Albion start the season with a familiar look, but a newfound vigour

Brighton’s season opening victory at the self-dubbed “Theatre of Dreams” was their first there in the club’s history, a remarkable day, and a piece of Albion history.

But not as remarkable a victory as it may first appear. This was actually Brighton’s 4th win over the Red Devils in the Premier League, the equal most wins by Brighton over any team in the Premier League, the others being Arsenal, Newcastle, Watford, and West Ham.

Leaving the only existing and continuous Premier League team that Brighton have failed to beat in a Premier League match as Chelsea, with Albion’s record against them currently standing as 4 draws, 6 defeats. No doubt a record Mr Potter will have an eye on, but that’s one for another day.

Pascal Gross got the much-deserved headlines for his two goals in an impressive performance, but one of the lesser spoken of elements from last weekend’s win was the impact of the lesser seen combination of Danny Welbeck and Adam Lallana. Two players with histories of injury troubles that have limited their respective game time since joining the club in 2020.

Welbeck and Lallana played a total of 1,478 minutes and 1,561 minutes of Premier League football respectively last season, out of a total of 3,420. With their on-pitch minutes totalling a respective 1,545 and 1,596 during the previous 2020/21 Premier League season.

However, when they do play, particularly together, Albion are a better team. A fact demonstrated by their points per game averages from last season with only four Albion players averaging higher. (Points per game: Lallana 1.5, Welbeck 1.4, Brighton’s average 1.34)

Not that you’d realise it from the reaction on social media to Adam Lallana’s selection in the starting line-up. Criticism that would soon be made to look absurd and highlight just how undervalued the 34 times capped ex-England international really is amongst large portions of the club’s support.

The introduction of additional substitutions this season will give Graham Potter the flexibility to use Welbeck and Lallana in more games, whist potentially maintaining their limited number of minutes across the season, which could prove to be a huge bonus.

The reality is that as the season goes on, both Lallana and Welbeck will likely have to be used sparingly. Meaning the likes of their second half replacements Undav and Mwepu, alongside the likes of younger prospects Ferguson and Alzate, will all need to step up and fill the holes they have left.

One of the four players who did have a better points per game record last season was Moises Caicedo. Since he has come into the team for the win over Arsenal at the Emirates in April, Brighton have achieved a points per game average of 2.22. The equivalent of 84 points over a 38-game season, which would have secured 3rd place in the Premier League last season.

Even more astounding is that seven of those nine games were against teams who finished in the top half of the Premier League last season and included wins away to Arsenal, Spurs and wins both home and away against Man United.

If we include the goalless draw with Norwich at the beginning of April, that’s 21 points accumulated from the last ten matches, an astounding total, and a good enough sample size to suggests something has really clicked for Graham Potter’s side of late.

The bigger picture of course is that form is temporary, and class is permanent. Let’s not get carried away, Brighton aren’t in the same class as the teams competing at the top end of the table. Demonstrated by Albion’s club record breaking losing run in the topflight of six consecutive defeats falling immediately prior to this good run of form.

The remarkable thing about last season wasn’t just the terrible home form contrasting with the amazing away form, which we regularly discussed, but how relatively bad the results were against the teams at the bottom end of the table. That run of six straight defeats included a 2-0 home defeat to Aston Villa and a 3-0 home defeat to eventually relegated Burnley, as well as a defeat away to next weekend’s opponents Newcastle.

In fact, of the eleven teams they finished above in the Premier League table last season, Albion beat just two at the AMEX, newly promoted Brentford as well as eventually relegated Watford, losing four and drawing the other five. If they are going to keep up the momentum and optimism from their recent good fortunes, that will have to change.

It wasn’t long ago Graham Potter was making a frustrated comment in a post-match press conference advising fans to take a history lesson in response to what he felt was an unfairly negative reaction to a goalless draw with Leeds.

The AMEX crowd has shown itself to be a harsh critic in recent seasons, and as Graham Potter admitted himself in an interview with the Athletic last season “reputations change quickly in football”. Keeping the home fans onside may not appear like a big job currently given the recent run of good form, but they’ve experienced a lot of frustration in recent years, and a few more results like the defeats to Villa and Burnley last season could quickly change perspectives.

As I have discussed before, if Graham Potter were managing one of the club’s Brighton are competing against with the same record, he would have been sacked a long time ago. But because the club see that the bigger picture, they afford him more leniency, and have so far been proven wholeheartedly right. But that’s not to say more frustration isn’t ahead.

