A trip to Elland Road with many permutations and much bravado

Elland Road has not been short of drama in recent years when Albion have visited, and Sunday’s meeting could be another.

Back in 2017 Albion travelled to Elland Road with both sides still in the mix for automatic promotion to the Premier League. On that day it was Leeds who triumphed in a Chris Wood inspired 2-0 victory, which in-turn inspired the home fans to taunt Brighton’s by chanting: “you’ll fuck it up” in reference to the Seagulls promotion bid and failure to achieve promotion the season before. 

However, that season Brighton did go onto achieve automatic promotion with three games to spare, whilst Leeds failed to even make the end of season promotion playoffs and it would be another three seasons before they would finally achieve promotion and a long-awaited return to the topflight. 

A win for Brighton over Leeds this weekend could secure the club a first ever top half topflight finish, and could well relegate Leeds in the process, or at least go a long way towards it. If these permutations do materialise, Saturday could well be another day when Leeds fans bravado comes back to embarrass them. 

In his book ‘The art of the deal’, former US President Donald Trump (inarguably the King of bravado) stated: “The final key to the way I promote is bravado. I play to people’s fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration—and a very effective form of promotion. “ 

But the reality is, unlike in politics, bravado can only get you so far in sport, where there can be no hiding from the results. As the old saying goes, the league table doesn’t lie. And when comparing Leeds’ and Brighton’s recent history, it makes for far better reading for Brighton.

Last season was the first time Leeds finished above Brighton in the league since 2015 and only the second time since Albion won League One in 2011, with this season set to make Brighton superior in 9 out of the past 11 seasons. It does seem that for Leeds, last season is at risk of becoming an anomaly rather than the beginning of a return to its now historic prominence.

It goes further, Brighton’s recent supremacy over Leeds is demonstrated by their record in matches between the clubs. Since Brighton’s promotion to the Championship in 2011 they have beaten Leeds on ten out of the last fifteen occasions, drawing three times and losing just twice. 

The form table doesn’t make encouraging reading for Leeds either. Couple Brighton’s good away record this season (equal 4th best in the league) with Leeds poor home record (3rd worst, a record even worse than Brighton’s), having only beaten bottom of the table Norwich at home since their win over Burnley on 2nd January, losing five and drawing once in that time, it’s hard to be overly optimistic for Leeds in what is surely a must win game for the Yorkshire club.

As I see it, a big problem for a club like Leeds, whose history overshadows its present, is that this feeling of belonging in a place you’ve not been for a significant period of time creates a culture of discontent and resentment, feelings that have seemingly manifested themselves into a culture of excessive bravado.

It’s a culture at the club that’s spawned the type of brash discourse Brighton fans have become familiar with in their dealings with Leeds, no less so than during the prolonged transfer saga of Ben White. 

Who could forget the social media storm that was #FreeBenWhite, and the subsequent guffawing of Leeds fans when it was suggested by The Athletic that Brighton didn’t want to sell someone they considered an important player to Leeds, a club that they considered a direct rival to their long-term ambitions of topflight establishment.

But as subsequent events have shown, things move quickly in football. One moment you’re on top, as Leeds were last season finishing 9th on their return to the topflight, just missing out on European football, whilst their manager Marcelo Bielsa was receiving widespread acclaim along with a nomination for FIFA manager of the year. Fast forward 12 months and Leeds are in serious danger of a prompt return to the Championship, whilst Bielsa is no longer in a job, having been sacked with just 26 games of the season gone, and it’s a team you deem as inferior who are now the flavour of the moment.

Brighton are not without their own form of bravado, I’ve spoken at length before about my concerns with the club’s incredibly ambitious and outspoken objectives. But these statements in contrast to Leeds, appear to have contributed towards the club’s success rather than the opposite.

Even before the current level of ambition, prior to the club’s promotion to the Premier League CEO Paul Barber would persistently preach (to the point of tedium) about how the club was “Premier League ready”. A form of bravado that has rather than create resentment towards the club, instead created a significant amount of admiration for the club’s overachievement and helped changed the mindset at a club that has spent more of its history in the third tier of the Football League than anywhere else.

Bravado is a part of football that we all partake in, even if it is done somewhat in jest. Neither Brighton nor Leeds are short of it, but whilst one club has used it to its advantage, for the other it appears to be to its detriment.

Brighton can take warning from Leeds’ example, to not get too complacent or arrogant after a period of success and get swept up in the acclaim. The moment you do, the Premier League can be an unforgiving place.

Progress under Potter yet to be seen at the AMEX

This Sunday Albion face Southampton in what is already pretty much a dead rubber, with both sides sitting comfortably in mid-table, out of the way of both the relegation dogfight at the bottom-end of the table, as well as any loftier ambitions towards the top-end. And yet Albion go into this Sundays match at the AMEX with a lot to play for.

First and foremost, there’s the small matter of improving their awful Premier league points total achieved at the AMEX this season, small being the operative word. Having taken just 15 points from 16 games, only Norwich (20th) and Watford (19th) have earned less points at home in the Premier League this season.

And yet at the time of writing the club sit 10th, with a genuine chance of not just a club record high league finish, but a first ever top-half topflight finish following back-to-back wins in the capital over first Arsenal and then Spurs.

The key factor in those most recent wins appears to be that the team were not playing at home. With games running out in Graham Potter’s third season in charge of the club, he has still failed to win as many Premier league games at the AMEX as his predecessor Chris Hughton oversaw in just two seasons.

The atmosphere at the AMEX has been a regular point of contention in recent seasons, but particularly this one. No wonder however, given how bad the teams form has been there under Graham Potter, having won just 12 home games out of 54 in the Premier League.

But there has still been significant progress, albeit mostly away from the AMEX. Ahead of their trip to Man City on Wednesday night they have doubled their points return away from home compared to that under Chris Hughton, having won just 24 points from 38 games away from home under his tenure, 0.63 per game. Whilst they have won 64 from 54 games under Potter, or 1.19 points per game. And at the time of writing have the 6th highest points total away from home in the Premier league this season.

Albion’s poor home form under Potter isn’t without its improvements in many aspects of the team’s performance too, particularly ball retention. Something Chris Hughton failed to improve despite his numerous attempts to do so towards the end of his tenure, including a doomed persistence with a switch to a 433 formation.

Under Chris Hughton, Albion had the fourth lowest average possession, the fifth lowest passing accuracy and the second lowest shots taken per game in the Premier league’s 18/19 season. This season Brighton have the fourth highest average possession, the seventh highest passing accuracy and the sixth highest average number of shots taken. To put this into context, rather than these attributes being comparable with relegation contenders, these attributes are now more similar to title contenders.

But I doubt you need me telling you that it’s the key part of the performance that Albion are failing to improve on, as turning all that good work into goals has been the constant issue for Graham Potter’s Albion. In fact, in many ways the team have regressed at the AMEX in front of goal under Potter having averaged a fairly measly 1.00 goals scored per game in the Premier League at the AMEX, compared to the 1.13 averaged under the more defensive Chris Hughton.

To put that into context, this translates this to an average of 22.2 shots per goal scored from Graham Potter’s Albion so far this season at the AMEX compared to just 10.8 shots per goal at the AMEX under Hughton in 18/19.

Looking purely in this context it’s surprising Graham Potter has remained in the job for this long despite this poor home record, for many mangers your home league form is your bread and butter. Brighton aside, you have to go up to newly promoted Brentford (14th based on home results) to find a team who haven’t sacked their manager.

However, I am not for one minute suggesting Graham Potter should be sacked, but it’s important to appreciate that it’s hard to find many examples of teams with as poor a home record as Brighton’s who haven’t dispensed off their manager. And this is a record that has persisted for three seasons, not just one.

It does highlight both how much the teams away from has been the saving grace, how patient and trusting Albions board of directors have been and how much credit they should get for the teams relative success this season. But it does also help to explain and contextualise the frustration and at times toxic atmosphere you can experience at the AMEX.

The question is, does playing at the AMEX inhibit the team taking those chances in front of goal? That certainly seems to be the case since Graham Potter took charge and if the last home game vs Norwich is anything to go by, it’s getting worse.

