unbeaten in its first four matches, recording three wins ahead of the visit of Bobby Robson’s Ipswich Town at the Goldstone for their Second Round League Cup tie.

The club’s had already drawn the original tie 0-0 at Portman Road. And it was a night to savour as a crowd of 26.8k saw the club record a historic 2-1 win over the First Division side. An attendance that was the highest of the season so far, but one that would be topped as the big matches continued.

This was club’s first win over a First Division club since 1933, and it was a notable scalp. This was an Ipswich team that would go on to win the FA Cup the following season and the UEFA cup in the 1980/81 season, as well as being a regular feature at the top-end of the First Division for an extended period. They finished 3rd this season and within the top-6 in nine out of the ten seasons between the 1972/73 and 1981/82 seasons, after which Bobby Robson left the club to take the England job, and the Club’s fortunes soon diminished.

One of Albion’s goalscorers that day was Fred Binney, who started the season on fire, scoring four in his first eight appearances, including two in the clubs 3-2 win over Oxford and one in a 3-1 win over Rotherham. But this was to be his last goal of the season as he lost his place in the team due to the success of the partnership between Ian Mellor and Peter Ward.

Binney had top scored for the club in the past two season, scoring 13 in 74/75 and then 27 in 75/76 (with 23 of those in the league) as Albion finished 4th, just one place outside the promotion places. After starting this season in the same vein, Binney made only two more appearances before he moved to the US to play in the NASL for St Louis Stars, where he competed alongside the likes of Franz Beckenbauer, Pele, Gordon Banks and George Best.

However, the notable victory over Ipswich was followed up by a shock 2-0 defeat away to Grimsby, who recorded their first win of the season. But fortunately for Mullery’s men this was followed by the visit of second bottom York City to the Goldstone. The Minstermen were lambs to the slaughter as Brighton recorded a 7-2 win with Ward and Mellor both getting two goals.

This was Ian Mellor’s first start of the season, and what a way to make his mark! From that point onwards this became the regular strike partnership for the remainder of the season. With target man Mellor providing the perfect foil for Ward’s goalscoring exploits, whilst adding a fair few himself.

Another of Albion’s goalscorers that day was Peter O’Sullivan, the skilful winger was a veteran of the club by that time having signed for the club in 1970 on a free transfer from Manchester United. He was one of very few players to outlast Brian Clough and Peter Taylor at the club, when at times some joked that they needed to install a rotating door at the entrance of the first team dressing room, such was the number of ins and out at the club at that time. His longevity at the club of eleven years show just how good a player he truly was.

This win was also the perfect tonic ahead of a trip to another First Division club, West Bromwich Albion for the third round of the League Cup. In this Third Round tie, the club recorded a 2-0 victory and in doing so repeated that long awaited feat of beating First Division opposition twice in the same season, through two goals from Peter Ward.

That game was followed up with another league win, this time 3-1 over Tranmere that left the club top of the league going into a big match at the Goldstone Ground. Big because is saw the visit of promotion rivals Crystal Palace and was fittingly featured as the main match on ITVs The Big Match. The game ended in a respectable 1-1 draw and Managers Terry Venables and Alan Mullery sat very chummily side by side as they were interviewed by Brian Moore in the TV studio the next day.

All that would change, but we’ll come to that shortly. First Albion followed up that draw with another seven goal haul, this time winning 7-0 at home to Walsall. A match that incredibly saw Ian Mellor score four and his strike partner Peter Ward score three.

This was a night remembered almost as much for the atrocious playing conditions as the fact that all seven of Albion’s goals came in an extraordinary second half. Results like this were seeing the good work that Alan Mullery had already done with this Albion side in such a short space of time recognised far and wide, and he was nominated for the September Football League manager of the month award.

The results didn’t lie and Mullery wasn’t just getting the national plaudits. He’d very quickly won around the Albion faithful, a fact underlined by a quote from Centre Back Andy Rollings who in a recent interview for the club’s website said: “the moment we found out that Alan Mullery was taking over was light at the end of the tunnel. He was a man who had played for England, won almost everything and was such a great motivator. I loved playing under him”.