As Talking Tactics said this week on Twitter, “I think it is important to point out that the board and fans allow Potter this freedom to experiment. He may get it wrong in some games, but it doesn’t really matter because he will learn from the defeat and adjust accordingly. That is a fantastic space in which to work.”

It comes down to your attitude to risk. The Premier League is such a huge financial behemoth that it makes many clubs primarily plan to minimise the risk of relegation, whereas Albion have shown themselves willing to take more risks if it increases their chance of victory.

In an interview with Melissa Reddy after the win over Man United, Adam Lallana spoke about the team having “a lot of courage” and “being brave”. Many teams of Brighton’s stature, particularly on opening day, would have gone to a place like Old Trafford to defend for a point, or minimising the scale of a potential defeat. Not Graham Potter’s Albion, and their resultant away record speaks for itself.

One much spoken about aspect that may count against Albion this season are the two key players the team lost over the summer in Bissouma and Cucurella. Players who as it stands will be replaced with a combination of promoted development team players and returning loan players.

Whilst much of the talk has been about how much Albion will miss Cucurella due to the lack of left sided defensive options, last season’s record suggests the loss of Bissouma shouldn’t be understated. They won just once without Bissouma starting last season in 13 Premier League matches, compared to 11 wins over the 25 Premier League matches he started in. Whilst the additions of Mwepu and Caicedo alongside the reinvigoration of Gross and Mac Allister in slightly different roles, appears to have given Albion’s midfield a new lease of life in these post-Bissouma times. We will have to wait and see if that materialises into sustained success across the season.  

The lack of big-name replacements and additions to the squad may frustrate some supporters who are looking for some transfer window excitement, but it’s something we will have to get used to. As Paul Barber said at the recent fans’ forum, the club’s long-term strategy is to develop its own players and avoid paying big transfer fees in order to compete with the more financially replenished club’s.

As various reports have stated, the club may venture into the transfer market to buy a left-back, something the lack of a number 3 in the first team squad numbers hints to an intention towards. But with nearly £100m worth of player sales in one transfer window (and counting), you may get the impression that the club is going to splash some serious cash, but I wouldn’t count on it.

Some would say there is no excuse to not spend money. Well, how about £120m of cumulative losses from the last two reported financial years? Or that the club has only made a profit once since Tony Bloom took over as Chairman-Owner, whilst the club’s debt to him has steadily grown, and all whilst the club strives to become financially self-sufficient.

As I said in a recent piece on the club’s finances, their 2021 accounts showed transfer expenditure had increased significantly since promotion, with the club now having spent £241m in the last 5 years, but which is still one of the lowest totals in the topflight. Reflective of the stature of the club rather than its ambition.

Despite some high profile exits all the soundings from the club are that they are happy with what they have got, and happy with the model they are following. As Graham Potter said at last week’s fans forum “we have to find a strategy, we have to go on a path that won’t be straightforward. But if you believe in it enough and work hard enough, then I think you can achieve it…. I would never want to lower supporter’s expectations, you just hope they can see the bigger picture and the challenges that you have”.

This approach is relatively novel amongst the mostly big-name, big-spending reality of the Premier League transfer window. It is not without its risks, but with Tony Bloom steering the ship you know it will be a calculated risk backed up by reliable data and the brain power of the senior management at the club.

As strange as it may sound, Brighton will face tougher challenges as the season goes on than they did at Old Trafford last Sunday, as their squad depth is tested and as they look to overcome some of the issues they have faced at the AMEX in recent season.

But last weekend’s win over United showed that whilst Albion may be starting the season with a familiar look, there is a newfound vigour and a greater threat as a result. If the team can sustain this over a prolonged period and demonstrate it at the AMEX more often, continuing the success of last season is achievable despite the high-profile departures.

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.

Monday Musings – Albion are taught lessons on the pitch amongst deadline day panic off of it

Everton teach us a lesson

The 2020/21 football season is going to be a weird one with so much football being packed in. As this weekend’s results resoundingly proved.

And just when it looks like most teams could do with a break, we get a round of international games with three games packed in, then we are back for more of this madness in two weeks’ time!

On top of that, it was always going to be a tough start to the season for Brighton given their opening fixtures, especially considering the amount of player turnover there has been in a very shortened summer break

Whilst Albion played well at times, scoring twice and putting Everton under some serious pressure, there were parts of the performance against Everton that weren’t great.

