Listen to the negative criticism, however valid it is

I’ve written blogs before in reaction to things that have been written on social media after Albion games. It’s something that I have found is a cathartic process, but ultimately one that some will feel is just adding to the noise of what’s been written about the topics already. Nonetheless we all continue to carry on carrying on.

Charlie Brooker said in his Guardian column about the culture of exaggerated opinions on social media in 2014: “exaggeration is the official language of the internet, a talking shop so hopelessly overcrowded that only the most strident statements have any impact…in this increasingly binary world, if good equals amazing, bad equals catastrophic. Any disappointment, any setback, anyone who steps out of line – all instantly labelled the Worst Thing Ever.”

This Sunday the twitter hashtag #bhafc personified what Charlie Brooker was talking about. One-minute Chris Hughton is clueless, negative and running out of ideas. The next Brighton are 2-0 up and he’s a tactical genius, who’s outsmarted the great Jose Mourinho and never gets a move wrong. The reality of course is, as always, somewhere in the middle.

Much of social media discussion is this way of course. Exaggerated noise for the purpose of attention and ‘likes’, but that doesn’t make all this noise worthless. Debate & criticism are an important part of getting feedback for any task. However, some felt the need to mock and pour scorn over the avid critics of Hughton’s team selection before the game, who ended up with egg on their face.

Whilst I disagreed with the criticism of Hughton, I disagreed even more strongly with those mocking the opinions of his critics. By all means disagree and debate with them and try to better understand each other’s opinions, but don’t just shut them down and call them idiots.

Hindsight is 20/20 and on social media those who are proven right often make sure the other party knows about it subsequently, but it’s important to remember the state of play at the time of the decision making. Who would have predicted the Albion would be 3-1 up yesterday whilst entering injury time? I’d suggest only the most absurdly optimistic of fanbase.

It’s all part of the growing trend that demonstrated best on Twitter, where many have an inability to disagree. The culture as described by the professor of psychology Todd Kashdan of “attack first think later, if at all”. Condemning people because their views or actions make you feel uncomfortable will not lead to a constructive debate, something that is a crucial element for any organisation, even one that is so widely discussed as a professional football team.

Furthermore, creating a culture which discourages negative criticism, however absurd or ill-informed it may be, can lead to complacency. And complacency is something that the three teams who were relegated from the Premier League last season could easily have been accused of. The moment we as Albion fans begin to discourage debate and scepticism, even from the less informed, is the moment we risk creating a bubble of ideas and a lack of creativity at the club.

As the saying goes “football is a game of opinions” and those opinions often vary greatly on the most trivial of subjects, even among the highly paid pundits and commentators of the game. Pouring scorn on those you believe to be, or even those that prove to be holding absurd opinions only goes to cheapen and diminish the quality of the debate, whilst discouraging future debates. So, let’s all try to treat each other with a bit more respect and consideration. Or to paraphrase Albion fan Fatboy Slim: We’ve come a long, long way together, so let’s not behave like idiots now we are here.

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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.

Six things to look out for this season

(Unless stated Squakwa has been used as a source for statistics)

Cardiff

Cardiff will be an interesting prospect for their fellow Premier League teams when facing them this season, one unlike any of the established top-flight teams. Take yourself back to last seasons cup tie between them and eventual Premier League champions Man City and you’ll see a side up for a battle and not afraid to tread the line between fair and unfair play. Man City ultimately won 2-0 but Cardiff didn’t roll over, weren’t disgraced and won’t be this season.

Many have said Cardiff manager Neil Warnock is not able to translate his Football League success to the Premier League, which I think is unfair and his record isn’t as bad as many others suggest. When he was at QPR the club were a basket case. He wasn’t given enough time following achieving promotion to make a good enough judgement on his performance either way. At Sheffield United admittedly they went down in their first season. However, they only went down by one goal on goal difference and only after losing on the last day of the season to the team who stayed up at their expense, Wigan. Hardly a disaster. His time at Palace in the Premier League was also too short to derive any real judgement from. Elsewhere he’s proven over and over he’s good enough to take a team and quickly get it overachieving expectations whilst in the Football League, so why not at the top level?

Cardiff are a team that I think are suited to upset the odds. Last season they were a defensively stubborn team – conceding only 39 goals in the league. The second lowest total in the Championship with only champions Wolves conceding less, they’ll need to show those qualities again this season. They managed this despite conceding plenty of possession, with an average possession last season of only 47%, which is unusually low for a promoted side. Even Brighton under the pragmatic Hughton averaged higher at 51% in our promotion season. They compensate this with a good record on set piece goals, with over a third of their goals coming from set pieces last season. Something that should worry the Albion at least if their defending from set pieces last season is anything to go by.

Cardiff, unlike other promoted sides have no need to change their style of play and with a number of players with a point to prove, they will relish coming up against the big guns. Whilst they have not signed many new players I think they can still be a dangerous prospect and their style of play will help them overcome their shortfalls. Whilst they’re odds-on to go down, I think Cardiff will stay up. I’m not being contrary for the sake of it, they have what it takes to upset the bookies.

Fulham

As the side promoted through the playoffs, Fulham historically have the toughest job of the three promoted sides in staying up, with 15 of the last 25 play off winners relegated in their first season.

This is especially true if you look at the defensive stats, whilst they only conceded 42 goals last season, the fourth lowest in the division, they certainly have a mistake in them. They made the fourth highest defensive errors in the Championship last season (23), only four of which resulted in goals. That’s an unlikely conversation rate in the Premier League, for instance the previous season’s playoff winners Huddersfield made 22 defensive errors in last season’s premier league, 10 of which led to goals.

As has been widely agreed Fulham have made a number of good signings, including some big names, and it will be interesting to see how they all adapt. But whilst this is true, they needed to make those signings given that they are the lowest ranked team going into the new Premier League season. The Albion and Huddersfield both spent big last summer in order to make the step up, whilst Newcastle’s spending spree in the summer following relegation the year before meant they were already well reinforced and ensured all three were able to beat the drop. So, whilst the signings they’ve made are impressive and show ambition, they needed to be given the gulf they have to make up over the summer and I doubt it will give them an edge over other more established teams.

Fulham are a team that like the ball and to control possession, averaging 55% possessing last season. This isn’t something they can expect this season and they will have to get used to spending long periods without the ball, particularly against the top 6 or risk being overrun. In fact, last season all the teams outside the top 6 averaged less than 50% possession, no doubt somewhat skewed by the Man City effect but nonetheless a striking statistic. If they plan to carry on last season’s possession-based approach in the top flight this underlines the need for signings of the like of Jean Michael Seri and Zambo Anguissa to hit the ground running. Time will tell but Fulham have work to do to make the step up and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was too much for them.

England’s new ‘golden generation’

With the tune to “Three Lions” just about out of our heads and the Premier League starting, international football takes a back seat. But will we see more of the young English talent who’ve done so well in various international tournaments at youth level, break into Premier League first teams this year? And will fans start to pressure managers and clubs to give them more first team opportunities?

It certainly promises to be an exciting season for some of the young Englishmen. Particularly if the Community Shield is anything to go by then we will be seeing more of them this season. The highly rated Phil Foden started and played well as City went onto win that game, whilst Hudson-Odoi started for Chelsea and former Albion target Tammy Abraham came off the bench. Whereas at Liverpool the U20s World Cup winner and player of the tournament Dominic Solanke has already made a number of first team appearances since signing last summer. He is amongst plenty of impressive young English talent at the club including Alexander-Arnold and another former Albion target Joe Gomez. Those three sides appear to be the teams to watch for England’s future World Cup stars but here’s hoping there’s more besides.

Maurizio Sarri

To say Sarri is one of the characters of European football is probably underselling it. From reports of excessive chain smoking to stories of absurd superstitions such as repeatedly reversing into a player’s car before games for good luck, the man comes with a reputation for being an eccentric. And add to that the allegations of Homophobia made against him by former City manager Roberto Mancini, it could be an interesting and at times controversial season for Chelsea purely off the pitch.

