Frustration and promise, with Albion set to break multiple records

Last weekends draw with Leeds in many ways reflected the story of the season for Graham Potter’s Brighton side. An impressive performance, being much the better team for the majority and yet coming away with less than they deserve.

Yet another draw that could and probably should have been a win. The 15th draw of the season, equalling a club topflight record from 1979/80. Not the club topflight record we were hoping to get on Sunday.

However, there is plenty reason to celebrate. As well as extending the club’s good run over Leeds, that could be the point that secures a record high topflight league finish for the club. And whilst the early season talk of European qualification soon petered out, results elsewhere also mean a win on the final day against West Ham would be enough for a top half finish. Which given our good record against them, is very possible.

Either way, it is also a point that gives Albion a total of 48 points, which as well as being a Premier League record, means they now have achieved their highest ever points per game average in a topflight season. Less than the 52 gained in 1981/82, but that was in a 42 game season.

And Albion’s good end of season is more than just positive for the sake of a few records and statistics. It gives a more positive glow on the season than there was just a month and a half ago when the club drew at home with bottom placed Norwich after a run of six straight defeats.

The subsequent introduction of Moises Caicedo in particular has been revolutionary, with Graham Potter even admitting he made a mistake in not giving him a chance earlier. A player whose presence has greatly diminished the panic surrounding the seemingly inevitable departure of Yves Bissouma this season and the long term injury to Jakub Moder.

Meanwhile, Danny Welbeck’s supreme leading of the line flanked by the ever-improving Leandro Trossard and Alexis Mac Allister have all meant even the seemingly endless panic surrounding Albion’s lack of depth up front has somewhat diminished.

However, it does raise other question marks. Particularly about the future of two young players in those areas of the squad, Steven Alzate and Aaron Connolly.

Both were introduced into the first team by Graham Potter back in 2019 and had meteoric rises to prominence, but have both since struggled to maintain that upward momentum.

Steven Alzate was signed from League 2 Leyton Orient in 2017 and loaned to League 2 Swindon in 2018. But soon after his first team debut the following year was called up to the Columbian national team, then ranked 10th in the world and soon became crucial to both his club and national team.

But his 9 appearances (including just 5 starts) in the Premier League this season is his lowest since his promotion to the first team and he subsequently wasn’t even named of the subs bench for Columbia’s World Cup qualifiers in March.

His former development teammate Aaron Connolly’s impressive home league debut, which saw him score twice against a desperately poor Tottenham side, also saw Connolly called up by his national team, Ireland. But he has also struggled to make a consistent impact for both club and country since, on the pitch at least. And even a loan period at Championship side Middlesbrough, where he scored just twice in 21 appearances, has seemingly failed to relight his promising career.

The momentum behind Connolly that saw him become one of the hottest youth properties in the country after an impressive 2018/19 season with Albion’s development team which saw him beat Arsenal’s Eddie Nketiah to the Premier League 2 Player of the season award, has truly been halted.

But where some fail, others may prosper, and there are many other members of Albion’s loan army who will return this summer with renewed vigour after impressive seasons.

Arguably most notably is defender Jan Paul Van Hecke, who was named Blackburn Rovers player of the season, and returns south with his fellow Blackburn loanee Reda Khedra who has also shown plenty of promise. Meanwhile eyes will also be on Karou Mitoma, Kacper Kozlowski and the recently added Dennis Undav, whose joint part in the recent success of Tony Bloom’s Belgian side project USG has seen them all earmarked as possible Albion stars of the future.

And that selection of players is merely the tip of the iceberg when it come to potential first team additions next season from

the clubs bulging roster of existing options. As Graham Potter has shown in the past with the likes of Robert Sanchez, he isn’t afraid to pluck a player from obscurity to fill a first team place. So I won’t even try to cover all the bases.

Just seven weeks ago, Albion’s long list of out of contract first team players, both this and next summer, being coupled with their poor run of form was giving us Albion fans mounting concerns for next season. But, oh how a few wins can change your perspective. As the club has settled nicely into the calm of mid table obscurity with games to spare, this space has allowed for the opportunities of the future to come to the fore, of which there are many.

This is in great contrast to the club’s previous record high topflight finish of 13th in 1981/82.