In particular the now worrying habit of conceding goals from set pieces and giving the ball away in our own half, but we still have plenty of positives to take away from the first 4 games and into the remaining 34 games.

Ten goals conceded from four games is a fairly poor return, but take account of the opposition and it’s not that unreasonable. Albion conceded 7 in the same fixtures last season whilst season scoring just three compared to this season’s eight goals scored. And accumulated just one point compared to the three so far this season. Clear signs of improvement.

But let’s not pretend there aren’t issues. Albion’s main fallibilities of defending set pieces and at times overplaying in defensive areas were costly for all four goals conceded and were exposed by an in form & high quality Everton team.

This Albion team is young, relatively inexperienced and many haven’t played together long. So some of the mistakes in those first four games were predictable but they can’t keep persisting if Albion really want to improve on last season’s 15th place finish.

The defeat will have been a reality check for some Albion fans as the team were well beaten by a very good side who took apart our every weakness. That’s 7 wins from 7 this season for Everton. Whilst for Albion that win over Newcastle is looking very important.

Easier games are to come, once we get to the second international break we‘ll have a better idea of how far this team has come, it’s very early to make any judgements just yet.

Powell’s team offers promise but are also taught a lesson.

There’s been lots of promise from Hope Powell’s team so far this season despite last week’s FA Cup exit. Something particularly shown by the four point picked up from their first two fixtures. But their third league game of the season against United was a big test of those signs of improvements and an equally stark reality check for Albion’s other senior side.

And unfortunately despite Kaagman, Green, Connolly and Walsh all returning to the starting line-up, Man United dominated and eased to a 3-0 victory in Sunday’s WSL match between the sides.

Like against Man City, Brighton again defended well for long periods. But you can’t expect to concede as much possession and territory every week and keep coming away with a clean sheet.

The highlight was a brilliant solo goal from the ex-Albion player and England international Alessia Russo to make it 2-0. A goal that highlighted how Man United were simply a cut above their guests, putting Albion under constant pressure who found it tough to get out their own half for long periods. With the eventual 3-0 scoreline a fair reflection of the home sides dominance.

A league cup tie against West Ham follows for Albion this week before another tough WSL game at home to Arsenal.

Deadline Day Panic

A lot of the transfer window discourse from Albion fans this time around has been very negative, a further example of the club’s disproportionately ever-growing expectations.

I personally think we’ve had a good window and would prefer no business today. Panicked deadline day deals are risky.

The club has a good first team squad and with Graham Potter in charge it looks more than enough is in place for the team to have a good season.

Yes, the club’s spent limited funds this summer, but offers for the likes of Brewster & Watkins were always likely to fall short if club’s with less frugal ownerships got involved as happened.

We must remind ourselves that the club has a relatively small budget for the Premier League and being here is success in itself.

The noticeably more frequent investment in u23 players and it’s academy is its way of the club trying to gain an advantage over the likes of Villa and others, something we have a proven success of doing in recent years.

Yes, we’ve spent big in prior years, but many of those players are still on our books. Some now filling the bench, filling the treatment table or out on loan, but all on financially limiting long term big money contracts. Can we afford to add yet another big money player to the wage book who could just as likely flop as much as he could be the “silver bullet” people have argued for? Especially amongst the current global economic turmoil and that has been caused by COVID.

It’s also a sign of the clubs plan to become financially self-sufficient whilst remaining competitive and working towards its long term goal of established top-half topflight status.

This is a more realistic long term strategy than splashing inordinate amounts of money on one player in search for short term success, Tony Bloom can’t keep bankrolling the club’s losses forever.

Disproportionately growing expectations are something I’ve written about before and that have been a problem for the club for a while, in part it’s a symptom of Albion’s success.

But I can’t help but feel they have created a rod for their own back by not managing things better.

Naivety and Youth

One Sky Sports most prominent pundits Graeme Souness got on his soapbox after Brighton’s 3-1 home defeat to champions Liverpool on Wednesday night calling Brighton manager Graham Potter “naive” for his teams approach in playing the ball out the back. An approach which led to Albion giving the ball away twice and conceding two goals in the first seven minutes. A deficit from which they never recovered.

Souness stated that he thought even Man City who had better players would play more long balls initially against Liverpool and “wait for the sting to go out of the game”. He went onto say that if any team played that approach from the start it would be a “mistake”. Whilst Souness’s co-pundit Matt Murray agreed saying “when you’ve just conceded, just learn from it… I think they’ve got to work it out and maybe play it a little bit longer a couple of times.”