But on the pitch, he could have a huge impact. Sarri worked wonders at Napoli, creating what many believe to be the best Napoli side since the days of Maradona, pushing the imperious Juventus close in the title race last season and playing some great football at the same time. Napoli were indeed an exciting side to watch, creating the equal second most chances in Europe’s top 5 leagues last season (472), equal with Man City and only beaten by European Champions Real Madrid (498).

Playing a high pressing 433 they scored plenty of goals and created lots of chances, and if pre-season is anything to go by he plans to set Chelsea up to do the same. After 4 years of organised, defensive tactics under Mourinho and then Conte this will be a big change for Chelsea and one that whatever the outcome will be interesting to watch.

Nations League

Usually international football is a boring inconvenience amongst an exciting Premier League season and only every 2 years does it get our full attention. UEFA are hoping this may change with the invention of the Nations League. England are in a group with Spain and Croatia, playing them home and away over the course of the season with the winner of the group going through to the semi-finals in June.

It will be interesting on two fronts. Firstly, following the success of the England national team in the summer will it catch the imagination of the public, unlike most international breaks in previous seasons? Secondly, will the players risk injury and their club managers fury to play in these games, unlike most international breaks in previous seasons?

Time will tell how much things really have changed but it does appear to be coming at a good time for English football. Amongst the political and economic uncertainty, the country is experiencing some serendipitous escapism in the form of a new-found enthusiasm for the national football team. So, don’t put those waistcoats to the back of the wardrobe just yet.

The Hughton high press

I wasn’t going to write something completely non-Albion related, was I? With the Albion approaching a second season in the top flight it appears Hughton’s plan for progression involves a change in tactical approach. Last season the team set up with a deep defensive line and then hitting teams on the break, but there are plans in place to shift to a higher pressing more offensive style.

Nantes manager Miguel Cardoso described the intensity of Brighton’s play in the recent pre-season friendly between the sides as “Incredible”. The last time the Albion were described as incredible it certainly wasn’t describing their pressing tactics.

This is something Bruno also spoke about ahead of the Nantes game, saying that in preparation for these new tactics that pre-season had been “very tough”. The Albion captain said: “I think people will see a difference this season when it comes to pressing. We want to be a team who do that even more. We are going to arrive in better shape than ever when we get to the league. Last season we were a very solid team, a team who worked hard, and that will stay the same.”

Whether a pressing style where the team push higher up the pitch leaving space in behind the back four will suit full back Bruno at the ripe age of 38 is debatable. However as already mentioned, as a unit the Albion set up to defend very deep in their own half last season. This meant the midfield had to cover a lot of ground to get from defence to attack, with moves often breaking down before an attack had begun. This limited the number of chances the Albion created, in fact the 6th lowest in the division. Therefore, playing a higher defensive line and pressing higher up the pitch makes logical sense to counter this issue as the team looks to progress on from last season. Chris will therefore be hoping the current set of players bolstered by the new signings will be able to adapt to the change in style.

The Albion started last season playing incredibly cautious football, ending it with a low average possession of 45%. As the season went on the Albion became more comfortable and they started to attack more, which paid dividends. The Albion scored just 0.71 goals per game before the new year, but then scored 1.12 goals per game after the new year, a not insignificant 56% increase. This added goals per game coincided with a marginal increase in points per game from 1.05 to 1.12, a 7% increase. Pushing higher up the pitch may allow the Albion to create more chances and control games more. At very least it’s a tactical ploy to use against the lower ranked teams in the division at home.

New Season, New Signings

It’s been another busy transfer window for the Albion. Once again breaking its transfer record, that’s for the third transfer window in a row and for the sixth time in the last five windows. The Albion have so far made a total of seven first team signings, all of which look to have improved on the squad depth and quality from last season, whilst at the same time filling any gaps left by departing players.

Florin Andone was the Albion’s first signing of the summer and adds much needed depth in the striker area. The Albion were far too reliant on Murray and Gross for goals and chance creation last season and adding extra quality in this area would have been top of the priority list of the recruitment team. The reliance on them in attack is demonstrated by a number of stats, for instance Murray and Gross between them contributed 19 of the 33 league goals Brighton scored last season.

The football statistics website Squawka said of the Romanian striker: “the striker is a proven goalscorer when the system fits him, having scored 27 goals in 58 games while at Cordoba. His effect at Brighton will be down to how well the Seagulls can cater to his strengths.”

Last season Hughton set up the team to get the best out of Glenn Murray and he did his job accordingly by scoring 14 goals in all competitions to help fire Brighton to safety. However, because of the lack of options and the underperformance of Anthony Knockaert, the Albion were at times quite one dimensional. Therefore, its important both Andone and January signing Jürgen Locadia make an impact to give Hughton more options on how to set up the team in order to get those all-important goals.

Leon Balogun was the Albion’s second summer signing and one many fans will know the most of given shortly after signing we had the chance watch him represent Nigeria at the World Cup.

The one striking thing about him to me though more than his football ability is his character. He has spoken insightfully about racism in German football to the BBC’s World Service and written articles about his upbringing in Germany as a dual national, something topical in football currently. He comes across a very grounded man and one that could fill the hole left in the dressing room by departing players like Liam Rosienior and Steven Sidwell that Hughton will have relied on in the past to uphold the Albion’s highly thought of team spirit. Something German football journalist and Albion fan Jonathan Harding echoed to the BBC back in May.

Following the departure of Tim Krul and Niki Maenpaa, new signings Jason Steele & David Button will provide competition for Maty Ryan for the number one shirt, whilst helping to fill the Premier League squad homegrown players quota. That said, one of them will be needed to step up when Ryan leaves to represent Australia in the Asia Cup, which starts January 5th and ends February 1st. Assuming Australia go all the way, Ryan would be ruled out for at least 4 league games (potentially 5 or 6 depending on when he leaves to meet up with the squad), plus 1 or 2 FA Cup games and both legs of a potential League Cup semi-final, ambitious but true.

Those 4 league games include a home game against Liverpool and a trip to United. So, whoever comes into the team for Ryan could well be busy! These follow a trip potentially reuniting David Button with his old team Fulham and finally the Albion face Watford at home.

New signing Yves Bissouma announced himself to Albion fans last weekend with a terrific free kick goal in a friendly against Birmingham. Signing from Lille the Mali international chose to sign for the Albion over Portuguese champions and 11th ranked team in Europe, Porto. As has been pointed out by many already, as well as being a good bit of business by the Albion, this is a sign of the power the Premier League possesses for a side like Brighton, relative newcomers, to win a transfer battle with two times European Champions Porto.

For me, Yves Bissouma could be the best addition, giving the Albion something that we lacked last season in the middle of the pitch. However good Pröpper and Stephens were last season, and they were great, as a team we lacked a threat going forward from that area of the pitch, increasing the reliance on Pascal Gross and Glenn Murray to provide the goals. From his time in France, Bissouma has shown he is able to add defensive stability as well as an attacking threat at the same time. In Squawka’s analysis of the new signings they underlined this by stating that Bissouma is “able to contribute in both defence, with his tackling ability, and attack – having completed 3.2 take-ons per 90 last season”. Therefore, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him replace Stephens, or more likely Pröpper, in the starting eleven.

So, to Alireza Jahanbakhsh, who broke the Albion’s not so long-standing transfer record.  The man from Iran comes with a lot of interest from his home country, you only need to look at the amount social media comments that have appeared of late on anything Brighton associated that are in Persian to notice that. The transfer saga also caught the imagination of the Albion faithful and his signing was met with an out pouring of joy on all forms social media. For many it was caused just because of the joy and relief of beating Leicester City to his signature.