Despite the teams potentially unprecedented league high finish in the club’s history, an atmosphere of frustration and anger caused by this poor home form has on more than one occasion this season even led to audible booing and jeering of the team.

It’s not just the team’s performance in front of goal where the fans get frustrated. All those impressive passing and possession stats may look good on paper, but often translate into a fair few moans and groans from the crowd as Albion recycle the ball from side to side without much forward penetration for long periods of the game. Patience is a virtue not held by everyone in the AMEX crowd it seems

Graham Potter’s recent comments about how some Brighton fans urging his players to shoot presents the players a “challenge” was taken out of context by some as a criticism of the crowd, something he later denied. But it’s fair to say that the team’s patient and possession-based approach doesn’t appeal to everyone.

Graham Potter’s tactical development of the team from a fairly direct and defensive side to a possession based, more attack-minded side has rightly earned its plaudits, but it doesn’t always get the same appreciation from the home support.

It’s often said whilst in other countries the crowd will get excited by an individual moment of skill or technical brilliance, British football crowds are more likely to get off their seat as a result of their team winning a crunching tackle or a corner.

Whilst the Hughton era ended up frustrating itself to death by not being able to retain enough of the ball, the Potter era (for all its achievements) is in danger of at least being diminished by the exact opposite, a perceived over retention of the ball with ultimately similar end results. Well, at home at least.

Amongst the frustration Graham Potter’s saving grace has been his ability to retain the team’s stability without the ball, whilst progressing the team’s performance with it. Something that’s been the club’s foundation throughout its Premier League tenure.

Whilst the recent dip in form has included 9 goals being conceded in the last 4 games at the AMEX, the 11 conceded in the 10 prior tells a very different story, particularly when you consider four of those were scored by reigning champion’s Manchester City, who were the only team to take maximum points away from the AMEX over that period.

Whilst not at the AMEX, last Saturday saw Brighton back to their defensive best, Spurs barely had a sniff. Indeed, it was a fairly quiet day for Albion’s goalkeeper Robert Sanchez, who didn’t have to make one save.

This was a defence without record signing Adam Webster and without the recently sold Dan Burn, yet they produced one if the best defensive performances of the season.

Being realistic, with resources dwarfed by many top flight clubs, even many of those outside of the Premier League’s giants, bad runs are going to happen for Brighton in the Premier League and times of struggle are going to occur.

So, getting to 40 points this early in a season shouldn’t be an underestimated achievement. And getting results away to Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal, and Spurs all in the same season shouldn’t be either.

The transformation in style under Graham Potter cannot be understated, but still needs time and patience to reach full fruition. The team have gone from one with a playing style more comparable to strugglers like Burnley and Newcastle to one more comparable to title challengers like Man City and Liverpool. Turning that style into substance consistently isn’t a quick fix, nor is it an inevitability, especially with the potential of much upheaval in personnel this summer.

As Jermaine Jenas said on BT Sport after Brighton’s win over Spurs: “I won’t have any talk about Graham Potter and his job… Brighton fans need to remember to an extent, they need to understand this guy is about to achieve something historical with this football club… they’re almost lucky to have him.”

Sunday’s match with Southampton is a great place to start turning the bad home results around. And it could be that the freedom of a supposed meaningless dead rubber and of not having the pressure that comes with the imminent threat of relegation, is exactly what Graham Potter’s Brighton need to shake the monkey of their underperformance at home from off their backs.

For all the talk of progress under Potter’s management, many of the great AMEX days in the Premier League era have come under his predecessor. Yet I for one wouldn’t be surprised if Brighton did go on a bit of a run, caused a few more shocks and picked up a fair few more points in the process this season, starting with Southampton on Sunday. And with the visit of Man United and West Ham coming next month, two teams Albion have surprisingly good recent records against, the opportunity for that first top half topflight finish is very much still alive despite the recent poor run of results.

Looking for the good amongst the frustration

As the final whistle blew on a cold spring afternoon at the AMEX stadium, the boos rang out across the South Downs. Boos heard from many of the remaining hardy souls who had braved the chill, not that of the spring breeze but that of Albion’s recent poor form.

There has been many voicing their frustration over the home support at the AMEX this season. But given the rudderless nature of Albion’s otherwise admirable attacking play for much of Graham Potter’s tenure, that so many still come to support the team with hope of better and are renewing their season tickets for next season despite the uninspiring nature of much of the football on show, actually in contrast says a lot about the dedicated supportiveness of the AMEX faithful.

Albion’s goalless draw with bottom side Norwich City extended the clubs winless run to 7 games and their scoreless home run to 5 games. With games running out in Graham Potter’s third season in charge of the club he has still failed to win as many Premier league games at the AMEX as his predecessor Chris Hughton.

Under Graham Potter Brighton have won just 12 home games out of 52 in the Premier League, still one less than under Hughton did in just 38 games.

For all the talk of progress, Graham Potter’s Albion statistics are in many aspects quite comparable to that of his predecessor, whose achievements he was brought in to build on and surpass. Albion have averaged a fairly measly 1.00 goals scored per game under Graham Potter in the Premier League at the AMEX, compared to 1.13 under the more defensive Chris Hughton.

And yet there has been tangible progress, particularly away from the AMEX where Albion have doubled their points return compared to that under Chris Hughton. Brighton won just 24 points from 38 games away from home under Hughton, 0.63 per game, vs the 58 from 52 games under Potter, or 1.12 points per game.

And despite all the frustration, the style of football and quality of possession from the team has noticeably changed for the better under Potter’s tenure as many statistics will tell you, aside from the ones that really count of course, goals scored, and points accumulated.

The frustration of the Hughton era hasn’t gone away, and if anything, this season has reached a new nadir in that regard. Despite some irritation towards this frustration, it’s not entirely unreasonable. According to whoscored.com Brighton have scored just three goals from open play at home in the league all season. That’s the equal lowest in all of England’s top four divisions along with Gillingham and is dramatically behind their average across their previous four Premier League seasons of 13.

Gloomy stuff, it seems like it was a long time ago that we were talking of top half finishes and dreaming of a European tour. The club right now is full of ambition, but at the moment there’s a growing feeling of unfulfilled ambition. A factor creating an environment of frustration, anxiety, and despondency. The perfect recipe for depression

But amongst all this gloom it’s worth remembering where the club is right now and comparing that not just to its entire history but particularly to where it was when Tony Bloom took over as Chairman back in 2009.

As a reminder, having narrowly survived relegation to the 4th tier on the last day of the season (by beating Stockport County 1-0, who by contrast are currently playing in the National League), Albion had finally got permission to build their new stadium in Falmer, but due to the global economic crash and credit crunch, they suddenly had no way of paying for it.

So, in stepped Tony Bloom and as the saying goes, the rest is history. Within two years the club were League One Champions and had moved into their brand spanking new stadium. Six years later they were a topflight club for the first time in 34 years.

What a whirlwind, in hindsight it was probably the best period to be an Albion fan in its history. That level of success, progression and excitement will probably never be matched again. The club literally went from living out of portacabins to being “Premier League ready” in just a matter of months, it truly was a dream come true.

So, it’s understandable that the subsequent and inevitable flatlining of that progress has led to significant frustration. Frustration that when comparing the team’s fortunes at home and away has clearly seeped into the teams’ performances at the AMEX.

To a degree it’s the natural process for many football clubs. Success and joy, followed by a natural flatlining and then subsequent regression back to the mean amongst an inevitable environment of frustration.

How many club’s supporters describe themselves as a “sleeping giant” with “lots of hidden potential”? I’d say a good chunk of the football league, but for every winner there must be a loser.

Despite this, in his relatively short time as chairman Tony Bloom has uncovered the potential in the club that had been hidden for most of the over a century worth of history prior to his ownership. It’s the type of story most clubs and fans dream of, we have lived that dream.

In 2013, less than two years after the AMEX had opened its doors, manager Gus Poyet said it was “now or never” for Albion to win Premier League promotion due to the effect of FFP on the Championship. But despite the club losing in the playoffs that season they continued to compete, losing again in the playoffs the season after that, and again two years later, before finally achieving automatic promotion to the topflight in 2017. It’s fair to say we’ve become accustomed to the club excelling our expectations. But that can’t always happen, and continuous progression is not sustainable, especially in such a competitive environment as the Premier League.