The club continued to get national recognition by featuring again on ITV’s The Big Match for their trip to Bury the following weekend, a game which saw Albion looking splendid in their all red away kit. But, they were nonetheless well and truly brought down to earth with a 3-0 defeat. Admittedly Bury were one of the better team in the division, but it was a not untypical result of the season. Brighton were heavily reliant on their home form for wins in a time where two points for a win gave draws more significance. In total that season their 19 home wins were matched with just six away from home.

So they would have been pleased that this defeat was followed by a home match with Peterborough. A match where the team showed their mental strength by earning an important 1-0 win. A result followed with an equally important draw away to fellow promotion chasers Mansfield.

This was a season where the high profile games continued to come for the club as the Seagulls next continued their impressive run in the League Cup with a game in the fourth round at home to Derby County, the First Division Champions from two years previous.

Despite the lofty opposition, some were starting to dream of a first Wembley appearance for the club and so it was a game which saw tickets in great demand. So much so that when tickets for the cup match were put on sale at the club’s reserve match with Charlton, that game attracted a crowd of 17.5k, whereas at the time reserve matches would usually attract crowds of less than 1k.

The match with Derby at the Goldstone started well for Brighton when that man again Peter Ward put Albion ahead after only 37 seconds. But Derby’s Welsh international winger Leighton James equalised for the visitors and that’s how it remained, so a replay at Derby’s Baseball Ground was to take place in two weeks’ time.

In the run up to the return match, Brighton won their next three games, the third of which a 4-0 win at home over Swindon. But despite this good form the team failed to repeat their previous heroics when they were beaten 2-1 in a replay despite a goal from Ian Mellor.

Derby were beaten in the next round by Bolton, but their star winger James would go onto feature at Wembley that summer for his country Wales where he scored the winner in a 1-0 win over England in the Home Internationals.

For Albion, their exploits in the cup that season continued with what has become one of the most famous cup ties in the club’s history, when Albion met Crystal Palace in the first round of that season’s FA Cup.

It’s a match that has helped to spawn what has become a vicious and persistent rivalry between the club’s. There had already been animosity between them, notably when on the club’s met on the opening day of the 74/75 season and there was significant crowd trouble between rival fans. Whilst former rival managers Peter Taylor and Malcolm Allison both publicly criticised the other teams style of play after recent matches between the sides. And in the 75/76 season Brighton adopted the nickname the Seagulls after the Brighton fans began signing “Seagulls!” in reaction to the Crystal Palace fans chants of their newly adopted nickname “Eagles!”

But this season would cement the rivalry when the club’s battled for promotion to the Second tier along with a trilogy cup ties, a combination which lead to rival managers Venables and Mullery upping the ante when it came to publicly criticising the opposition in what became a vicious personal duel of words.

The FA cup tie saw the clubs meet in an infamous second replay at the neutral venue Stamford Bridge, after the previous games held first at the Goldstone Ground and then Selhurst Park both ended 1-1. The tie concluded when Crystal Palace scraped a 1-0 win in the second replay, but in controversial circumstances after Albion’s midfielder Brian Horton was ordered to retake a penalty he’d originally scored.

When Horton unfortunately missed the retaken spot kick Brighton’s manager Mullery lost his temper and made a two fingered salute to the Palace fans, for which he was later fined. One Palace fan is then said to have thrown a hot cup of Coffee over Mullery who responded by throwing some loose change on the floor and exclaiming, “You’re not worth that!” Palace won and the teams have hated each other ever since.

But let’s be frank, this story has become so legendary its masks the main reason why the rivalry has persisted beyond this period of fierce competitive and personal rivalry. Hooliganism. Yes, the competitive rivalry at the time fed it too, but most games between the clubs were, and remain to this day, marred by crowd trouble. For example, the original first round cup tie between the sides that season was halted three times by smoke bombs being thrown onto the pitch.