For all the hype he will be expected to hit the ground running, which as shown by Izquierdo and Locadia’s initially slow starts with the Albion could prove to be tough, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him on the bench in early season matchdays. However, I think he will at least add a much-needed extra level of depth to the squad in wide areas, providing added competition for the existing wide players Izquierdo, March and Knockaert.

He looks like a wide player in the mould of Hughton’s liking, whilst often starting from a wide position, he likes to cut inside and create something from central areas, through either a shot or a pass. This type of play from Albion wide players last season helped allow Gross to often drift out or full backs to push on into the wide areas as they did to such good effect last season.

That said, the Dutch league isn’t the top level of European football it used to be, and for every Luis Suarez style success there is an Afonso Alves style flop, so you may call the signing a little speculative. But he does come with a high rating, for instance Jacob Steinberg wrote in the the Guardian’s Albion season preview that “The 24-year-old’s arrival demonstrates that Brighton’s recruitment team are endeavouring to think outside the box. A determination to look in places others are ignoring allows them to find young, hungry and affordable players who still have time to improve.” I’ve praised the Albion’s recruitment on my blog time and time again and whilst it’s still unknown whether Alireza will succeed with the Albion, his signature feels like a statement of intent

Bernardo will become the first Brazilian to play for Brighton in its history but don’t let the goal in a pre-season fixture with Crawley fool you, he is a full back more in the European mould than the South American mould. Having previously played at RB Leipzig, a team known for their high tempo and defensive organisation this should be no surprise. Signing for a reported £9m this sounds like a lot for a full back but shows how highly the Albion recruitment team rate him, but also how important the full back positions are to Albion’s width. As pointed out above, the wingers will often drift inside leaving space which the full backs are often expected to make use of, making good full backs critical at both ends of the pitch. I suspect Bernardo may replace Bruno in Albion’s notional first eleven, but he can play on either side of the back four.

As I’ve pointed out in previous blogs, the Albion were lucky last season with injuries. As a result many squad players like Connor Goldson and Sam Baldock went largely unused, hence the keenness from them to leave for pastures new this summer. A stronger squad in case of any potential injury crisis will at least best prepare the Albion for this eventuality whilst keeping those in the first eleven on their toes. If we had a run of injuries of the like that we did in the 15/16 season that coincided with a bad run, including a 3-0 home defeat to Middlesbrough, which ultimately may have cost the Albion promotion that season, it could cost the Albion Premier League status once again.

Therefore, the business done by the seagulls this summer whilst maybe speculative in some areas like the signing of Jahanbakhsh, looks to have given the Albion a level of squad depth and an increased variability of options not seen before, certainly in my memory.

Club Progression and Unprecedented Status

As the English football season once again approaches, Brighton find themselves competing with the best teams in English men’s football once again in the Premier League. But it’s not just the men’s first team this season, the Women’s first team start their WSL 1 season in September, whilst there are various age level men’s and women’s youth teams and a number of disability-specific teams also playing at the top level in their classification. So as the club starts a season of unprecedented status, what is the cause of the clubs wide ranging current success?

One of Brighton’s saving graces over the dark years that followed relegation from the top flight in 1983 was its large catchment area. It has meant the club was still able to pull a significant number of fans to watch it play no matter what, and there have been plenty of times many of us have experienced that “what”, and its not been good. For instance the club regularly attracted 6-8 thousand fans a game to watch a lower league side play in a converted amateur athletic stadium with no atmosphere whatsoever. A ground voted the 4th worst football ground in England in the Observers poll in 2004, the worst being Brighton’s one-time temporary home Priestfield. An attendance that may seem measly compared to current figures, but this was of course a very different club at the time. One that for a while had not been a club the City could taken pride in. Being an 80s baby meant when I was younger I was the only person at my school who supported Brighton, this was typical across Sussex in the 90s and 00s. But despite this apathy from many circles the club still attracted a large core of fans who kept the club alive during the tough periods.

The club’s catchment area has also meant that the youth team has been able to attract a reasonable pool of players. Even when Brighton were relying on sharing their limited training facilities with the local university, they still kept bringing players through to the first team, some of whom went onto play for bigger clubs elsewhere. At times the club relied on such players to fill gaps in the team where finances couldn’t be stretched to buy a replacement. A luxury that other lower league clubs like Brentford had to work harder for and one they have since given up on. I do wonder what could have been for some of the young talented players one-time Albion manager Dean Wilkins championed if Falmer has been given the green light even just a couple of years earlier. Many instead went onto bigger and better things elsewhere.

The club and fans quite rightly champion former chairman Dick Knight for what he did for the club during the 90s, grasping the club away from the previous owner Archer and subsequently going onto lead it into the new stadium at Falmer. However, the intervening period was long, much longer than expected, and it could have led to a feeling apathy and a period of further decline. But instead the club had some great years, in fact some of its best. The Albion won 4 promotions and spent 3 years in the English second tier whilst playing in a ground famously dubbed in the hit protest song ‘We Want Falmer’ as being fit for “Albanian Division Eight”. Those years where the battle for planning permission overshadowed it all, were the truest personification of making the best of it and to Knight, Perry and co. we owe a great debt of gratitude.

However, the club is now a very different organisation, both on the field and off it. Whereas facilities up until the move to the AMEX could be aptly described as ‘make-shift’ they are now of a high standard. The club has moved from porta-loos, portable cabins, sharing facilities with the local university and players washing their own kits to the new stadium at Falmer, a state of the art training centre and unrecognisable levels of professionalism. The club has been saying its “Premier League ready” for a while and in 2017 when the club finally managed to make the step back up to the top table of English football (for the first time since 1983) it was ready for the challenge.

This investment is coupled with ambitious targets set by those in charge at the club. The club stated in its most recent annual report: “Our ambition for the club’s senior teams, both men and women, is to play at the highest level possible.” One they had already achieved with the men’s team and have since achieved with the Women’s. With this investment and stated ambition comes increased expectations as well as the added complexity of running a larger organisation. Along with that, the management of such great change, as shown by the amounts of money paid to some management consultants is not an easy process and one seemingly carried out well.

A lot of the off the field success is due in no small part to the smart investment decisions made by Tony Bloom and the recruitment of the right people in key positions. From Chief Executive Paul Barber to Head of Recruitment Paul Winstanley, Tony Bloom is continuing to invest in both the long and short term and a quick look at the club financial statements will tell you how lucky the Albion are to have found Tony Bloom.

Talking to the accountancy magazine “Economia” Brighton’s Finance director David Jones admitted as much “Tony Bloom loves the club and is passionate about it. His family has been involved for years; his grandfather was the vice chairman in the 1970s and 1980s. He has invested over £250m of his own money including £100m for the new stadium and £30m for a new training ground. He’s funding the club’s losses and provided the funding for a team capable of winning promotion to the Premier League.”

The Albion’s 16/17 financial statements shows a debt due to Tony Bloom of £191m up from £170m in the previous year. As it says in Economia it is “the “friendliest” of debt, because it is entirely owed to Bloom and is interest-free, it shows how much the club is dependent on him.” Jones goes onto underline Bloom’s importance by saying: “The size of the football budget has been largely down to the chairman and how much he was prepared to commit, while at the same time living within the game’s financial regulations such as Financial Fair Play (FFP) and its profitability and sustainability rules.”

Of course, much of the attention towards the club and investment from the club is aimed at the men’s team. And with the incredible amount of competition and media coverage in men’s senior football that team’s success, rightly or wrongly, ranks above all others in many observer’s eyes. Soon after Bloom took over he quickly pumped money into the football budget of the club. After appointing Gus Poyet as manager, at the Poyet’s request he put money into improving the professionalism of the club by paying for services so players could concentrate on the football, for instance so they didn’t wash their own kit. He also began investing more so Poyet could build a team in his vision that went on to win League one.