Frustration and feelings of gloom are a natural part of life, as it often has a habit of reminding us. But recent life experiences have made me realise that even in the most difficult times there is joy and hope and that we must appreciate that for all its worth. Otherwise, the bad can swallow you up and there can seem like no way out.

I’m not one of motivational quotes, but in the low times you’ll try whatever you can to achieve some solace. One quote that does help me on those occasions is: “life is full of beautiful possibilities”. The problem is we are often too concerned with the adverse possibilities to fully appreciate it when the beautiful possibilities come to fruition.

In that spirit (and I know it’s obvious and boring to say) we really should appreciate Albion being in the topflight whilst it lasts, because it won’t last forever. Tony Bloom is quite obviously a genius, but even his genius has its limitations.

Drab, uninspired and winless in eleven

What has happened to the team that were one win from going top not that long ago? It’s been just 8 points gained in the subsequent 11 games, a worrying run and one that has seen Albion progressively get worse in terms of its performances.

Wednesday night saw Brighton fall to a 1-0 loss to Wolves. As Brighton chased the game in the second half, they had 63% of the possession and didn’t even manage a shot on target. Whilst Wolves had three, despite just 37% possession and already having a one-goal lead. A sign of the lack of ingenuity shown from the team that night.

Brighton’s problem in the past hasn’t been creating chances, it’s been taking them. But in more recent games creating those chances seems to have become more of an issue, and compounding Albion’s existing problem of scoring goals.

Shots per game are marginally down this season to 11.9 from 12.8 last season, despite possession being significantly up from 50.7% to 56.8%.

The quality of those opportunities does also appear to have decreased marginally too, 37% of shots this season have been from outside the box, compared to 34% last season. Whilst only 4% of shots this season have been from inside the six-yard box compared to 6% last season. That may seem small, but small margins make all the difference in this game.

As a result, the goalscoring issue has not gone away this season, with Brighton scoring 14 goals in 16 games this season. And rather than improving on last season’s woeful goalscoring record, the stats suggest this is actually becoming more of an issue. With the chances created being less frequent and of a lower quality. All of which is compounding the existing issues of poor finishing.

Part of these issues in some recent matches can be put down to the injuries to key players. On Wednesday in particular, four further enforced changes were required to an already weakened team, with key figures Dunk, Duffy, Gross and Maupay not just dropping out of the starting eleven but the matchday squad entirely.

However, injuries will happen and injury crises like this will occasionally happen too. Nonetheless, this is an expensively assembled and talented Brighton squad that should be able to manage these type of situations. The 14 players who featured against Wolves were all senior first team professionals with varying amounts of topflight experience, this was not a group of development team players. So, I think we have good reason to still be incredibly disappointed with what we saw.

Following the boos after the draw at home to Leeds and audible frustration from the stands in recent home matches, something that goes back to even pre-pandemic times, Graham Potter asked for supporters to back the team ahead of the game. And whilst we didn’t get any boos at the final whistle, the combination of the number of empty seats, the number of early leavers and the audible frustration heard in many moments during the game showed his message hadn’t been taken on board by a significant number of the AMEX faithful.

Of course, the ongoing and fastly growing concerns over COVID-19 will have led to many of those absences, but the apathy felt by supporters shown in recent matches at the AMEX and the new season ticket sharing system will certainly have played its part.

I won’t go over old ground in that regard but will instead point you to a recent piece where I discuss this. However, I did hear some (including the person sat behind me) go in hard on the individual criticism, particularly towards Mwepu and Connolly who both struggled against Wolves.

But, in my view that’s not a fair reflection of the night given it was such a terrible all round team performance. One that was disjointed and lacking creativity, so blaming one or two individuals is missing the point.

This individual criticism is a further sign of how fractured and toxic our supporter base has become. And further evidence of the greater patience and understanding required at times by the AMEX faithful.

Let’s take Connolly as an example. Yes, he was poor and showed some petulance in the second half against Wolves. But he’s been out of contention for a while, has one brief decent substitute appearance against Southampton and then is thrown in from the start due to a lack of other options, against a team who defend deep and don’t particularly suit his skill set.

That’s not to say either player or the team don’t deserve criticism, they certainly do. But let’s be reasonable, rational, and proportional in the way in which we hand it out. Rather than shouting and screaming at them simply to release the frustration.

I thought Aaron Connolly’s slow walk off the pitch when he was substituted off in the 61st minute summed up the team’s performance as much as it did his own frustration and petulance, such a lack of urgency.

A performance summed up by not taking the opportunity to catch Wolves out of position on the few occasions that we could have done and instead slowly playing the ball sideways, waiting for an opportunity that wouldn’t come.

Maybe it’s revisionism, but I’m starting to think that it’s been like this, to an extent at least, for much of the season and all those late goals have masked some of these issues and given the team’s performances an rose tinted glow.

Six of Albion’s 14 goals in the Premier League this season have come in the last 15 minutes of games. Five in 13 if we ignore Mac Allister’s consolation goal against Man City. Either way it’s not far off half of the team’s league goals this season and led to 7 of the 20 points accumulated. Without those late goals that have at times masked poor performances, Albion would be just two points off the relegation zone.

One increasingly apparent fact is that the team haven’t won a game since Danny Welbeck’s injury. Demonstrating how having him up top alongside Neal Maupay gives the team a greater variety and menace going forward. Further backed up by only 7 goals being scored in the 11 games since. A further sign of the team’s lack of depth in attacking positions as much as Welbeck’s importance to it. Not having either against Wolves was a massive loss.

All making the lack of use of Alexis Mac Allister a little perplexing. Despite making 11 appearances in the league this season, including 2 goals and an assist, he’s started just twice. Particularly given he has shown himself to be a player who can both score goals and create chances. He’s accumulated a respectable 10 shot creating actions this season, or 2.77 per 90 and is a player with a fairly consistent rate of creativity, averaging 2.42 SCAs last season and 2.81 the season before. All the more impressive considering he’s rarely had a consistent run of games in the side.

All being said, it is good to remember that there are plenty of other teams with issues. And as the old saying goes: it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

The Premier League is tough, and the table shows Albion are doing ok despite their poor run and ongoing issues, sitting on 20 points after their first 16 games and 9 clear of the relegation zone.

Whilst we’ve not won in 11 matches, we’ve only lost 3 of those, one being against top of the table Man City. This Albion team may find it hard to score goals, but they don’t concede many either.

As a result, my glass is still very much half full. But Albion do need to eventually address the goalscoring issues and be careful not to fall behind the run rate required of points accumulated if they want to avoid getting themselves into another relegation dogfight.

More Frustration for Albion

Sunday saw Albion in WSL action at home to Man United, with the game being broadcast live on BBC Two at Sunday lunchtime, prime viewing if it hadn’t clashed with Formula One’s season ending showdown at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

But terrestrial TV camera being in attendance still made the total attendance of 1,776 at Crawley’s Peoples Pension stadium very impressive, especially considering the damp and cold winter weather.

Unfortunately, the bumper crowd saw Albion fall to a second consecutive defeat in the WSL. It was day of frustration and a bit of a reality check perhaps for Albion in the WSL after recent talk of Champions League qualification, as United ran out comfortable winners.

Then again, when you have key players missing or unable to start, you are always going to struggle against a team like Man United. Who’ve finished 4th in their first two WSL seasons.

Missing for Hope Powell was Inessa Kaagman who was in self-isolation, whilst a foot injury meant Danielle Carter was only fit enough for the bench, both big blows. They each have two goals and an assist to their name so far this season, the equal most in squad. Moreover, Kaagman’s shot creating actions (20) are the highest in the team this season, whilst Carter (15) has the second highest. Put simply, they are crucial to so much of what Albion do in the opposition half. Especially given Albion have the lowest number of shot creating actions of any team in the WSL’s top seven this season.