Crowd trouble was becoming common place in English Football at this time and would persist throughout the 1980s. The following summer saw one of the most notable example of over-exuberant football fans causing havoc, when Scotland met England at Wembley Stadium in what was that years Home Internationals decider.

After beating England 2-1 to win the trophy, Scotland’s fans poured onto the pitch to celebrate. One group of supporters snapping the crossbar of the Wembley goal, others tore up the Wembley pitch and many caused further damage to the stadium and throughout London later that night. And it was scenes like these that in part led to the tournament ultimately being removed from the football calendar in 1984.

For the Albion, the cup run had helped to derail their season with that defeat to Palace the latest in a run of seven games without a win in all competitions that included four defeats and exits from both cups. As the match day programme said ahead of the club’s next match at home to Chesterfield: “it never rains, but it pours.”

But the club were still third in the league and only a point off top spot. So when a 2-1 win over Chesterfield meant the team moved up to top of the table ahead of a trip to Portsmouth a week later, the club looked to have turned a corner and got over that slump. But after a surprise defeat saw the club drop to third again, they were required once again to quickly bounce back, which they duly did with a 2-0 win over Northampton to regain top spot once again just after the turn of the year.

From then on, the team built up some much needed momentum and consistency for its promotion push as the season went on, winning five of the next nine in the lead up to a return to Selhurst Park to renew their battle with Crystal Palace.

But there good form counted for nothing as the fifth and final meeting between the sides that season saw a comprehensive 3-1 win for Palace, in which Terry Venables impressed the watching media by showing off the tactical competencies which saw him go on to manage at some of the games great global stages.

But whilst Palace won the club’s individual battle that season, Brighton were still winning the war and quickly regained the momentum of their promotion push by responding to that defeat with an emphatic 4-0 victory at home to Shrewsbury in mid-March and regained top spot in their next match with a 3-1 win at home to leaders Mansfield thanks to yet another Peter Ward brace. The first of four wins in eleven days and five wins throughout April, which put the club on the brink of promotion to the second tier.

Their next match could see Brighton clinch promotion at home to Sheffield Wednesday but they needed to win and hope other results went their way. As such this crunch match saw yet another crowd of over 30k at the Goldstone where a 3-2 win secured the club a long awaited promotion to the second tier after Rotherham lost at home to Reading. John Vinicombe of the Argus said he’d “never witnessed such scenes at the Goldstone before” as the crowd spilled onto the pitch to celebrate after what was a dramatic match.

It looked like it wouldn’t end that way early on when Brighton found themselves 1-0 down at half time, made all the worse by Peter Ward uncharacteristically missing a chance to score from the penalty spot. But Ward finally did equalise for the Albion after the break, who then took the lead through a penalty, this time taken and scored by Brian Horton, and eventually won the game 3-2.

Brian Horton who captained the team that season, was another of Peter Taylor’s astute signings who made over 250 appearance for the club in a five year spell and would be named that season’s Club player of the season despite Ward’s imperious goalscoring exploits. Horton did return breifly to manage the club in 1998 during its exile in Gillingham, but soon realising the task he had on his hands, left to take the Port Vale job later that season.

The season wasn’t over yet though as the title was still up for grabs, but despite Peter Ward scoring in both the club’s remaining two fixtures to set a club record by scoring 36 goals in the season, a defeat to Swindon and a draw to Chesterfield meant the club ended up settling for second behind Mansfield. But the consolation was that they still finished ahead of rivals Palace who sneaked into the third and last promotion place ahead of Wrexham.

As the seventies drew to their conclusion the club continued to reach new heights, achieving promotion to the topflight for the first time in 1979, and remaining there for four seasons before finally succumbing to relegation in 1983. A blow softened by it coinciding with the clubs only appearance in the FA Cup final, which was lost on a replay to Manchester United after the original tie was drawn 2-2.

But whilst there were seasons to come where this team would go onto bigger and better things, when it comes to iconicity, there are few in the club’s history that match 1976/77.