However the more significant change has come off the pitch since those make-shift days playing at the Withdean. A great example of his astute investment that has led to this success is the Albion’s much praised recruitment team. Back in 2015 and pre the appointment of Chris Hughton as manager, the Brighton Argus were already praising this move. You only have to look at the success of the signings made last summer to know what a success this investment has been.

Whilst some of the investment decisions are made primarily to produce results on the pitch, others are made with a view to promoting the clubs culture and community spirit. There is no greater example of this than the clubs award winning community scheme Albion in the Community, highlighted via the success of some of the national disability-specific league teams championed by the organisation. In its annual report the Albion said: “We know how important this club is to so many people and know we can have an impact in such a positive and inspiring way. Since our promotion to the Premier League, we have seen so much pride and positivity in the local area and we will continue to embrace that.”

Another area the club are investing in is in Women’s football, highlighted by the success of the first team who will be playing against the best English Women’s football has to offer in next season’s WSL. When the club appointed former England, manager Hope Powell this underlined how serious it was for this team to succeed. In previous eras, any other team other than the men’s seniors were more of an afterthought, but the club now has an array of well-funded and well managed teams playing under the club badge.

But why does this matter? In my opinion it only goes to extend the culture created and cultivated in Dick Knight’s period as chairman. He took a club that was broken and moulded it back together into a proper community club. He took the passion the fans had shown to see off Archer and utilised it to aid the clubs progress at the Withdean. His legacy is a club that is truly a part of the city, part of the community and by investing in the variety of football teams the club ensures it caters for all people within that community that hold it so dear.

A further example of the club’s willingness to invest in the local community and further afield is the Monk Farm estate development, one not without its controversy. Whilst that is true it also goes to show the club’s commitment to invest in not just the City of Brighton and Hove but Sussex as a whole.

This all comes at a cost of course, the clubs latest accounts for the 16/17 season show the total annual operating costs were £68m with a loss of £38m (up from £51m and £25m respectively in 16/17). One of the additional disclosures that is required is the pay of the highest paid director. Which in the latest accounts stood at £1.2m (up from £0.6m in 15/16, although much of the year on year increase relates to his portion of a club wide £0.9m promotion bonus). It is widely believed this salary is paid to Chief Exec Paul Barber, and whilst reviewing the 16/17 year end accounts Kieran Maguire from the Price of Football says he believes he is “worth every penny”. He goes on to say: “Ultimately if Tony Bloom thinks Paul Barber is worth the money then that’s good enough for us.” Here, here.

In Paul’s time at the club he’s overseen structural changes of the like the club has never seen and considering the tangible success that has occurred in that time, whilst still managing to maintain some of the culture cultivated under Dick Knight and Martin Perry’s stewardship, he’s got every reason to be proud of his work. Furthermore, it’s no wonder other clubs have been rumoured to be after him.

All this said, it’s hard to give Brighton the “model club” tag that some other have been labelled with in recent years. As already stated a lot of the success in recent years remains down to Tony Bloom’s investment. Whilst the club foundations were rebuilt through the hard work of Dick Knight, the board of directors and the fans during end of the Goldstone, Priestfield and Withdean years, Tony’s investment has given those foundations a further platform to reach taller and broader levels of success.

That said, the cynic in me would also say that in football success is often cyclical and after a short period clubs often reverse to mean. Look at the line up of this seasons Championship and League One and you’ll see an array of clubs who’ve basked in the glory of a short successful period at the top, only for it to come crashing down in a heap after a few bad signings and a few key people leaving. And Brighton are no different to any other Premier League club that finished outside the top half last season, relegation is and for the short to medium term remains a realistic possibility. But at least we know with Tony at the helm, if the worst does happen then the club will never stoop to the low it did in the decade or so following relegation from the top flight in 1983.

On the day Dick Knight stepped down as chairman and handed over the reins to Tony Bloom he described it as a “natural progression”, but what has happened since that day has in fact been not far short of miraculous. Whatever the coming season brings, the City of Brighton and Hove and the county of Sussex has a football club to be proud of and a community organisation to treasure. UTA!

Second Season Syndrome – Fact or Fiction?

Second Season Syndrome – Fact or Fiction? A blog looking at the effect of Second Season Syndrome in the Premier League #bhafc #htfc #nufc

So as Brighton approach another season in the Premier league a topic that will no doubt be discussed at length is the concept of “Second Season Syndrome”. For those who are unaware of this concept “Second season syndrome” is simply put: where a team fails to match the achievements of the first season after promotion in the season that follows, usually leading to relegation. The reasons for this occurring have been hypothesised as ranging from increased pressure resulting from heightened expectations to decreased motivation and complacency after achieving or exceeding a club’s expectations in its first season.

To be clear a “syndrome” can be defined as: a group of symptoms that are consistently occurring together. Suggesting Second Season Syndrome would equate to a regularly occurring trend for teams in their second season. Therefore, in this blog I will analyse the historic data to see if this syndrome exists, specifically within the Premier League.

According to anecdote the examples of this theory appear to be numerous but for me there are two that stick out. First Ipswich town who finished 5th in their first season in the top flight in the 2000/01 season and qualified for Europe, only to finish 13 places lower and be relegated the following season. Furthermore, Reading finished 8th in their first ever top flight season back in 2006/07 but dropped ten places to finish 18th the following season to be relegated back to the Championship.

However, there are of course examples of teams who have by contrast drastically improved on their first season performance in their second season. Leicester City famously won the league in their second season after promotion, whilst last season Burnley finished 7th and qualified for European competition. Both improving significantly on their first season league position.

But are either or both of these examples of anomalies or a rather sign of a greater trend?

Findings and analysis

I have looked at the performance of teams in their second season in the top flight following promotion to see if we can prove or disprove this theory, basing a team’s overall performance on their end of season league position. I looked at this using two fairly definitive measurements of second season syndrome. The proportion of team that were relegated in their second season, and the movement in position of a team from its first to its second season.

To do this I looked at the Premier League from 95/96 to date. The reason I did this was because for this period the top level contained 20 teams and 3 were promoted and 3 were relegated. I appreciate football began before this period but it would be an unfair year-on-year comparison as a result.

Furthermore, much has changed since the start of the premier league, particularly with the factor of ever increasing Sky tv revenue, which makes comparing the current day performances to performances before the advent of the Premier League difficult.

My analysis shows:

  • Since 95/96 – 13% of teams relegated were in their 2nd season (compared to 42% in first season).
  • In the last 10 years – 13% of teams relegated were in their 2nd season (compared to 33% in first season)
  • Since 95/96 – teams on average finish 1 place lower than they did in their first season (0.86) with a median movement of a one place drop.
  • In the last 10 years – teams on average finish 1 place higher than they did in their first season (1.22)
  • Standard deviation is a statistical measure which shows the spread of data within a dataset, the higher the deviation the higher the number. The standard deviation of the change in second season performance compared to the first season is just above 5 (5.4).

Findings

Whilst the examples of teams performing significantly worse in their second season are apparent, there is no clear evidence of a trend. Furthermore, there are as many examples of successful second seasons as there are unsuccessful.

The generally accepted hypothesis appears to be that a team’s second season is harder than the first, however the data here shows you are almost four times as likely to be relegated in your first season as your second.

Whilst a small decrease in average position of teams in the Premier league from first to second was found over the course of the period studied, there was no clear trend.

In fact, the standard deviations of the change in second season performance compared to the first of 5.4 shows there are large swings in 2nd season performance from one team to another. For instance during the period studied, whist Ipswich dropped 13 places year on year, Leicester went up 13 places year on year. As you can see from the final graph there are as many outliers on both sides of the deviations, which ensures this doesn’t skew the average significantly enough to affect the findings.

Conclusions

Ultimately Brighton, Huddersfield and Newcastle fans will be glad to see my analysis shows no definitive trend either way. The data shows a team’s 2nd season performance is ultimately more dependent on each club circumstances and the fact it’s their 2nd season doesn’t necessarily equate to a drop-in performance.