Without them Lee Guam-min (2 goals, 0 assists and 13 Shot Creating Actions) was going to be crucial, but unfortunately for Hope Powell’s team she was kept quiet by the United defence and didn’t even manage a shot. So it should come as no surprise that Albion managed just four shots in total all game and just two on target, both season lows.

United dominated all match, with Albion’s 35% possession also a team WSL season low. All of which meant that at the other end, Megan Walsh was getting called into action a bit more than Powell would have liked. With 30 minutes gone she had already made a few important saves. Those saves combined with some robust defensive work, with Skipper Victoria Williams once again a standout performer, Albion were hanging on in there, but needed get a handle on this game.

This shouldn’t have come as too much of a surprise, Megan Walsh, who has played every minute of the WSL season for Albion so far this season has made more saves than any goalkeeper in the league this season. Whilst only the bottom three, Birmingham, Leicester and Villa have conceded more shots on target than Albion

But Walsh can only do so much and some lazy defending in first half injury time led to a devastating blow for Albion, when they simply didn’t deal with Man United’s short corner routine leaving Hayley Ladd to poke home from close range virtually unchallenged. Incredibly frustrating after a half of great defensive robustness.

Albion were going to have to find something different in the second half and to do so brought on Danielle Carter. But despite Albion showing more attacking intent, a goal from Vilde Boa Risa midway through the half all but killed off any hopes of an Albion comeback and the game ended 2-0.

It is a result that leaves Albion with a feeling of frustration amongst a broader picture of progress, the name of the game for the club at the moment.

That’s three straight defeats for Hope Powell’s side, who fall to a still impressive 4th place, albeit now outside those Champions League places, after Tottenham’s victory over Aston Villa pushed them up to 3rd.

However, the stats suggest there may be more frustration ahead for Hope Powell’s side of improvement isn’t found, especially with the little matter of league leaders Arsenal away from home next Sunday evening. Much will depend on if Kaagman’s period of self isolation has finished by then and is Danielle Carter’s foot injury allows her to feature from the start.

The Boos are back in town

You will probably be aware that Albion’s last home game, a goalless draw with Leeds United, ended with a smattering of boos being heard coming from the home support, which has led to widespread discussions on the subject. But before we get into the weeds of the discussion I want to first take you back to February 2008.

Then Albion captain Nicky Forster urged Albion fans to stick with the team after the atmosphere around the club had diminished and recent crowd figures had dropped below 5,000, culminating in a then record League low at Withdean of 4,395 for a match against Cheltenham Town.

That day the crowd were unafraid in letting the team know of their frustration, until that is goals in the final minutes from Glenn Murray and Joel Lynch earned them a 2-1 victory. Us supporters are a fickle bunch.

Nonetheless, the season ultimately ended in frustration and disappointment with what many saw as an underwhelming, if respectable 7th place in League One. A position which saw the team just miss out on the promotion playoffs and the then Albion manager Dean Wilkins sacked.

That summer saw a hugely exciting appointment brought in with a view to get the crowds back and boost spirits. This came in the form of the return of former Albion manager and fan favourite Micky Adams, who returned to the club with a wave of optimism, talk of promotion and a host of new signings, but what followed was dramatically worse than what came before.

For those who don’t remember Adams’ legendary team of the early 2000’s, a modern equivalent would probably be Brighton getting relegated to the Championship and reappointing Gus Poyet. However, the season was nothing less than a disaster, with Adams’ job saved for a period only by sentimentality and a Football League Trophy cup run that saw the club only just miss out on a trip to Wembley after a penalty shootout defeat to Luton in the semifinals.  

Inevitably Micky was finally given his marching orders in February 2009 and the club would have fallen into League 2 weren’t it for the near miracle of a great escape from relegation that followed. An upturn in fortunes led by Adams’ less fashionable replacement Russell Slade, who had recently left Yeovil Town, after leading them to the League One playoff final two years before.

Back up to date, it’s been a week since the goalless draw with Leeds and I don’t think we should let the euphoria of the late equalisers against West Ham and Southampton that followed, or the teams impressive league position, paper over the cracks that have been shown in the fractious atmosphere at recent home matches. 

What we saw (and more importantly heard) at the AMEX after the draw with Leeds was not new. There is a significant amount of disgruntlement amongst a fair number of Brighton supporters, which has been growing for a while. Something anyone who follows the club on social media will be aware of that.

In Andy Naylor article for The Athletic following the Leeds game, he said the boos were “indicative of the way Potter has raised expectations.” But it is more than just the relative success under Graham Potter that has done this, the groundwork was being laid well before this success began. 

In fact, in one of Graham Potter’s first public outings as manager at the club’s fans forum in the summer of 2019, Albion Chairman Tony Bloom spoke with great enthusiasm about the club’s latest goal to establish itself as a top ten club in the topflight. Ambitious for a club that had finished 17th the season before, arguably only surviving relegation because of the incompetence of others around them. Even more ambitious for a club whose best topflight league finish is 13th, and that was in 1982.  

After a difficult second half of the 2018/19 season, disgruntlement amongst supporters had begun to grow. So much so that in his programme notes before the final game of the season the Deputy Chairman and CEO Paul Barber felt the need to remind everyone of the reality of the club’s status and how the survival from relegation that had been achieved should be seen as a success, saying: “we have only played six seasons in our 118-year history at the highest level.”… And yet the club still saw fit to relieve manager Chris Hughton of his duties the very next day. A decision that appeared to be pre-planned, but one that Hughton (among many others) seemed shocked and surprised by.

Whilst I cynically point out the contradiction, I do agree with the sentiments of Paul Barber’s statement, even if others at the club were less convinced as their actions suggest. Whilst it can be harmful to focus too much on your history, it is important to remember and learn from it.

For example, the demise that followed the club’s success in the late 70s and early 80s is an important reminder to not let opportunity and prosperity go to your head. And to always balance short-term opportunity with long-term security.

Back in the early Eighties, with dwindling crowds and mounting debt, the club were in a mess largely of its own making, even during that record breaking 1981/82 season. Owner Mike Bamber at numerous points during that period complained about the poor attendances and lack of support on the terraces that the club was receiving, no doubt in part because of the consequential hit to revenue. Saying in the summer of 1982: “I have been bitterly disappointed at the very poor sale of season tickets and wonder if the Sussex public really want First Division football.”

Soon after manager Mike Bailey was sacked in a bid to improve the team’s entertainment factor. And whilst Jimmy Melia certainly brought that with a team full of goals along with the fantastic FA cup run which saw the club get to the 1983 final, the club’s fortunes in the league severely suffered and relegation from the topflight followed. A relegation that it would take the club 34 years and three stadium moves to reverse.

Both the cases of reappointing Adams in 2008 and ousting Bailey in 1982, were in part examples of knee-jerk decisions made largely to win favour with supporters that ultimately cost Albion in terms of its performance.

In contrast the current management wouldn’t do anything as hasty. The decision to sack Hughton may have appeared so to outsiders, but it was clearly a pre-planned decision, one that subsequently has been proven to be wise. Tony Bloom later admitted that he was close to sacking Hughton earlier in the season, but held his nerve as he thought it may prove counterproductive at the time.

The ownership of the club in the 80’s was far less strategically minded and the subsequent loss the Goldstone Ground in 1997, the two exile years in Gillingham and the twelve limbo years at Withdean Stadium that followed are a constant reminder to appreciate what we have and to take nothing for granted. But also, a reminder of how far the club has progress in that time.

However, whilst all that is true, as Scott McCarthy of Wearebrighton.com pointed out in the Brighton & Hove independent, the club is not the same anymore and so should be judged on its current standing. Talking about Graham Potter’s wry comment after the draw with Leeds that he possibly ”needed a history lesson” to understand the boos from some supporters, Scott discussed how criticism should be viewed in its modern context. That we can’t simply say things have been worse and adding that “in the Albion’s case, that means the team would have to drop to 24th place in League Two before complaints could be justified.”

The difficulty the club has is whilst preaching solidarity and realism on one hand, it also preaches ambition and optimism on the other. As the sacking of Hughton shows, they are not afraid to be ruthless and unsentimental if they feel it’s in the club’s interest in terms of on-pitch outcomes.