Then Albion manager Mike Bailey, who’d only taken over from Alan Mullery at the begging of the season, had set the team up playing an uninspiring defensive style of football that wasn’t to everyone’s taste, including chairman Mike Bamber. And whilst it at first produced results, with a landmark 1-0 win at Anfield leaving the team 8th in the league, a subsequent run of ten defeats in the last 14 games of the season meant the club finished in 13th. 

After the slump at the end of the season and along with the negativity surrounding Bailey’s defensive tactics, the club started the following season in unsettled fashion. This wasn’t helped when club captain Steve Foster handed in a transfer request, telling the press at the time: “It just seems like the chairman doesn’t want to move forward.”

It’s fair to say that Bamber had a lot on his plate, with the club financially unstable and reportedly losing £6,000 a week, he needed to get people coming back through the turnstiles to turn the financial tide in danger of crashing against the club.

These were dark days in English football’s popularity and reputation and attendances were falling. Albion’s were no different, at times were falling under 10,000. As far as Bamber was concerned: “I have been bitterly disappointed at the very poor sale of season tickets and wonder if the Sussex public really want First Division football,” he said in August of that season.

The following season the club was relegated and after mounting debt from the excesses of those glory years, the club went on a downward spiral to almost falling out the football league and out of existence just over a decade later.

Recent examples of the likes of Leeds, who finished an impressive 9th last season gaining plenty of by plaudits, show us not to be complacent about Albion’s recent success. But we can also be glad of the comparatively vastly greater structural and financial stability at the club than in their previous topflight jaunt.

The modern reality of the club is very different. Yes this season has seen it’s fair share of frustration. But amongst all that frustration last weekend was another example of the best thing about this season from a Brighton perspective, how much scope for improvement there is despite being on the verge of a club record league finish.

And even if things on the pitch do take a turn for the worse, with the backing of Tony Bloom the club is in safe hands to be able to withstand a setback and come back fighting, unlike in the aftermath of the clubs previous record breaking league finish.

Aaron Connolly – Patience is required ahead of a pivotal season

After announcing himself to Albion fans with some impressive performances for the Club’s development team and winning the 2019 Premier League 2 player of the season award (ahead of compatriots including England U21 striker Eddie Nketiah), Aaron Connolly scored twice on his first Premier League start for the club at home to Tottenham in October 2019, a game broadcast live on BT Sport.

Due to this success with the development team he had already built up a huge reputation amongst the Albion supporters even prior to his fairytale home debut. But his performances since then haven’t always kept up that upwards trajectory and his 3 goals in his subsequent 37 appearances in the Premier League is a return that is beginning to lead to questions being asked of the young striker.

The last season in particular was tough for Connolly. Missed chances led to so much online abuse that he temporarily removed his social media accounts. Whilst more recently, allegations about his personal life and criticisms about perceptions of an attitude problem will only have added pressure onto a young man who has already had huge expectations being placed on him from day one.

Whilst inconsistency and difficult periods are par of the course for young players, Connolly has admitted that he hasn’t been up to the standard required at times. Saying in an interview with Balls.ie earlier in the year that “I take responsibility for the fact that it hasn’t been good enough recently.”

In contrast to some of the recent press he’s received, this was a mature, reflective, and modest interview from Aaron Connolly, especially when you consider his age. Sometimes we forget how young he is, just 21.

Whilst there are a growing number of uncomplimentary and unfair comparisons or criticisms made of Aaron Connolly’s so far short Albion career, when compared to the other eight players who were nominated alongside him for the 2019 Premier League 2 player of the season he comes out well. In fact none of the other eight have made more appearances or scored more goals in the Premier League than Aaron Connolly.

Even the player who preceded him as the Premier League 2 player of the season in 2018, Reiss Nelson, has made only 22 Premier League appearances scoring just 1 goal, compared to Connolly’s 41 appearances and 5 goals to date.

In a recent article WeAreBrighton.com pointed to his former development squad teammate Viktor Gyokeres not getting similar opportunities to Connolly. And whilst it may look like Gyokeres didn’t get his chance, what we didn’t see were the months spent training with the first team under both Hughton and Potter, neither of whom entrusted him to make even a single Premier League appearance, not even as a late substitute.

Gyokeres isn’t the first talented young player with a good record for the development team not to make it with the first team and he won’t be the last. We need to get used to that as Albion’s academy continues to make strides forward and has more and more impact on the senior team.