Ipswich for example had to contend with the additional strain on resources of extra games in the form of European competition in the season they were relegated. Leicester and Burnley however, went from a first season of relatively narrow survival to a second season of great success. Second seasons appear to only be a hinderance in certain circumstances.

These are of course outliers, the more common movement year on year was a fall of one place, with 50% of the year on year movement between a three-place fall and a one place rise in end of season league position. Whilst a small fall in average final league position suggests a second season may be on average marginally harder, a small movement such as this in a game of small margins such as football, hardly equates to a “syndrome” of such widespread notoriety.

In fact, in the last ten seasons the trend of second season performance has moved from a small decrease in year on year league position to a small increase, something that seems logical to me. As a team’s become more experienced and established in the top flight you’d expect their league position to rise. Furthermore, with the level of analysis that takes place at Premier league clubs now it’s not unexpected that the surprise factor of newly promoted teams may have been lost or at least diminished.

So, whilst some will refer to second season syndrome it appears to me to be a fictional concept designed in an attempt to try to create the narrative of a trend that doesn’t really exist. Many clubs in fact perform similarly or better to how they did in their first season and as already mentioned, where this isn’t the case there are often extenuating circumstances.

The clear trend is if you survive your first season you are between three and four times as likely to survive relegation in your second, many Premier League teams key goal. A trend that should fill Huddersfield, Newcastle and Brighton fans with confidence. Furthermore, the general trend is that every season you survive you’re then more likely to survive the following season.

My club Brighton appear to me to be a stable club that picked up points consistently over the course of the previous season and one that is more than capable of meeting and even improving on last season’s performance. Ultimately though the Premier league is a toughly fought division and time will tell where we end up come May and whether my hunch is correct.

England Blog –  will crowd trouble once again overshadow the fortunes of the men’s national team?

Following the recent wins by England in successive World Cup knockout stage matches, a feat only achieved twice before in this competition by the men’s national team, there was mass celebrations across the nation. However, there were also reports of public disturbances and damage to public property, most notably an ambulance being vandalised on Borough High Street in London and a taxi being vandalised in Nottingham city centre, a Taxi containing the driver. Clearly these are deplorable events and ones at first glance may lead to the conclusion that this is just typical football fan behaviour – but is this fair?

DCI Paul Wells of Essex police commented on twitter: “do you remember when we won the rugby World Cup and everyone started throwing bottles at each other and smashing up ambulances?…….me neither.” But subsequently stated the comparison between the two sports was unfair, nonetheless that this is reflective of the typical culture of supporting England at the major tournaments. So is this appropriation of football and public disorder fair?

Football of course has a history of crowd trouble, going back to the dark days of football fan hooliganism and violence in the 1970’s and 1980’s. However, the prevalence of this at football grounds in the UK has since been diminished since the advent of the Premier League and all-seater stadiums making football games a day-out for all the family. Current national weekly attendance figures for football matches during a regular in-season weekend are in the region of ½ million attendees in England alone. Thankfully incidents of public disorder within football as a result are extremely rare whilst not eradicated entirely.

This is a sign of the changing face of English football, from the days of regular crowd trouble on a weekly basis up and down the country, through successful measures like football banning order and community projects led by the FA and football clubs the level of football associated public disorder has fallen considerably and the reputation of the national sport has been revived.

These measures go to show that football has and continues to accept its responsibility to eradicate football associated violence and public disorder. These shouldn’t be undermined either, just look at Millwall football club. A name synonymous with the football violence culture of the 70s and 80s, now synonymous with the brilliant community schemes it and other football clubs like it support. A clubs who’s supporters group have since these events raised money to fund the repair bill for the damage to the London Ambulance on Borough high street.

Football clubs across the UK in fact do a great deal to support the communities within their local catchment areas and beyond, particularly supporting communities that used to be a breeding ground for the type of football hooliganism spoken so insightfully about by various authors including JH Kerr’s book “Understanding Football Hooliganism” or in first-hand accounts by those involved at the time such as “Scally” by Andy Nicholls.

Thankfully those days are gone and football is now a widely celebrated leisure activity across England and the UK more widely. Football is the most popular and one of the most highly participated-in sports in the country, and the World Cup is a national event – with almost half the population watching the England vs Sweden game on TV, it truly captures the imagination of the nation. So surely any public disorder associated with this event is more appropriately a reflection of our society at large rather than specifically on any football fan culture?

In fact, the football violence of the past was also to a degree really just reflective of the society at the time. Whilst football has dealt and continues to deal with the causes of its historic problems with hooliganism, these problems also reflect issues and problems within society and local community as a whole. Furthermore, anyone who listens to the BBC’s wonderful World Football Phone-in will know that a national football team and it’s supporters are often reflective of the national society and it’s national culture, something the pundits commenting on the various global regions often illustrate well.

England fans abroad were of course formerly associated with some of the worst and more persistent forms of football hooliganism but the scenes seen in France at the 2016 European Championships are thankfully now isolated, rare and nothing like that has been reported in Russia at this years World Cup so far.

That said there was and to a degree still is a issue of football fans reflecting strongly their association to a football team in their actions, which historically partially led to football hooliganism. These days it is instead largely reflected by tiresome arguments on social media.

But as a football fan I accept this is something football hasn’t addressed fully. Look at the out-spilling of animosity from my team Brighton and our rivals Crystal Palace leading to crowd disorder at the derby games last season. However as stated before this is thankfully a rare occurrence and I can account from my own experience that my club Brighton has a wonderful family friendly culture at its football matches, like many others up and down the country.

Whilst this is an issue football needs to address I feel this is a discussion for another day, as the disorder seen on the streets of England following recent wins from the men’s national team at the World Cup are more reflective of the dangerous and widespread binge-drinking culture in the UK more widely.

The mix of a global event like the FIFA World Cup and glorious summer weather left the pubs and bars of towns and cities across the country rammed from lunch time and public services such as police and ambulances unable to meet the demand they were subsequently met with. Anyone who has witness an A&E on a Friday or Saturday night in any UK town or City will know this is an issue independent of football.

Whilst football has a history of violence and disorder that should rightly be condemned, the events in recent days and weeks do not reflect that same narrative and those like DCI Paul Wells attempting to do so, should look at society more widely to find the answers to those issues that led to these events rather than wiping their hands with it and place the responsibility at football’s door.

Fixtures – what can we expect?

As the FIFA World Cup has rolled on it’s been easy to overlook all the ongoings at the AMEX recently. But there’s been plenty of recent transfer dealings, which along with the release of the fixture list for upcoming 2018/19 Premier League season are getting me excited for what the new season will bring.

So, whilst there’s little science in it, I thought I’d have a look and see how the fixtures have fallen for Brighton and what we might expect from the months ahead.

I would break the season into five sections:

1. Games 1-7 – A tough start

2. Games 8-16 – First key point picking period

3. Games 17-23 – The seagulls might prefer to go south for the winter

4. Games 24-32 – Second key point picking period

5. Games 33-38 – The inevitable tough run-in

Here’s is a full list of the fixtures

1. A tough start

So in a feat of wonderful symmetry the team we played in the final home game of last season, United, are first up at the AMEX in the upcoming season. This is sandwiched between two tough away games. Meaning our fourth game of the season, Fulham at home which is not until September, will likely be first game we will start as favourites. By end of September the Albion will have played 4 of last seasons top six, and whilst some will say it’s nice to get them out the way early, we should expect to be in the bottom 3 come West Ham at home in October (match-week 8). Cue the ‘bedwetters’ panic!

In all seriousness this could be a significant mental burden on the team if this happens. Playing catch up is tough and will be new to the Albion in the Premier League, having spent almost all of last season out of the bottom three, albeit at times by a very small margin.