So whilst I don’t agree with their argument, I can at least understand why many Albion fans find themselves frustrated at times. Particularly in that context with the club’s relative lack of haste in signing a striker, a position that the world and his wife have been telling the club to strengthen since promotion to the Premier League in 2017.  

Manager Graham Potter clearly recognises and senses the frustration. Saying in the week after the Leeds game: “I just think sometimes we need to communicate and say, ‘Can we be better?’ If we want to be a top-10 team, can we be a top-10 environment at the Amex? And that is why I said what I said after the game.”  

However, one thing the club does have is a top ten ticket price for supporters, having one of the most expensive season tickets outside of the “super six”. Demographics and relative size of stadium of course play a role here, as does demand for tickets (the club is always keen to highlight the size of its season ticket waiting list), but with bigger prices naturally comes bigger expectations.

If you spent more money on a TV and it was no better than your neighbours who’d spent half the price then you’d be pretty miffed I expect. And the bigger the expectations, the more likely you are to end up with disgruntled supporters, especially if you’ve spent the last few years talking about working towards a top ten league finish. 

Common sense tells us that disgruntled supporters don’t often create a constructive winning environment. And the lessons of Albion’s past tell us that the grass isn’t always greener, despite your existing frustration things can easily get worse.

But in 2021, Brighton are a very different club, with very different resources, different expectations, and a far greater level of support. A club that is competing, holding its own and aiming to progress at the very highest level. In truth, there are a fair longer list of reasons to take pride in the club and to be grateful of what we have but that doesn’t stop some from finding reasons to be frustrated, nor does it necessarily make them wholly unreasonable.

Take its resources into account for example. There is of course the absurd statistics about how Brighton’s transfer spend the summer before it began its first Premier League season in 2017 was more than in the entirety of transfer spend in all its prior history. Or that the number of TV viewers watching its first Premier League game at home to Man City was more than for all other TV games in the entirety of its history combined.

Brighton isn’t just a club with a new stadium going through a successful period. In many ways it’s virtually an entirely different club to the one it was prior to the decade spent at the AMEX.

The onus is on the club to use that success and create a constructive atmosphere in a way that wasn’t possible in the Withdean years or previously due to the club’s limited resources.

But instead, they have spent the past few years seemingly focusing harder on trying to increase as many commercial revenue streams as possible to enable further progression on the pitch, but has it come at a cost to the atmosphere?

In my view yes. So much so that sitting in the top half of the league with over a third of the season gone isn’t enough for some fans to placate their frustration of another goalless draw at home. Nonsensical to most, but infuriating enough for a significant amount to see for to boo the players off the pitch.

This is where the club is right now. But of course history shows us to a degree that supporters will always strive for success and during the difficult times frustration will naturally boil over in some form. It’s part of the fabric of football supporting.

But what has changed significantly is the supporter base at the club and how they interact with it. Most notably in the historical examples mentioned is the apathy when compared to the recent hostility seen at the AMEX.

In the Withdean years many in attendance were hardened souls who had helped to oust the previous ownership and felt a great sense of pride and ownership of the club’s very existence. Furthermore, football has changed greatly too and the type of sentimentality that Albion showed in decision making in the past, in part to keep supporters on side, simply won’t do any more. As Albion have shown themselves under Bloom’s ownership, to be successful you have to instead be pragmatic and sometimes make unpopular decisions.

But in order to go from a club attracting attendances of 5-6 thousand to a club regularly attracting over 30 thousand, you have to accept that means a large proportion of supporters don’t have the same investment or loyalty to the club. Mix that with the high cost of entry and no wonder you have a high degree of over expectant and hostile supporters less willing to easily accept every difficult decision the club sometimes has to make.

We now have a very different club and a very different supporter base with a much more varied range of connections and commitments to the club. Throwing around Withdean or older references in order to undermine the majority of supporters opinions who were not part of those days, is simply counterproductive.

Social media fan-led content providers like Seagulls Social, have a growing following of supporters, including many who are barely old enough to remember Albion playing at the Withdean let alone the Goldstone or Gillingham. Or even if they were simply weren’t interested… anyone who has sat in the cold and the rain at Withdean Stadium for two hours on a Saturday won’t blame them.

This doesn’t make these supporters opinions any less valid, but means their opinions have been shaped by a different, more consistently prosperous Brighton & Hove Albion than the one many of us remember. And with that success comes the expectation of more. Whereas supporters who were there for some of the more challenging times mentioned, will naturally be more cautious with their optimism. 

Like any large group of people, Brighton’s fan base is a coalition of a broad group of people, ideas, and attitudes. The bigger that grows, the broader that coalition becomes. And sometimes with growth can come cracks in the exterior and growing pains.  

The club’s role now is to show the kind of leadership that Nicky Forster did in the example shown at the start of the article and bring all those groups together. Rather than continuing to create an environment that focuses primarily on exploiting on field success for monetary gain above all else. After-all, Albion’s history suggests that the good times won’t last forever.

The club needs to start operating more as the kind of club it promotes itself as, a community club. If not, this chain of events will continue to slowly see its fan base pull each other apart during the less prosperous periods. Because when the hard times truly do come (inevitably sooner than we all expect) a united and supportive fan base could make all the difference.

More frustration as Albion’s lack of a killer touch cost them another win

It was another frustrating draw at the AMEX on Saturday for Albion, after what was a brilliant and entertaining performance with Lamptey and Trossard really impressing down the flank. But it was through the middle where Albion’s problems persisted.

Sometimes you have days like that where those chances just don’t go for you, unfortunately for Brighton it’s happened all too often over the past few Premier League seasons.

At the other end of the scale there is Jurgen Locadia. I don’t like to call players out too often, but what an awful performance. Possibly the worst I’ve seen from a senior, permanent Albion first team player.

In 22 minutes, he managed 5 touches, 1 pathetic shot, lost possession twice and was generally a waste of space… Can we finally give up on him now?

Before anyone tries to come to the defence of Jurgen Locadia, a reminder that the club reportedly paid PSV a transfer fee of £15m & subsequently have paid him a reported £45k a week salary for nearly 4 years.

The problem is Albion arguably don’t have the options to finally give up on him. Locadia’s appearance was just another sign of Albion problems up top. And that letting both Tau and Zeqiri go in the summer was a little reckless without a suitable replacement ready.

It may have also been a subtle message from Graham Potter to Paul Barber and Tony Bloom to try to convince them to get that striker deal done in January. But that would be a little cynical in my opinion.

There is also the fact that Evan Ferguson’s absence from the U23’s on Friday suggest he was seemingly in contention for a place in the first squad too and also a sign of the degree to which Aaron Connolly has fallen out of favour.

When you combine all that with Welbeck’s injury and Maupay’s sudden, repeated loss of form, it’s a crushing combination of factors in an area that was already an issue. And so it’s unsurprising that Albion have struggled for goals and wins of late.

Jokes about Xg underperformance and barn doors have become all too common place at Albion over Graham Potter’s tenure. Add to that the club’s seeming continued lack of hurry in their search of a striker who could solve this problem, along with the somewhat overly lenient refereeing on display at times on Saturday and you have a reasonable guess as why some Albion fans felt the need to boo at the final whistle, despite the obvious reasons not to.

Of course, when you look at the broader picture the boos at the final whistle were pretty embarrassing.

Given we ended the day 8th in the Premier League (5 places above the clubs best ever topflight finish), the club seem to have been proven right in thinking they could afford to be patient in getting the right striker in rather than just any available striker with topflight potential. We certainly can’t afford another flop like Locadia, as the drop in performance upon his introduction against Leeds proved.

As I said over the summer, we should trust the club with its transfer business, and I think that has broadly proven to be the case so far this season.

As I discussed over the summer, I suspect the theory behind Albion’s patience in their striker hunt is that scoring more goals from midfield could be the short-term solution to the sides goalscoring issue.

In particular, the recent signings of Moder and Mwepu are for me a clear sign of that, and the selection of Moder over Lallana against Leeds is a sign that the Pole is seen as one of the potential short-term goalscoring solutions.