The sorry Bong/Rodriquez affair rears it’s ugly head once more

Earlier in the season in a Premier League game between West Brom and Brighton, Gaetan Bong claimed he was racially abused by Jay Rodriquez, and earlier this month (April 2018) The FA said the charge against Mr Rodriquez was not proven.

To clarify, as there seems much confusion over what this verdict means; Not Proven is one of two verdicts available to the Independent Disciplinary Panel appointed by the FA but not in English criminal courts. The Panel case may end in one of two verdicts:

1. Proven (guilty),

2. Not Proven (the panel doesn’t have to be convinced that the suspect is innocent, but guilt has not been proven “in the balance of probabilities”)

The complaint was taken up by the FA and as a result the case was between the FA and Mr Rodriquez to be assessed by an independent panel. Therefore as the report states: “It was common ground between the parties that the burden of proving the allegation rests upon the FA.”

Given the evidence shown in the FA report a predictable verdict of Not Proven was found, but if you read the report it’s a verdict that neither party, I expect, really welcome. In Scotland Not Proven is used in criminal courts as a third alternative to Innocent or Guilty and has its criticism. Because the “not proven” verdict carries with it an implication of guilt but no formal conviction, the accused is often seen as morally guilty without the option of a retrial to clear their name. It is important to therefore to state that this is not the intention of the law, but to purely give the option of not “guilty” or “acquitted” due to a lack of evidence.

The Panel explained its verdict by saying the “essential issue for us boiled down to one question – are we satisfied the player (Rodriquez) probably said to Gaetan Bong: “You’re black and you stink’? The FA discussed the evidence for which it was basing its verdict. It said the two lip reading experts “could not help” as “The player’s mouth was obscured, and neither could see sufficient to interpret his moving lips”.

Ultimately the FA therefore didn’t have enough evident to find Mr Rodriquez guilty. “After much deliberation we were left in the position where the case distilled to the evidence of each player. We could not say that any of the other evidence or competing arguments lead us to prefer one over the other.”

It is important here to state that the FA report stated the panel were “completely satisfied” that Gaetan Bong’s complaint “was made in absolute good faith” that “it was right that they did so” and “Rightly, no one suggested this was a malicious complaint nor that Mr Bong was lying.”

This is where my opinion comes in. Full disclosure, I’m a Brighton fan, so somewhat biased of course. But I think it’s important to not let your loyalty to your club cloud your judgement and I have done my best to do so by stating the reports findings objectively first. But subsequent to this verdict, on social media and at matches, Mr Gaetan Bong has received a great deal of abuse for bringing forward his claim. Most notably when Brighton travelled to Mr Rodriquez’s former club Burnley at the weekend.

A lot of this this abuse seems to be aimed at Gaetan Bong’s most recent statement where he stated that: “I am certain of what I heard on the field.” Mr Rodriquez’s representatives however stated on his behalf: “Jay never said anything racist”. It’s important to state here that whilst both may be justified in their views, based on the panels findings neither can be stated as a fact as neither was Bong’s claim proven nor was the panel able concur with Rodriquez’s story of events. It’s also worthwhile stating that both have said since the investigation they want to move on from this unfortunate incident that has no doubt been an ordeal for both, which would appear best option for all.

However what happened on Saturday brought up the whole sorry affair again, due to a significant group of Burnley supporters putting their loyalty to their club ahead of the facts. This is why many, including Brighton manager Chris Hughton, have called out the Burnley fans who booed Bong constantly throughout yesterday game. Hughton himself described it as shameful, for which I agree.

As the FA said it “takes all allegations of discrimination extremely seriously and continues to encourage all participants who believe they have been the subject of or witness to discriminatory abuse to report this through the appropriate channels”. Any vilifying of Mr Bong will discourage others to come forward who experience discrimination. In the same way as vilifying Mr Rodriquez for a charge that wasn’t proven would be wrong and make others fear of being vilified for an unproven claim against them.

Ultimately due to the lack of evidence, we don’t know what was said. Either way, vilifying either party is abhorrent shameful behaviour, the kind of which that as a society we should condemn.