2. First key point picking period

Therefore it’s will only be following the West Ham game that we can look at the table for the first time with any kind of significance. The second international break will follow that and after 8 games it will be a good time to reflect on what has gone by so far, and assess our chances and requirements for the remaining 30 games.

The West Ham game also begins a run of 9 winnable games, 4 of which are at home, including the first derby game of the season. This is ahead of another tough period, so these 9 games will be where the pressure could start to rise, particularly as has already discussed, points will likely have been hard to come by up to this point. The teams character and the clubs #together-ness will likely be tested, particularly if the home draws that persisted for much of last season continue here. However, I rate Hughton’s calm patience approach to endure this pressure period and overcome it.

3. The seagulls might prefer to go south for the winter

The outcome of those 9 games will affect in what mindset the Albion then approach what is a tough December and January period for the Albion including the FA Cup game(s) that follow in January.

January looks particularly tough, fixtures against Liverpool and United are sandwiched between potentially two FA Cup games. Definitely expect changes if we make round 4 as it is only a few days ahead of Fulham at home, a game most will expect to win.

4. Second key point picking period

Fulham at home is followed by two more winnable games that begin another key point picking period up to match-week 32. After a trip to Stamford Bridge in February there will then be a run of 5 more winnable games as we move into March and April which is often the period that makes or breaks the season. That is if you have still given yourself a chance by then. This includes winnable games against Cardiff and Huddersfield at home and the second big derby of the season at Selhurst Park, which could well be ‘must-win’ for both sides.

5. The inevitable tough run-in

The Final 6 games then include 3 of the top 6 and a tricky trip to Wolves. The other two at home to Bournemouth and Newcastle in this run will therefore likely be targeted. I’m sure Hughton and his team will be hoping we have enough points by then but the home crowd factor could be important. In the past, many teams including the Albion have been helped and hindered by home crowds at this point in the season. Either crumbling under the pressure, or spurred on by the atmosphere, but let’s hope this helps an otherwise tough run in. Which is ‘coincidently’ something we will remember from last season. Much as The Telegraph warned us would happen again.

Of course that final period could be more congested if certain teams go far in the domestic cup tournaments leading to fixtures being rearranged and making a tough run in even tougher. So keep your weekdays around this time free.

What does this all mean

It’s important in the Premier league to be realistic and realistically the Albion are once again aiming to finish outside the bottom three. To do this we need to aim to get a minimum of 38 points which is an average of a point a game.

Whilst the Albion took 7 points off the 12 games against the top 6 last season, all were at home and if we are being honest we caught those teams on a bad day. Next season we might not be so lucky, which makes it important to get your minimum points from those other 26 games. This equates to a required average points total of just under 1.5 points a game from those remaining games, which suddenly sounds more daunting.

Therefore, hitting form at the right times will be crucial to staying above the dotted line come May. As such, the way the fixtures have fallen will rely on us to hit form in those key periods of match-days 8 to 16 and 24 to 32. That said the games against ‘the rest’ in those tough periods will also be targeted and picking ourselves up from the type of drumming we got at Anfield on the last day of the season may well be required ahead of a must win match. For instance the home games scheduled within the end of season run-in against Bournemouth and Newcastle come after a potentially demoralising away trip to Tottenham.

Injuries and suspensions will also play their part too. Last season we were fortunate to not get many long-term injuries to key players as reported in The Argus recently. If for example, a combination of Ryan, Dunk, Duffy or Gross were missing during those period then we’d be relying on our second string to step up, something we were fortune to not require much last season.

Hughton’s management style depends on a level of consistency and stability, which is required for the solidity of the team structure that we relied on for our defensive prowess last season, conceding the 2nd lowest amount of goals outside the top seven. Therefore, any replacements will need to fit straight in like Kayal did for Pröpper so competently towards the end of last season.

All this is speculative of course, look at Burnley last season. The way they started by beating the then reigning champions Chelsea and drawing away at Tottenham, (picking up 7 points in their first four games as they went on from there to finish 7th) wouldn’t have been foreseen when looking at the fixtures and summer transfer dealings before the start of the season.

Of course, much will depend on a multiple of factors and uncontrollable events, but this quick run through has certainly got me in the mood for the season ahead. Let’s just hope the club continue to get their transfer dealing done as well as last season to give Chris and his team the best chance of staying up once again.

UTA!

International tournaments and The Albion

So, it’s almost time for the World Cup. One which could break an Albion record for most representation at a single tournament with Matty Ryan, Jose Izquierdo and new signing Leon Balogun all in line to make their respective international squads.

Only three players have represented their country at a World Cup prior to this one whilst with the Albion, all before my time. In fact, if you go to the museum at the AMEX, you’ll see a relatively modest list of Albion players to have represented their country whilst with the Albion. One which if you looked at a team like Chelsea or United would probably compare more closely to that of a single season.

The last Albion player to appear at a World Cup was Steve Penney at the 1986 Mexico World Cup playing for Northern Ireland. I’m now somewhat ashamed to say that he’s a player which until deciding to write this blog I knew little of.

He started the first two games for Northern Ireland against Algeria and Spain and would have been in line for a start against Brazil in the final game were it not for an injury he received against Spain. Penney had his best years with the Albion and during that period he won 17 caps for Northern Ireland, which makes him the most capped of any player while on Albion’s books. A record being challenged by current Albion striker Tomer Hemed.

Steve is highly regarded amongst many of the Albion fans who saw him play in the stripes. In Spencer Vines book ‘a few good men’, in which he picks his Albion dream team, he stated that Penney was one of the first names on his team-sheet. In the book Spencer says Steve Penney was: “a breath of fresh air, a flying winger whose close control and devastating pace left opponents and spectators alike lost for words.” Sadly, for Steve and those who enjoyed watching him, injuries like the one he received in Mexico 86 meant by the end of his time with the Albion, Steve was a diminished force and after a spell in the reserves, in 1992 he left on a free transfer to go to Burnley.

This was before the protection that attackers like Steve would receive in modern football. The type of challenge by Spanish hardman Emilio Butragueno that put him out of the Brazil game were common place and it was somewhat inevitable players like him would feel the effects of them in the long term. Just watch clips of Maradona from the 1982 and 1986 World Cup to see the sort of treatment attacking players of that time had to deal with.

Maradona was of course the star man of the 1986 tournament as Argentina won the trophy, but infamously he was brutally kicked and fouled out of the previous tournament in 1982. He like all attacking players of the time had to learn the hard-way how to deal with this type of treatment, whilst riding their luck so not to receive the type of challenge that could end a career, the type of tackle both Maradona and Penney dealt with on a weekly basis. The good old days some might say.

Prior to that, Albion had two players representing them at the 1982 World Cup in Spain. Then captain and headband fashionista Steve Foster went to the 1982 World Cup with England, to date the only Brighton player to have played for England at a World Cup. Whilst Foster wore his famous headband to protect an old wound from opening when heading, it made him look the part nonetheless.

At the tournament Steve roomed with England’s star player Glenn Hoddle, sadly neither would have a lasting impact on the tournament as England went out in the second group stage. Steve made his England debut verses Northern Ireland, a 4-0 win in the British Championships in February 1982. Getting his second cap in a warm up friendly ahead of the tournament.

His inexperience and the relatively lowly stature of the Albion nationally meant he was a controversial pick by then manager Ron Greenwood. That said he was only ever going to be back up to first choice pairing Terry Butcher and Phil Thompson. Steve did get a game at the tournament in the win over Kuwait, but this was a dead rubber group game played after England had already qualified for the next stage. He didn’t play again for England after that.

Foster selection in 1982 was even a surprise to himself. He’s said of the day he found out about his selection: “I wasn’t expecting to go so when I hadn’t heard anything by the afternoon, I went out to play golf. I heard the news on television when I came off.”