But if Saturday is anything to go by that isn’t the case. During the 82 minutes he spent on the pitch against Leeds, Moder attempted 5 shots, none of which were on target. Taking his total in the league this season to 12 shots, 1 on target and 0 goals. Early days though.

Shane Duffy’s absence from 2 of the last 5 league games hasn’t helped either in my opinion. He has proven himself to be back to his best and is one of the team’s biggest threats in the box. Only Maupay and Trossard have a higher shots per game average (Duffy – 1.5), a fairly damning stat for many others in and of itself. Add to that his average of a goal every four shots, very good for a defender.

So, Albion’s search for a solution to their goalscoring issue continues. But whilst Maupay will get the brunt of the criticism after another goalless draw (criticism he somewhat deserves), it’s worth remembering that this is a problem throughout the squad, not just with one position or player.

When the love is gone

I’m sure many football fans who follow the game in Britain will share in my despair at some of the characteristics of the modern game. Since the Premier League necessarily pulled it out of the doldrums and into the 21st century, it has continued to grow, but now to a point that it has grown so far, it can’t even see its own feet.

Ultimately that growth has taken much of the joy out of the game. Most prominently demonstrated by an abundance of football YouTubers getting angry about the most trivial of things. This isn’t what football was meant to be about, is it?

To me and many others football is a fun hobby and national pastime, so it makes me sad that for so many it’s become an opportunity to simply get angry and vent frustration.

Probably the best example of the soulless nature of modern football is the latest incarnation of Manchester City, assembled by an oil state, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), for the purpose of Sportwashing. A club that made their now annual visit to the AMEX recently running out 4-1 winners.

But rather than being awestruck by their superiority, I was left feeling numb. A team that is potentially the most talented ever assembled to compete in English domestic competitions, but one that given the circumstances that talent was amalgamated, it’s hard to find any joy in.

The way football is going all the joy that we love will soon be dead and all that will be left is angry people settling grudges about whose club is bigger and whose club is ‘tinpot’, whilst sovereign wealth funds pump billions into a small group of “super-clubs”, who continually compete for all the major honours. 

The recent takeover at Newcastle by the Saudi Arabian sovereign wealth fund PIF is for many, including myself, an aberration. But it is just another step along the current path of modern British football. But a step that has seemingly woken up many to the fact that its endless search for growth and success has gone too far.

Newcastle’s recent trip to our rivals Crystal Palace saw Palace supporters unveil a striking banner in protest at the PIF’s involvement in the Premier League. A protest that received claims of racism that were disregarded by the Metropolitan Police. Similar criticisms of Man City’s owners have received similar claims of racism too, claims raised to mask the genuine and important message the protests are making.

The human rights abuses in question are vast. According to Amnesty international, the human rights watch group, both Saudi Arabia and UAE have terrible human rights record. Both have a record over the repression of the rights to freedom of expression, both countries retain the death penalty, which includes the threat of the death penalty because of “same-sex sexual activity”. Whilst several detainees remain in prison past the completion of their sentences without legal justification or because of grossly unfair trials.

To their credit, Palace’s supporters have carried out this type of protest several times before, but as has been pointed out, they are themselves among several British clubs with some level of Saudi investment. And after all, the Premier League continues to make millions selling TV rights to these parts of the world and doing business (directly or indirectly) with regimes that commit human rights abuses and are in direct contradiction to the campaigns from the Premier League and its member clubs for greater diversity and the removal of discrimination.

The reality is that hypocrisy is rife in football and most clubs have little moral high ground left to stand upon. Some have suggested that Brighton fans should borrow the banner that was displayed by Palace fans for the trip of Newcastle to the AMEX this weekend. It would certainly look good being unfurled at the same time as the adverts for the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix that were going around the LED advertising board surrounding the AMEX pitch at recent matches. An event Amnesty international has accused of being a prominent example of sportswashing.

It’s worth caveating here that I have been informed that this advertisement is not a direct club partner, but a sponsorship independent of the club with a third party who are responsible for the LED advertising board for part of the time on match days.

Nonetheless, indirectly or not they are using club property to advertise the event, so we can’t wash our hands of responsibility completely, it reflects on us all, literally in the case of the supporters in the stands on matchdays.

This is an issue throughout football. It wasn’t long ago that Albion changed their sponsor from national paint brand Sandtex to local restaurant Donatello, in part because of the formers links to Focus DIY, a company owned by the infamous former Albion Chairman Bill Archer. And the club was far more desperate for money then than it is now. A statement of principal far removed from most of modern football.

Whilst I appreciate the club must broaden and increase its commercial revenue streams to compete in the topflight, I believe this urge to compete should not come before our moral compass and social conscience. Something the club takes great pride in through its community programs, but one that could be badly damaged by such associations.

Some will say, to be able to become wealthy enough to own a Premier League football club in modern football, you need to be a billionaire and there are little to no billionaires without questionable morality in their past. But there is are questionable elements of a persons past and then there is enacting human rights abuses on a population of over 30 million people.

In my view, change must be driven by a want from all sides. When talking about his role in the Ireland peace process, Tony Blair spoke about the importance of change being a trade between all parties rather than it just being the easier option for one or both parties to embrace. It’s easy to forget just how difficult a peace deal in Ireland between Unionists and Republicans was seen to achieve back in the 1990’s.

Does the Saudi Arabian state have the same inclination for change? Well signs and statements being made by the regime suggest the answer to that is yes, most notably “Saudi Vision 2030” spelling out how they plan to reinforce economic and investment activities, increasing non-oil international trade, and promoting a softer and more secular image of the country. 

In a recent interview with CMEC (the Conservative Middle East Council) Dr Hoda Al-Helassie, a member of the Kingdom’s advisory Shura Council, spoke positively about reforms and progress, telling sceptics to come to Saudi Arabia and take a look for themselves.

But the plan has been criticised for lacking a vision on the improvements of human right. Abdullah Alaoudh, one the initiators, described it as “the chapter that we think has been missing in the Saudi Vision 2030.”

The organisation the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace stated in a detailed review of Saudi reforms. “While the changes are potentially far-reaching, their ultimate direction is uncertain. Most are individually minor (and few are wholly unprecedented), and they remain quite reversible.” Whilst Amnesty international told The G20 to not “buy the spin” and called it “shameless hypocrisy”.

Some in this discussion over the PIF’s takeover at Newcastle have pointed to the hypocrisy of numerous PIF investments in the UK and other western industries. But rather than this being a sign that we don’t care, these are part of a wider strategy of influence by involvement from the West.

There are many areas of grey here. But few are saying don’t do business with Saudi Arabia at all. Investment to influence modernisations and change is part of the strategy from the west to eradicate human rights abuses in various parts of the world and encourage change. But this should be considered separate from investment in sport from sovereign wealth funds, which are initiated to garner public favour for the country’s regime. The two things are very different.

That isn’t to say all trade and investments with Saudi Arabia are of equal value, some are equally if not more morally questionable and detrimental than the Saudi Arabian investment in Newcastle United. Such as the involvement of the West with various parts of the world in the arms trade deals, which are equally being questioned by human rights groups. But those are for a separate discussion to that about the future of modern football.

Some will say the investment from PIF shines a light on these issues. This ignores the fact that this spotlight can bring significantly more positive than negative media coverage and that the aim is to achieve a net reputational benefit, not to erase bad publicity altogether.

Which takes us back to the nub of the reason why people care so much of sportswashing of this type. It’s about sovereign wealth funds like PIF and the Abu Dhabi United Group attempting to use sporting success to mask the human rights abuses in their country. 

When a western company with PIF investment is successful, the PIF don’t get praise across the world. But if and when Newcastle are successful under their ownership, they will get praise from football fans throughout the world, overshadowing their awful deeds at home.

Some fans of clubs with owners who have been criticised have called out fellow supporters criticism as driven by jealousy. A view that is at best incredibly cynical and in my view appears to take an attitude that a football clubs’ success is deserving of praising owners and should be prioritised ahead of millions of people’s suffering. 

This kind of attitude is why protests are important. Sportswashing that is happening at Man City and Newcastle diverts attention from their owners’ human rights abuses. And when thinking of the owners, rather than thinking of the human suffering that they are responsible for, many instead think of sporting success. 