This isn’t the first time these kind of accusations have arisen about Potter’s management. In particular there was the defeat at home to Sheffield United earlier in the season when it seemed that the tide had turned against his approach. It was a game which saw Brighton’s keeper Ryan have 48 touches and an 89% pass accuracy rate. Numbers that demonstrate the intention of passing out from the back but mask the difficult situations the players he was passing to often found themselves in.

Unlike on Wednesday night with an empty AMEX, that day heard a stadium full to the brim with vocal frustrations over the teams over playing in defence, leaving the side taking too many risks at the back and making little progress going forward. Adam Webster in particular received heavy criticism, a player seemingly unperturbed as it was his loss of possession when rashly trying to dribble out from the back through the centre of the midfield, which led to Liverpool’s second on Wednesday night.

The defeat to Sheffield United, and more importantly the fans reaction during it, lead to Potter’s comments in the matchday programme before the next home game against Bournemouth. In which he said: “You will see misplaced passes. But these are all part of the process & the mistakes that we make will be made with the intention of developing our way to play, our identity & our belief. They will also be essential in us getting to where we want to be.”

The home defeats to Leicester, Sheffield United and Palace all brought scorn and concern from the home crowd and have highlighted the weaknesses to Potter’s approach when coming up against an organised counter attacking outfit. Something Man United exposed brilliantly in their 3rd goal of a 3-0 win over Albion at the AMEX recently. But every team has their weaknesses. Whilst managers like Chris Hughton look first to set up to minimise these risks, Potter instead sets up to first maximise the opportunities which the team can achieve. It’s a higher risk approach, but with higher risk comes higher rewards.

Potter also admitted he’s no stranger to Souness’s accusations of nativity saying to The Athletic after the Liverpool game: “I know why he would say that, and I have been called that a few times, and I’ve ended up in the Premier League coaching.” Fighting talk indeed.

Many call for more pragmatism from Brighton, but as Potter pointed out himself after the game, over the past 2 years many teams have played against Liverpool using a variety of different approaches, yet Liverpool have regardless still won comfortably more often than not.

Moreover, the stats suggest Brighton’s approach on Wednesday night was far from useless, with its XG being so high at near 3, only Man City had achieved higher against Liverpool this season. Demonstrating that Brighton had enough chances to level it up despite these mistakes.

This highlights another quirk of the Potter reign. Last season Brighton were converting a high proportion of a relatively low amount of chances, this season they’re converting a much lower proportion of a far higher number of chances. Conversion and creation are both difficult problems to solve, arguably the most difficult things to solve in the game and ultimately come down to the quality of personnel who are making those decisions in the moment.

It was indeed poor decision making and individual errors that cost Albion on Wednesday night. Both in conceding goals and not taking chances, with Dan Burn’s miss at 2-1 down a further example of Brighton’s plentiful missed opportunities to score more goals this season. Whilst Trossard’s goal for Albion was their 36th of the season, their highest total since promotion, it could have been so much higher. Going back to XG, this statistical model shows Brighton with an expected goals total of 8 higher for the season at 44.

So despite the criticism, Potter’s approach should leave us with some optimism, but only if Brighton take the chances they are creating. If you don’t do that, then it makes the risk taken by the defence in playing the ball out short under opposition pressure not worth taking.

Looking forward, we can be confident that from the evidence of the team’s good early season form and the further evidence from its recent good post lockdown form, that the more time Potter gets to put his ideas across on the training ground, the better prepared players are going to be to carry out his ideas. The team have certainly improved since the break, arguably better than any other team in the division, and Potter deserves a lot of credit for that.

The recruitment teams work is also paying off too with the teams previous reliance on Gross and Murray for goals continuing to reduce, due mostly to the continuing improvement of Maupay and Trossard, who’ve scored 14 of Albion’s league goals between them this season. This being the kind of impact the recruitment of Jahanbakhsh, Locadia and Andone was also hoped to have had.

Regardless of this progress, there will still be a need for some summer acquisitions. In particular the need for another striker is evident in order to add competition to Maupay. Especially coupled with the ever wilting performances of Connolly and Murray’s game time still surprisingly limited despite some good performances pre-lockdown.