Whilst Connolly has racked up an impressive number of first team appearances, Gyokeres was gaining his experience out on loan. Connolly is clearly highly rated by those at the club, they gave him the number 7 shirt last summer after all. And unlike Gyokeres, the club clearly believes that so far he’s been better off staying at Albion rather than going out on loan, even if it is as back up. Maybe his short spell on loan at Luton where he made just two substitute appearances and mostly spent his time recovering from an injury has something to do with that.

And you can understand why. At Albion he’s learning from senior professionals, current and former internationals and working under Graham Potter, who has a good record of working with and developing young players.

Circumstance has also led to his first team status. Whilst Ben White was sent out on loan in 2019 to Leeds to gain experience due to a surplus of centre backs, a lack of firepower up front combined with potential new additions not materialising have accelerated Connolly’s progress into the first team.

It’s also true that not all development team products will have such meteoric rises as the likes of Ben White or Robert Sanchez. Patience is a crucial cultural attribute in turning young talent into the finished article, Connolly deserves that at least.

Yes, as he admits himself that he deserves some criticism for missed goalscoring chances last season. But as his manager Graham Potter has said on numerous occasions when questioned about the teams goalscoring problems, it’s a collective issue not about individuals.

Moreover, the accusations about Connolly’s personal life or his attitude are commonplace tropes made against struggling players with high expectations placed upon them. It’s simply an easy stick to beat them with.

Some argue that all the criticism he’s received is a sign that Connolly hasn’t been looked after enough by the club, but if so that goes for the club’s supporters too.

Brighton fans dumping their frustration over the teams goalscoring woes on a 21-year-old back up striker, when he’s hardly on his own in that regard, is nothing more than convenient scapegoating and has at times seen revolting levels of abuse.

If I’m honest, in the past I’ve probably been guilty of sticking the boot in a bit too harshly to some of Albion’s bigger money signings like Locadia and Jahanbakhsh. As a football fan it’s the hope that drives you, but it’s also the hope which can also destroy you. So it can be hard to not get a little carried away and end up taking that out on certain individuals from whom your hope was derived. Nonetheless, particularly when it comes to young prospects like Connolly who are still finding their feet in the game, as supporters we need to try to be better and more rational in our criticism, particularly when it’s aimed at an individual.

In reality we only see a small amount of the work that goes in, really, we have very little insight on how hard or not Connolly works and whether he deserves the opportunities that he gets over other players. But I’m guessing given the competition for places and the high standard of coaching at the club, that he probably does.

In a recent interview Aaron Connolly’s former teammate Glenn Murray spoke about how he needed to get out and enjoy himself after a bad match in order to lift his mood. Something which Murray said led to some criticism over his own attitude, and this is a player who only recently retired from playing at the age of 37, hardly the sign of a bad attitude.

Many supporters are happy to criticise players if we don’t perceive them to be making enough effort or having the right attitude if things aren’t going well. But as Murray’s example shows this quickly changes if things go well.

The delayed Tokyo Olympics that are currently taking place are a great (if extreme) example of how athletes spend the majority of their time building up to an event and a very small amount of time actually carrying out the work which they are judged upon , something that is true of professional footballers too.

Footballers spend years working for their first professional contracts, most of whom don’t even make it. The few that do then spend far more days and hours on the training pitch preparing for matches, or resting and recuperating after matches than actually playing in them.

Then when involved in a match (which Connolly was sparingly last season) they will only have the ball in their possession for around 2-3 minutes and spend most of the rest of the time running between 10-15 kms trying to win it back or getting into good positions for a teammate to find them.

For Aaron Connolly, as a striker who mostly plays off of the last defender, he will likely have the ball less than average and he will mostly receive the ball in attacking positions under great pressure from the opposition defence, making every poor touch or moment of hesitation far more costly than for many of his teammates. For example, last season Connolly averaged just 12 touches of the ball per appearance or 23 touches per 90 minutes played, giving him little opportunity to make up for any mistakes.

These are the harsh truths of being a Premier League and International footballer, something many of us can only dream of achieving, especially by the age of 21. Aaron Connolly still has time on his side to win around the doubters, but another season of frustration and missed chances will make that task even harder.

As such, the best thing us Albion fans can do is to give him a break and be more patient with a footballer who whilst young, has already gained lots of topflight experience, international experience and who has the talent to be a brilliant player for Albion for many seasons to come.

Social Media and Scapegoats

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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