That tournament also saw the Albion’s other World Cup representative Sammy Nelson who played for Northern Ireland. Sammy Nelson was approaching the end of his career when he signed for the Albion from Arsenal in 1981 but still made the squad for the 1982 World Cup.

Sammy went on to be capped 51 times for Northern Ireland but he went to the World Cup not being a first-choice player and didn’t make an appearance until Northern Ireland’s last of three group games, the famous 1-0 win over Spain where he appeared as a late substitute. He then started as Northern Ireland drew 2-2 with Austria in the second-round group stage but then wasn’t even on the bench when they lost 4-1 and went out of the tournament at the hands of France in their final game.

He played one more season for Brighton after the World Cup as the Albion were relegated from the top flight and lost that famous cup final to Man United at Wembley. Nelson wasn’t in the team for the final or the replay that followed and retired that summer. After spending the following season as a coach at the Albion under the newly appointed manager Chris Cattlin, he left football altogether.

Despite this modest history of international representation, in recent years things looked to be changing with a growing trend for a diverse group of nationalities playing for the Albion. Of last season first team squad eleven of them held international caps.

This was highlighted when at the 2016 European championships Jiri Skalak was included as part of the Czech Republic squad. Jiri signed for the Albion in the January of that year and made a positive impression in the months leading up to the tournament scoring twice in twelve games, as the Albion challenged unsuccessfully for promotion.

At the 2016 tournament he was an unused substitute for the Czech’s opening defeat to Spain. He then started the next game against Croatia but after failing to make an impact was brought off after 67 minutes with his country 2-0 down. Following some crowd trouble that disrupted the game the Czech’s completed an unexpected comeback that looked unlikely when Skalak was on the pitch to draw 2-2. After that Skalak then didn’t feature in the Czech’s final match as they went out with a whimper in a 2-0 defeat to Turkey. Hardly a story for the ages but an appearance for an Albion player in a major tournament nonetheless.

He’s certainly had a mixed experience for the Albion since then being a big part of the team that won promotion in the 16/17 season but was then notably absent from the team this season, only making 3 appearances in domestic cup competitions as the Albion reinforced its attacking options.

His appearance at Euro 2016 felt like a milestone for the club in my eyes, especially as prior to this my personal memory of any Albion interest in international tournaments was lived through former players. Be it Gareth Barry at the 2010 World Cup with England, whilst the great Bobby Zamora missed out through injury. Or be it the ‘Coca Cola Kid’ Colin Kazim Richard’s appearances for Turkey in the 2008 Euros, when they made a surprise run that ended in a narrow semi-final defeat to Germany.

There was some hope there would be future Brighton representation for England too for a while, particularly in the shape of Jake Forster-Caskey. In 2010 Jake became the Albion’s youngest ever player as a late substitute in an end of season league game against Yeovil. By that point Jake had already represented England at Schoolboys level and had built a reputation for himself as a hot prospect at the club.

Jake went on to represented England in the 2011 u17s World Cup, the 2012 u17s Euros and in 2013 was named in the u20s World Cup 35-man long list but didn’t make the tournament squad, however his England journey wasn’t over. He was soon redrafted amongst his u21s squad by the then manager Gareth Southgate and in 2014 he was a contender for u21 player of the year. He subsequently won a place in Gareth’s squad for the 2015 u21 European championships alongside now England senior team internationals like Harry Kane, Jesse Lingard and Jack Butland.

Gareth Southgate liked him a lot. Saying at the time: “He is a very mature footballer, he reads the game really well. He is a good technical footballer.” As a result, Southgate controversially included Jake in the squad for the 2015 tournament ahead of taking established internationals like Jack Wiltshire and Ross Barkley and asking him to dictate the midfield, something many pundits at the time were baffled by. Ultimately Jake only started one of the three group games as England went out in the group stages finishing bottom of their group.

Southgate later admitted he should have taken Barkley, maybe an admission Jake was in over his head, maybe throwing Jake under the bus to mask other mistakes that he made. Whichever was true, it was tough for Jake. He’d spent that season playing in a Brighton team struggling at the foot of the Championship table until Hughton came in, at which point he quickly lost his place in the team altogether and was then later sent out on loan.

This experience will no doubt have shaped Southgate’s approach to the upcoming World Cup but it wasn’t the catalyst for Jake’s career that either would have hoped for. Jake had a loan spell at Milton Keynes the following season coupled with spells on the side-lines for the Albion. The following year he went on loan to Rotherham but this was cut short due to further lack of game time. After which he then left the Albion permanently in January 2017 for a move to Charlton in League One where he’s been a regular fixture of the first team. A sad ending to a promising career with the Albion, but whilst Jake is also no longer a part of the England setup, he seems to be rebuilding his career with regular first team football after a tough period.

All the three players who have represented their country at a World Cup whilst at the Albion did so for a home nation country, whereas the three set to do the same this time around are all representing countries from outside of Europe. A sign of the globalised football market the Albion are now very much a part of.

Barring injuries or surprise team selections, there is little doubt that the Albion’s all-time representation at the World Cup will be increased to four at this summer’s tournament, most likely when Australia play France on Sunday 16th June and could increase to five when Nigeria play Croatia later the same day. However, whether that total will increase to six later in the tournament and break an Albion record held for 36 years will depend on the selection choices of Columbia manager Jose Pekerman.

The 2004 Playoff Final Brighton vs Bristol City – A victory built on solid foundations but one with sharp front teeth

30th May 2004 – That day in Cardiff at the Millennium Stadium will always be a special memory for me. It was my first cup final experience as a Brighton fan and currently the only one, unless you count the Sussex Senior Cup that is. And what a day it was, sunny and warm in Cardiff on the Sunday of a Bank Holiday weekend. As a result of which Bute Park in the centre of Cardiff which is over the road from the Millennium Stadium was full of fans enjoying the good weather. I remember strolling through the park with my family before the game anxious with anticipation whilst others joined in kickabouts between rival fans.

We had stayed in a nearby B&B in the south west of England the night before, so to break up the journey to Cardiff and drove the short final leg of our journey on the morning of the game. So, we arrived in Cardiff fairly fresh and parked in Ninian Park Stadium car park and got a park and ride bus to the Millennium Stadium. Ninian Park was an old, run down and later knocked down stadium but one that still felt impressive to see and one that was worlds away from the Withdean Stadium that the Albion occupied at the time.

The build up to the game, in fact the season as a whole had been dominated by the campaign to get planning permission to build our new stadium at Falmer from the then Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott. Most notably the “We’re pleased to be here, but we wish we were here” postcards we were given with our playoff final tickets and were encouraged to send to John Prescott’s office. At that time, it was always a balance between fighting for the new stadium and focusing on matters on the pitch and the requirement to fund the continued legal battle was stretching resources at the club. Former manager Steve Coppell said during his time as manager whilst the club struggled against relegation:

“The football has almost been a sideshow. If that money had been spent on the pitch, we wouldn’t have found ourselves in this position.”

Despite the off field troubles, it had been another good season for the Albion, after last seasons instant relegation back to the third tier that followed two consecutive promotions up to that level. And whilst after all that a year of mid-table mediocrity would have been welcomed by the more faint-hearted, another promotion campaign was anticipated. Ultimately though despite playing well during the season and being driven forward by the goal-scoring exploits Leon Knight, we missed out on automatic promotion and had to settle for a place in the playoffs.

Mark McGhee had come in as manager just after the start of that season following the resignation of former manager Steve Coppell who left in the September of that season to join Reading. Coppell had been brought in to save the Albion from relegation the previous season. This was despite relegation looking likely after a terrible start to the season had the Albion looking doomed, Coppell ensured there was a fight at least and the Albion were ultimately only relegated on the final day of that season. When McGhee came in he built on the organisation and experience that Coppell had instilled and constructed a solid, defence-minded team that conceded only 43 goals in 46 games, the third best in the league that season. McGhee also added a much-needed injection of Scottish Charisma to post match interviews, something Steve Coppell’s dry monotone nature lacked.