There are a depressing number of regimes committing human rights abuses throughout the world, which deserve more media coverage. But few use Premier League football in an attempt of Sportswashing like is happening at Newcastle or Man City. That’s why this is being spoken about so much in the English media.

Protests from the public, as shown by the recent European Super League protests, can be hugely influential. And can force government and/or industry to enforce or simply threaten sanctions, which leads to positive change. Change that football so fiercely needs.

I’ve spent most of the past 18 months working from home and getting out for walks at lunchtime, when I can around my work schedule. One of my regular lunchtime walks takes me past a school playground, where noticeably about 90% of the kids there are usually competing in one big game of football.

This is standard practice in playgrounds across the country and the world. Many of our first memories of football will be playing the game rather than watching it. For me this is why football truly is the people’s game, we are all a small part of it.

As Newcastle fans have rightly pointed out, the Premier League sold its moral standing a long time ago. And as the Newcastle fans have demonstrated, most football supporters don’t care about the morals of their owners as long as they bring success to the team. So, some will complain, most will ignore it and we will all have to live with the consequences. Because many have forgotten what football is truly about, the sport and the taking part, not the winning.

The future of football hinges on how we as a supporter base choose to react to the ongoing bastardisation of our national game. We have all been to blame for that, greedily encouraging excesses in search of success. But if football wants to rediscover its soul, something must change and us supporters are the ones who need to make it happen.

I still love football and so do so many others, as demonstrated by all those kids playing the game in playgrounds across the world. But just because that’s the case now doesn’t mean it will always be so. The bastardisation of our great game is in my view approaching breaking point. We need to act soon before the love is gone.

When Brighton were Skint

Like many residents of Sussex who grew up in the 90s, I wasn’t particularly enamoured with Albion at first. The club were in the doldrums throughout that decade and so a generation of Sussex based football supporters were lost, at least initially. Particularly for the likes of myself that didn’t have a parent interested in football who would drag them along and force an interest.

However, unlike many of my classmates I did eventually turn to my local club when they moved back to Brighton after a two-year period in exile, to play at the Withdean Stadium in Brighton in 1999. A place that became the club’s home for over a decade.

As such, the first Brighton shirt I owned was the classic home shirt from the 1999-2000 season, the club’s first at the Withdean stadium. Probably most prominently known for the shirt sponsor, Skint records. A Brighton based record label, most notably the home of Fatboy Slim, aka Norman Cook, Brighton resident and Albion fan.

Unlike many of the club’s previously low-profile sponsorship deals, this one caught the eye of the national press as well as local media. In contrast, Albion’s previous deals were a sign of where the club was, at that point in its history.

Local restaurant and long-term club supporter Donatello had stepped in for the previous 1998/99 season when another sponsorship deal had collapsed. It was so last minute that the shirts had to be collected from the supplier on the Thursday before their first outing of the season at the weekend, and so recently printed was the sponsors logo that the boardroom was turned into a makeshift airing cupboard that evening. Desperate times call for desperate measures and these really were desperate times at the club.

Brighton began the 1990s managed by Barry Lloyd, who was initially brought in by his predecessor Alan Mullery, to manage the reserves and youth team. His task was tough, remaining competitive in the Second Division amongst the increased cutting of costs and multiple player sales.

By this point the financial problems were now dominating affairs and the club’s performances on the pitch continued to diminish. So drastic was the cost cutting that around that time The Argus had featured a front-page story stating all the club’s first team professionals were for sale.

Despite the club’s financial limitations, Lloyd began building an exciting, attacking side, focused on a passing style. Selling players like Terry Connor and Dean Saunders for a profit and replacing them with cheaper options likes of Garry Nelson, Mike Small, Clive Walker and John Byrne who formed a relatively successful team, for a short period at least.

Initially this approach was successful and saw Albion get to the Division Two playoff final in 1991, going within just one game of a return to the topflight, but a 3-0 defeat in the final to Notts County was followed by an acute drop down the division.

The reality was Barry Lloyd’s impressive work in the transfer market had just delayed the inevitable fall from grace that would later occur at the Albion after years of financial mismanagement and mounting debts.

Many know the story of the 1996/97 season, but the club had been close to the wall well before the club lost its ground in 1997. In fact, a winding up order received in November 1992 for unpaid HMRC debts was a very close call. After four adjournments, the club was given until 21st April 1993 to find the money to pay the debt and only managed it in the end at the eleventh hour when Barry Lloyd’s wheeling and dealing saw goalkeeper Mark Beeney sold to Leeds United for £350,000, which raised the necessary cash. So close, some fans who attended the game at home to Blackpool the Saturday before Beeney’s sale had feared that it might be one of the club’s last.

With the financial chaos leaving the club desperate and vulnerable, next came the beginning of the infamous Bill Archer regime at the club. Archer was initially brought to the club as a director with the club in the midst of its fight with financial difficulties in 1990. As the club explained at the time, he was brought in for his commercial experience after being credited with Liverpool’s famous Crown Paints shirt sponsorship deal. So, it should come as no surprise that one of the club’s main sponsors during the Archer’s regime was Sandtex, a paint brand which is part of the Crown Paints family and a company which had close relations to his retail chain Focus DIY.

So later on in 1993, after another winding up order from HMRC, came a restructuring of the club’s shareholdings and board of directors. Bill Archer became chairman of the club by securing a 56% stake in a joint bid with Greg Stanley (his fellow owner of Focus DIY) who bought the remaining 44% and took up the post of club president, in a deal publicised as helping to save the club’s finances with some new investment.

In reality rather than a new dawn, this was the beginning of a further downward spiral for the club and a moment of pure opportunism from the DIY tycoons. With the pair invested nothing more in the club as equity than the nominal £100 to purchase the share capital and instead loaned the club hundreds of thousands at high levels of interest in the form of bank loans secured against the club’s only valuable asset, the Goldstone Ground. Rather than safeguarding the club’s financial future, they simply delayed the problem from being dealt with by significantly increasing the club’s debt.

So came the war years at the club, and by the end of the 1996/97 season the club only just staved off the threat of relegation to the non-league on the last day of the season, yet another close shave for the club that decade.

Thankfully prior to the end of this season, after Archer and Stanley had overseen the worsening of the financial mess at the club, they were eventually forced out. But only after prolonged protests from supporters and an endless number of mediation talks with a consortium looking to buy the club and secure its long-term future, headed by Dick Knight, a lifelong Albion fan and former Marketing executive.

The draw away to Hereford had seen the club survive relegation to the non-league by staying above the relegation zone, but there were further threats to it Football League status to come.

The club subsequently faced a vote of expulsion from its fellow Football League clubs for bringing the League into disrepute. But it again survived, by a margin of 47 to 17. Part of this was on the proviso that the club paid the Football League a £500k bond, with repayment conditional upon the club moving back to a permanent home in Brighton within three years. A condition Chairman Dick Knight stated in his autobiography “Mad Man”, that would have bankrupted the club had it not met it.

All the trouble that had come alongside the (not so) civil war between those running the club and those supporting it had dragged the club’s reputation through the gutter. So much so it had to put up a fight just to convince the local council to give it permission to play at Withdean stadium in Brighton, a fight that extended the club’s stay at Gillingham for two full, financially crippling, seasons.

A big part of the turnaround required at the club involved increasing the club’s commercial revenue. When he took over Dick said he was “astonished to discover the club had virtually no revenue from merchandising or commercial activities at all.” A fact particularly true as a result of losing the Goldstone Ground and having to play home games at Gillingham. So, giving the club some form of presence in Brighton during that period in exile was crucial.

They did this by opening a shop in central Brighton on Queens Road in the autumn of 1997, along with a notable kit marketing campaign released later that year to gain more awareness of the new club shop featuring celebrities Louise Redknapp, Jordan and Lenny Henry.

Dick’s attention grabbing, light-hearted and if at times crass marketing was a key part of gaining that public favour. From the Bring Home the Albion campaign (which primarily needed to convince local Withdean residents the club’s fans weren’t a bunch of hooligans about to spoil their local area), the Falmer for All campaign (which included all sorts of attention grabbing schemes including a giant Valentine’s Day card that was sent to then Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott), and even the club’s marketing of its commercial output, Dick’s advertising career continued well after he left the advertising industry.