I suspect there will also be a search for a new left back. Especially considering Gaëtan Bong’s departure in January, along with the minimal game time afforded to Albion’s other recognised left back Bernardo and regular makeshift left back Dan Burn probably hoping to move back to centre back in the long term. And then there’s also the potential prospect of replacing any sold players, with interest in some of the more senior first team player such as Lewis Dunk likely this summer.

That said, Alzate and Connolly have shown the U23s will have opportunities. Players like Alex Cochrane who started in the League Cup against Villa as left wing back, Tudor Baluta who did so in central midfield and Taylor Richards who started on the left side of the attack, will all be hoping they can emulate their former development team colleagues. As will central midfielder Jay Molumby and centre backs Matt Clarke and Ben White, who are all getting good reviews from their loan spells in the Championship this season.

Bringing through more youngsters into the squad certainly won’t help Graham Potter disprove accusations of nativity. But considering the U23 teams continued success and the good performances of many Albion loanees, all those mentioned above plus a number of others will all feel they are both overdue an opportunity to impress in the Brighton first team next season, just as Alzate and Connolly have this season.

Potter’s approach is very different from that of his predecessor Hughton, both in terms of risk taking and the promotion of young players. It has at times rightly led to some calling him out for being foolhardy and hasty in his decision making, I have even done so myself. But to say that he is naive isn’t fair or just. Especially when you consider his record and the resources, he’s achieved all that with.

Time will tell if next season leads to the continuation of the recent progress, or a difficult second season at the club’s helm, but the early signs are good. I for one suspect that this change in approach at the club we’ve seen this season, is one Albion fans will have to get used to for some time to come.

Albion’s impressive and improving defensive record

Throughout the season and throughout the club’s occupation of the Premier League, Brighton’s form has fluctuated, but one constant has been the teams pretty dependable defensive record.

155 goals conceded in 107 games may not sounds impressive, but when you consider many relegated teams in recent years have conceded at an average of around 2 goals per game or sometimes more, and that Albion’s record equates to less than 1.5 per game, it starts to look far more impressive.

Moreover, despite the team’s much spoken about increased emphasis on attack under new manager Graham Potter, the defensive record this season is currently better at 1.32 goals conceded per game compared to both last season at 1.57 pg or the season before at 1.42 pg.

It can’t be ignored that since promotion this defensive record has been the club’s saving grace. With the team also scoring an average of less than a goal a game in both of the last two seasons, it’s that dependable defensive record that has enabled the team to pick up some all-important draws which helped it retain its topflight status over that time.

But this season has been different in that regard, with Potter’s Albion already being one goal off matching its best scoring record since promotion and that’s with 7 games still left to play. Whilst this hasn’t led to an increased rate of wins (7 so far compared to 9 in both the last two seasons), the defeats column totalling just 12 compared to a whopping 20 last season, (which no matter what won’t now be matched), indicates progress.

Statistics can be misleading though if not analyses properly and comparing this seasons stats when we aren’t yet finished to previously completed seasons could be just that. In particular the club’s tough run in should be considered. Especially if Albion concede 4 or more at home to Manchester City and Liverpool in future games as they have in recent seasons, some of those statistics could look far more comparable to last season or even worse.

But the fact that Albion would have to concede at about 3 goals per game between now and the end of the season to even match last season’s goals conceded record, (more than double its current season pg conceding average) shows just how good a defensive job the team have done so far this season whilst also improving its attacking record.

One of the key factors in that success has been the teams improved ball retention and at the heart of that has been Brighton’s captain Lewis Dunk. He was a lynchpin in Chris Hughton’s Albion side alongside Shane Duffy and has since flourished under Potter’s less direct style of play, which has seen him move from the teams heading and blocking defensive battering ram to a key figure in the starting point for much of the teams new found attacking possession based style.

Whilst Dunk has added consistency between the leaderships, one key change that has enabled Potter to enact this evolution in style so effectively has been Adam Webster. His arrival in the summer left many assuming Dunk would be on his way to Leicester, but it has instead seen last season’s Albion player of the season Shane Duffy spend much of the season on the bench.

It is true however that Webster has struggled at times, particularly early on when the sides use of a back three and an overemphasis on playing out from the back left him very exposed. Amongst Potter’s tactical fluidity, the move to a more regular use of a back four and a slightly more risk adverse approach to building out from the back has definitely helped him and the team improve its defensive stability.