Whilst McGhee wasn’t that popular during his time at the Albion, I think history looks back fondly on the three years he had with the Albion. He got the best out of the limited resources available at the time and persevered with the circumstances the club found themselves in, whilst others like Steve Coppell and Peter Taylor had given up and jumped ship. In doing so, the following season he would achieve the Albion’s highest place finish at the Withdean, 20th in the second tier, becoming the only Albion team playing in the second tier not to be relegated during the Withdean years. And despite a terrible season the following year that ended in relegation and a bottom place finish, overall, he did as well as could have been expected under the circumstances at the time.

When McGhee joined he will have quickly realised he had a rebuilding job to do as the Albion had lost a few key players in recent months. None more important than the three years running top goal-scorer Bobby Zamora, who left for the bright lights of the Premier League in the form of Tottenham Hotspurs. But in his place came Leon Knight, a young striker from Chelsea who quickly filled the void left by Zamora scoring 27 goals in league and cup that season and giving Albion the bite they needed up front.

That said, Knight wasn’t alone and forged an array of striking partnership with loanee target men throughout the season, some more productive than others. McGhee had the Albion playing a game based mostly on long balls up to the target man with a compact two lines of four in behind. This target man role was key to McGhee’s system if under appreciated. That player was instructed to win headers, hold the ball up and supply Leon Knight with chances, who would use his pace in behind the opposition defence, as well as being expected to chip in with goals himself.

Knight started the season playing with Darius Henderson but Henderson only netted twice and soon returned to parent club Reading. Then there was Trevor Benjamin, my personal favourite, a man who came on loan from Leicester and scored 5 in 10. After which McGhee was keen for him to stay but he returned to Leicester when a deal couldn’t be reached. Finally, to fill the position there was his partnership with Chris Iwelumo, who would partner him in the all-important Playoff final and have a key impact that season. It was a partnership notable for the height differential of the pair, dubbed ‘little and large’ and whilst all Knight’s partners were taller than him, Iwelumo towered over Knight by just under a foot at 6 foot 3 inches. Iwelumo seemed to bring the best out of Knight and as a result their partnership helped to secure the Albion’s place on the playoffs.

There’s far more that could be said of Leon Knight, he went on to become as infamous as he would famous in football circles. Maybe that’s for another blog, but this was his season and without his goals, the Albion simply wouldn’t have been in the playoffs at all.

However, this was a team built primarily with solid defensive foundations, particularly when playing at home conceding only 11 in the league at the Withdean that season. Now Albion coach Ben Roberts played in goal that year having deposed stalwart and fan favourite Michel Kuipers who had been involved in a horrific car crash early in the season. This was a car crash that had a significant impact on the Dutchman and gave him a new lease of life that would eventually spur him on to winning his place back in the team and he would stay at the club as a player until 2010. The Dutchman made 247 appearances for the club and is a player who is synonymous with the Withdean years, but this wasn’t his year. Pictures of the crash and the aftermath were plastered over the front of the Brighton Argus, ones not for the faint hearted. But thankfully Michel walked away from it and is one of the members of this team who now works for the club as an ambassador for the club’s community support charity.

In front of Roberts was captain Danny Cullip and centre back partner and player of the season Guy Butters who together had forged a wonderful centre back partnership. For Guy Butters, the turnaround from the previous season was striking after a poor first season at the club as Brighton were relegated from the second tier. He didn’t win many fans over that year, in fact somewhat unfairly he became a figure of mockery. He has since spoken about how as a result his kids were bullied at local schools and notably during the summer before the 03/04 season, as a cruel joke, one Albion supporter put Guy up for sale on an online auction website. However, Guy had the last laugh that season and He and Danny both still also work for the club as ambassadors for the club’s community support charity.

The Albion showed their defensive prowess in the first leg of the playoff semi-final. The club drew Swindon, and through a clean sheet and with a Richard Carpenter long range special, won the away leg 1-0. But were then poor in the return home leg and needed a late goal from defender Adam Virgo to take the game to a penalty shootout, which was won to get into the final. That Virgo header still goes down as a favourite Albion goal of mine. We were beaten, some fans had already begun to leave and it was a last throw of the dice to get as many players forward as we could and launch the ball into the box. The scenes when he scored and then when we won the shootout were like little seen at the Withdean. It was hard to not feel sorry for Swindon, but I still enjoyed mocking Swindon striker Tommy Mooney who missed a penalty.

Watch the goal here

So, we came into the final on a high. And that high led to great demand for tickets with long queues at the Withdean Stadium when they went on sale. I personally enjoyed the novelty of queuing up around Withdean Stadium to get tickets, it added to the anticipation of the big day but I wasn’t keen to do it again. However, after our arch rivals Palace won the Division One playoff final over West Ham to get promotion to the top flight the day before our final, an extra pressure formed and it made it all the more important that we won, we couldn’t have them getting one over us again! That said it wasn’t all bad that day, the Palace fans put our rivalry aside whilst they displayed a banner proclaiming their support for a new stadium in Brighton. A nice gesture I’m sure you’ll agree, but I was still disappointed that they won.

We got to the stadium and took our seats ready for the game. We were in the top tier and I remember the steps leading up to the seats seemed incredibly steep and we were only in the second or third row! Our vantage point felt very high up, this was very different to the Withdean. The teams came out to loud cheers and horns blowing from the crowd and this noise was accompanied by two large flamethrowers either side of the tunnel that the players appeared from. As they lined up and sung the national anthem this suddenly felt incredibly surreal and somewhat overwhelming, very different to Withdean. A proper cup final!

The game started and we set out our stall to defend and spoil the game from the off. As a result, it was a poor game and one I have little memory of. That said, I like many fans in attendance was incredibly nervous and was unlikely to enjoy the game either way. Ultimately, we won the game when we were given a penalty through debatable foul on Chris Iwelumo and as soon as he won it, there was little doubt that Leon Knight would put it away. 1-0 Albion and after a tense finish that’s how it ended.

This wasn’t just a side with a solid back four, the midfield were solid and disciplined too. Centre midfielders Carpenter and Charlie Oatway were almost ever present that year, both great workhorses whilst Carpenter added a bit of skill and creativity, particularly from set pieces. Out wide the personnel had varied throughout the season, but that day on the left was the now Luton manager Nathan Jones, a player who had played long spells at full back so knew how to defend but also offered some skill and trickery going forward as well as some much-needed pace. On the right was the wonderful Gary Hart, Oh Gary Hart! What a player he was, incredibly talented in the final third yet his selfless work rate and endless stamina meant he spent many years at Brighton on the wing or even at full-back defending. Just ask Zamora though what a talented provider of goals Gary could be, a true Albion legend.

The celebrations afterwards were great, over 25,000 Brighton fans in one place cheering a victory was an experience I hadn’t had before and was nothing like a win at the Withdean. That said, the overriding emotion was relief that it was over and we’d done it. As the pressure subsided we could enjoy the day and the celebrations, inevitably some a little too much. As the players celebrated on the pitch the base of the trophy was bent and broken, no permanent damage was done we were assured though as back up keeper for the day Kuipers bent it back into place.

When we got back on the coach and started our journey home the talk quickly turned to next season, let’s be fair the game itself didn’t leave much of an impression. With that talk the achievement started to hit home and the excitement of promotion and teams like Sunderland and West Ham visiting the Withdean again was overwhelming, particularly after getting the taste the season before.

Promotion is always special but the jeopardy and the anxiety of the playoffs makes winning all the better. That said the hope and anticipation of promotion makes losing all the harder as Albion fans have learnt well subsequently in recent seasons. Therefore, whilst I will always look back on that day in 2004 on a sunny May Bank Holiday weekend with glee, I will look forward all the more to the playoff finals this weekend knowing that all we have to worry about is who we will be playing next season.