At the top of the list has to be the Skint shirt sponsorship deal that lasted most of the club’s time at the Withdean stadium. The irony of a football team that was bold enough to be proud to be Skint won a fair few of the club’s critics around. “It’s delicious,” Dick Knight said upon the announcement of the sponsorship. “A club that has gone to the very brink of oblivion will have the cheek, confidence and wit to stride out next season with Skint on its shirt. The deal is typical of the new spirit at the Albion, and we see this as a great way to build an idiosyncratic, unconventional image.”

Along with a change in club crest a couple of season prior, the first Skint shirt was a symbol of the change in fortunes at the club at that time that came with the change in ownership. It became particularly associated with the success of a young Bobby Zamora, the talisman of the double winning title team that would see the club go back to the second tier in just its fourth season back in Brighton.

That’s not to say the difficult times were over, they had just begun a new chapter. A point demonstrated by something Norman Cook said to the Guardian in 2003 “I’ve also put some of my own money into the club. The chairman Dick Knight took me out to lunch, and I asked him whether Bobby Zamora was going to be sold. He looked at me and said: ‘Well if someone puts a lot of money into the club then we can afford to keep him.’ I said that sounds like blackmail and he replied: ‘Call it what you like dear boy but that’s how it is’.”

It’s a story that exemplifies the club’s Skint era. A club that didn’t have much and was often swimming against the tide. But continued to progress, in no small part down to the creativity, determination and ingenuity of Dick Knight.

Albion continue to prove their doubters wrong.

Marc Cucurella’s recent impressive performances aside, Albion’s summer incoming players have had limited impact so far this season. Meaning the team’s success has mainly been built on improvements in performance within the existing squad.

As Graham Potter said at the beginning of the season, on having more limited options in defence after the sale of Ben White: “we can’t feel sorry for ourselves. We find solutions and be creative if you need to be.”

And many of the solutions that Albion have found during Graham Potter’s tenure are ones that I doubt many Albion fans saw coming.

Go back to last season and Albion’s issue between the sticks caused by the drop in form of Matt Ryan was solved by the unexpected introduction of development team promotee and recent Rochdale loanee Robert Sanchez. A player who went on to impress so much in his maiden topflight season, that he earned a place in Spain’s European Championship squad.

Going into this season, Albion still had a number of issues to resolve at both ends of the pitch. Issues that materialised in dropping 25 points from winning position in the Premier League last season. They led in a total of 19 games and won just 9 of those, less than half. The worst record in the league that season.

This season, Albion have so far dropped zero points from winning positions, maintaining a 100%-win rate from the 4 games in which they’ve taken the lead. It’s early, but there is a clear trend here.

But what has made the difference? One of the factors is most certainly the return of Shane Duffy, whose presence really has added that extra element of resilience, after a consistent spell of solid displays since his return from a loan spell at Celtic, one that I’m sure everyone is keen to forget.

Against Palace last time out he continued his good form and recorded 5 clearances, 3 interceptions, 2 tackles, won 3 out of 3 ground duels and won 3 out of 4 Aerial duels. Showing once again that he is a player who has mastered the art of defending.

It’s not just about defending leads though but extending them too: Duffy is a threat in both boxes. With him in the side Albion have so far scored at a rate of 1.33 pg, higher than in any of their other Premier league seasons.

Yes, the fixtures have been kind so far, but you have to take those chances, something Albion weren’t doing previously. Last season they won just 9 games all season, only 4 of which came against teams in the bottom half.

A big part of the reason for that, as Graham Potter has spoken a lot about, was key moments going against the team. There are few players I’d rather have on our side in those key moments than Shane Duffy and I’m not surprised to see that the teams luck has turned with him in the side.

Glenn Murray spoke about Duffy on BBC Sussex’s program ‘Albion Unlimited’ prior to the Palace game saying: “I think Shane will openly admit that he didn’t realise what he had when he was at Brighton, and he maybe took it for granted. And now we can really see him really knuckling down and proving to us all how good of a player he is, and how much he does actually love the club and how much he wants to be here.”

This isn’t to say Shane is the sole reason Albion find themselves 6th in the Premier League table. As Richard Newman spoke about in his recent piece for Eurosport, this success has been building for a while, with Graham Potter’s appointment the latest step on that progression. Saying “Potter immediately implemented his own identity – based on tactical fluidity, intensity and fast build-up. Over the past two years, he has patiently assembled the squad that he wants – only Lewis Dunk, Shane Duffy and Solly March remain from the side promoted from the Championship in 2017.” Albion were playing well last season and have been largely a progressive, good team to watch since Potter’s appointment back in 2019.

Another huge improvement on last season has been Neal Maupay’s goalscoring rate, who’s contributed 4 goals/50% of Albion’s goals so far this season. Maupay’s finishing has been criticised by all and sundry, but he showed brilliant finishing ability to lob the Palace goalkeeper Guaita so calmly with one touch in the last minute of injury time to equalise against Albion’s biggest rivals. Even as a big supporter of Maupay, it’s hard to imagine him doing that last season where he struggled for long periods in front of goal.

For those who haven’t seen it I’d implore you to go watch Neal Maupay’s post-match interview on Sky Sports from Monday night. It was open and honest, with him rightly grinning from ear to ear like a Cheshire Cat throughout.

I did note that when he was asked about the club trying to sign a striker, he was clearly a little uncomfortable, but his inner self-confidence and belief shone through in his answer. Maupay has had his difficult periods and his critics, including some prominent pundits who’ve continually questioned his finishing ability. But, to achieve this turnaround whilst under that kind of criticism and pressure makes his performances of late even more admirable.

The stats really do demonstrate that he’s having a great season so far too:

In the 495 minutes he’s played this season, he’s had:

• 24 touches in opposition box,

• 11 total shots,

• 5 shots on target,

• Scored 4 goals.

That compares to 2,768 minutes in 2019/20,

• 177 touches in opposition box

• 96 total shots,

• 38 shots on target,

• Scored 10 goals

And compares to a total of 2,517 minutes in 2020/21,

• 190 touches in opposition box

• 71 total shots,

• 26 shots on target

• Scored 8 goals

What links Duffy and Maupay in particular is that the prevailing opinion of them was that they weren’t up to the standard required for Albion to rise up the table, which they’ve resoundingly countered so far this season.

As the example of Sanchez’s usurping of Maty Ryan shows, Potter doesn’t show loyalty to the existing group of players for loyalties sake, but that it’s more a case of Graham Potter working with what he has to find the best working solutions.

As I discussed last season when talking about the likes of Dan Burn and Adam Webster, this is a team built with a group of players who have all had their own failures, who have all been written off by supporters and pundits alike, but persisted and ultimately proven to be vital parts of this Albion team.

This is what Graham Potter’s Albion is all about, working with what they have and salvaging what they can, something that has been demonstrated in their performances this season.

This was shown notably at Selhurst Park on Monday night, where injuries severely hampered Albion. The absences of Bissouma and Webster were a huge loss. To then lose a further two players mid-game limited options further in terms of substitutions to salvage the game from a losing position, but they persisted right up to the very last minute of the game to earn a point.

The bedrock of Albion’s continued success under Potter is all about maximising the potential of what the club has and building on the strengths that are already in place. If we go back to that euphoric 3-0 win over Watford in his first game in charge in 2019, Graham Potter talked then about the foundations in place that have enabled his success.

In his interview on BBCs Match of the Day with presenter Gary Lineker, instead of talking up his own achievements he instead spoke about how he inherited a team where “a fantastic foundation had been laid, a lot of good work [had gone before]”. And then admitted despite the good result that “we haven’t found the answers today but it’s a nice start for us.”

In very much the same way this good start to his third Premier League season in charge falls under the same category. This success is very much built on the foundations laid throughout the club’s recent history. With a manager in charge who is unafraid to look for creative and unexpected solutions to build on those foundations, Albion remain in safe hands.