Another player who like Dunk has had to similarly adjust to a very different style is Brighton’s goalkeeper Maty Ryan. A player who was equally important under Hughton and has equally flourished under Potter’s passing style. With the statistical swing of his distribution changing significantly from mostly kicking the ball long beyond the halfway line to mostly passing the ball out to one of Albion’s centre backs, he has arguably had to adjust the most.

I wrote earlier in the season that I’d like to have seen Duffy brought back into the team to give the club more defensive stability. And whilst he has come in and played well in some more recent games, blaming Webster individually for Brighton’s problems earlier in the season is too simple, the team’s risky approach simply left Webster often as the fall guy.

The tide really began to turn against this approach at home to Sheffield United in November, a game which saw Brighton’s keeper Ryan have 48 touches and an 89% pass accuracy rate. Numbers that demonstrate the intention of passing out from the back but mask the difficult situations the players he was passing to often found themselves in. That day saw the AMEX faithful frustrated with the teams over playing in defence, leaving the side taking too many risks at the back and make little progress going forward, with Webster in particular receiving heavy criticism.

This was one of many examples of course. Albion’s 2-0 defeat at home to Leicester in November saw Ryan achieve similar passing stats and Webster receive similar criticism after conceding the penalty for Leicester’s second. A penalty that unsurprisingly came after Ryan made a short pass to Pröpper in the teams own third despite him being under severe pressure from the opposition. It was the definition of a “hospital pass” which saw him promptly dispossessed by the opposition and a subsequent hasty challenge from Webster lead to the penalty for Leicester to score their second.

Compare that to the most recent games against Arsenal or Leicester, which saw Ryan achieve lower figures more comparable to last season under Hughton of 37 and 36 touches respectively and a lower passing accuracy of 68% and 63% as the team moved to a more direct style accepting less possession of the ball and taking less risks at the back. This has knock of effects of course, particularly on possession which has been severely reduced. Whilst this was in part dictated by the nature of the opposition, for most of the season Brighton have had more possession than the opposition, averaging 53%, the leagues seventh highest average. But in recent games this has significantly reduced with 41% against Arsenal and 34% against Leicester.

After the defeat at home to Sheffield United left many Albion fans audibly groaning at the teams risky and frustrating possession based approach, Graham Potter said in his programme notes for the next home game against Bournemouth in December that: “mistakes will happen” and that it was “all part of the process”. And whilst the subsequent win that day supported his claim, the recent change to a more risk adverse approach of playing out from the back may suggest the fans did still have a point. And although Maty Ryan’s spot of bother against Leicester shows you can’t remove all risk, moments like this have been less common in recent games.

Funnily enough in this regard, the 3-1 defeat away to Bournemouth in January in particular seems like a turning point in style. And after initial teething problems in the subsequent 3-3 draw against West Ham, the team have conceded only 4 goals in the last 6 games. Including away trips to Wolves, Sheff Utd and Leicester and home matches against Arsenal and Palace. All of whom currently sit in the top half.

Much of the recent talk on social media about Brighton’s defence has been about the future of Brighton’s loaned out youngster Ben White. But with Dunk, Webster and Duffy all playing well and the global transfer market likely to be significantly diminished by the ongoing global pandemic, there is no certainty he’d even be in Potter’s first choice eleven next season with the other options he has available. Add Dan Burn to the mix too, who whilst having played mostly at left back this season is more commonly thought of as centre back, and you have a lot of competition for places. And that ignores the likes of fellow loaned out youngsters Leo Ostigard and Matt Clarke, all making for increased competition in defence at the club.

Brighton’s end of season slump in both the previous two seasons and tough upcoming fixture list will hopefully ensure there is no complacency and that all minds are fully focused on the games ahead. But the recent improvement in its defensive record since the horror show away to Bournemouth along with Potter’s shift to a less idealistic style of play, gives rise to a certain amount of optimism for the Seagulls ahead of the final 7 game run-in.

1976/77 – Albion are finally worth promotion!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brighton vs Man United – A history of contrariety

Whilst Brighton fans in the 1990s were forced to watch on during their club’s much documented struggles, Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United were enjoying one of the most successful periods of any club in English football history. As a result if you’d been on mine or any other school playground in Sussex at the time you’d be sure to find plenty who proclaimed to be huge United fans with grandparents from Manchester and struggle to find anyone who’d admit to follow Brighton for fear of fierce ridicule.

After the years of relative mediocrity for United that followed the end of the Matt Busby era at Old Trafford, the nineties saw a return to national superiority for the club. It was a decade which saw them win five of the ten topflight league championships on offer as well as four domestic cups and two European cups. One of those being the famous Champions League Trophy that saw them become the first English clubs to win the treble of the League title, the FA Cup and the European Cup in the same season (1998/99). All this during a time of great growth in world football led to Manchester United becoming the richest club in the world and a dominant figure for many years to come.

In contrast, after starting the decade in the second tier of English football and losing the 1991 playoff final to Neil Warnock’s Notts County to miss out on joining Ferguson’s United in the topflight, the nineties was a decade which saw a dramatic demise for the Albion. The following season the club were relegated to the third tier and by 1996 they were relegated again to the bottom tier of the football league before going a game away from falling out of the football league and probable oblivion a year later. All whilst the owners of the club did their best to run the club into the ground. Quite simply there can’t have been two more contrasting clubs during that period.

The first victory

So when on a Friday night in early May 2018 that same Brighton and Hove Albion (who were still in fear of a potential relegation in their first topflight season in 34 years) hosted a Man United team second in the Premier League, many could be forgiven for pinching themselves to check that they weren’t dreaming. And whilst this was a United team with no chance of catching league leaders and cross-city rivals Manchester City, they were still an intimidating opponent.

But it was a night where league positions and history were forgotten as the home crowd at the AMEX roared Brighton to a victory that took the club to mathematical safety and the holy grail that is the 40-point mark against an admittedly below par Manchester United.

In the club’s last home game of season they secured survival to secure only their sixth topflight season via a Pascal Gross headed goal on the end of a Jose Izquierdo cross, but only after it had been adjudged to have crossed the line by just 2.8cm by goal line technology.

There was a moment things looked to be heading the other way though, after Man United had a goal disallowed early in the first half with the game still tied at 0-0. Thankfully for Albion fans, Marouane Fellaini was correctly adjudged to be offside when turning home a Marcus Rashford free kick, but this was as close as United came to scoring in a performance epitomised by the England international Rashford’s inefficacy in leading the line. Rashford was maybe suffering under the pressure of the situation, with Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez injured this was his chance to show manager Jose Mourinho he could lead the line in the upcoming FA Cup final against Chelsea. Despite his inefficacy he did start that game, alongside Sanchez, a game United again lost 1-0.

In contrast Albion were supreme that night, with wingers Izquierdo and Knockaert both causing the opposition plenty of problems out wide, whilst Gross and Murray again linked up well to cause the opposition problems through the middle of the pitch. Gross scoring was not an unusual sight for the Amex crowd. In his maiden Premier League season, he scored 7 and assisted a further 8 of Albion’s 34 goals, going on to win the club’s player of the season award.

And Hughton’s resilient side held on fairly comfortably to secure a crucial and impressive win. This was possibly the most impressive performance of the whole season, and the timing of it was of huge relief. With the Seagulls final two fixtures being away games at Champions Man City and then finally away to fellow giants Liverpool, there were plenty of Albion fans getting a little worried about the threat of relegation.

Instead it was a night to celebrate, and with the game being on a Friday night plenty of Albion fans did. Once the team had carried out their traditional end of season lap of honour/appreciation, the fans flooded into the bars and pubs around the stadium and the city centre to celebrate achieving another season in the topflight.

The second victory

Later that year in August, as the 2018/19 football season got underway, Brighton opened their second Premier League season at home with the same home fixture that ended the last, and it was to be the same outcome as before too, with another victory for Albion over Man Utd.

However, it wasn’t all good for the Albion that day, after then stand-in captain for the day Lewis Dunk was forced to come off injured early in the first half. But fortunately, he was replaced by the new signing and Nigerian international Leon Balogun who was instantly up to the pace and the standard of the Premier League and played well alongside centre back partner Shane Duffy.

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

With the Albion faithful still in a state of shock to be ahead, a second Albion goal from Shane Duffy sent the AMEX into a state of pandemonium. United allowed Shane Duffy an absurd amount of time in the box to take the ball down and he rifled it home to give the team a two-goal lead.

After Lukaku had pulled one back for the visitors, last season’s match-winner Pascal Gross once again converted, this time from the penalty spot, to regain the team’s two goal advantage going into half time.

As the first half ended it gave the crowd time to take stock of what had been a whirlwind of a first half. One where the Albion had played with a level of pace and intensity unrecognisable from the 3-0 defeat to Watford on the opening day of the season just the week before, and to be frank most of the season previous too.

Despite an improved display from United in the second half, they once again upon visiting the AMEX rarely troubled the Albion defence. Meaning the late penalty clumsily given away by Duffy and scored for United by Paul Pogba was a meaningless consolation for the visitors leaving Albion 3-2 victors.

To the future, via the past

As well as being a second home win in a year this was in fact the third straight home League win for Brighton against Man United. The first of that run coming 36 years previous when a solitary Peter Ward goal gave Albion a 1-0 win back in the last season of Brighton’s only other topflight spell from 1979 to 1983. In fact despite their contrasting histories Brighton have won a respectable three to Man United’s six of the eleven occasions these sides have met in Sussex, with the remaining two ending in draws.

Just a matter of months later after the league season ended with Brighton relegated from the topflight, the clubs met again in the 1983 FA Cup final. After the original tie ended with a memorably entertaining 2-2 draw, United won the replay comprehensively 4-0.

And aside from meeting each other in both the League Cup and FA Cup during the 1992/93 season, they would have to wait 34 seasons to meet again in the league. In fact prior to Albion’s promotion in 1979 the clubs had only met once beforehand in the 1909 FA Cup, when Man United ran out 1-0 winners.

After all those many years apart, this week sees the sides now meet for the tenth time since Albion’s promotion to the topflight in 2017. It’s a long way from having to wait another 34 years for the occasion.

The return to Hereford

This weekend provides another stark reminder of the significant rise in status that Brighton and Hove Albion’s mens senior team have achieved over the last decade. As they prepare for a trip to Old Trafford to face the most successful club in English Football League history, many of their former competitors from up and down the country are preparing for FA Cup first round ties.

It’s a round of the famous old cup competition that was until recently a fixture of the football calendar that Brighton fans were all too familiar with and one that for a while was anticipated with dread. One particular FA Cup first round tie that will stick in the memory of those who are old enough is the trip to face Hereford United in the 1st round of the competition in 1997.

As fate would have it, the clubs were drawn together just months after Brighton had survived relegation to the non-league on the last day of the previous 1996/97 season away to Hereford, with instead Hereford relegated after a tense 1-1 draw.

This tale of serendipity is one that cup draws often seem to produce, where naturally emotions were still very raw after the last meeting between the sides, especially for the Hereford faithful. And one that drew the attention of the BBC television cameras for a FA cup Match of the Day special.

With both clubs struggling financially, the chance of a cup run was an opportunity to boost their clubs bank balance with some much-needed prize money. This was demonstrated best by the fact that Brighton had recently transfer listed a number of first team players because the club couldn’t afford to pay their wages, and were facing a Hereford team mostly made up of players signed in the summer after relegation on free transfers.

As the Hereford fan site Talking Bull admitted, “tensions were high”. And after it remained 0-0 at half time it was the home side who struck first to go 1-0 up, through Neil Grayson. But this was not before Albion had missed the chance to take the lead themselves after Paul McDonald’s penalty kick was saved by the Hereford ‘keeper.

But it didn’t take Albion long to level things up, when Stuart Storer converted from a corner after a mistake from the Hereford ‘keeper, (who quickly went from hero to zero for being caught out of position after coming for the corner and missing it) left the goal mouth gaping just four minutes later. An action packed twenty-minute spell came to an end when Hereford again took the lead to take a 2-1 lead through Neil Grayson, this time after Peter Smith had wrestled Ian Foster to the ground in the box to give away the games second spot kick.

And so it ended with the now non-league club gaining some form of retribution for the Seagulls relegating them just a few months before. Something Hereford manager Graham Turner admitted after the game when he said: “There was a lot of pride in the way we played today, and we’ve given the supporters plenty to sing about”.

For Albion however this was just another sorry defeat to a non-league club in The FA Cup. The 1990s saw the club have a spate of defeats to non-league sides in the competition, of which Hereford was the last and least embarrassing. There was the 2-1 defeat away to Isthmian Premier League side Kingstonian in 1994. Then there was a defeat to Southern League Premier side Sudbury Town in a replay on penalties in 1996.

This was a run of notable cup defeats that just exemplified the club’s status at the time as the barometer for a poorly run professional football club. Something greatly chronicled in the tales told by Dick Knight’s autobiography “MadMan”. In fact in those barren years for the club between 1993 and 2000 as the club plummeted towards and stumbled along in the bottom tier of the Football League, it failed to make it past the second round, losing in the first round five times and the second round three times.

Things have changed greatly since then. Aside from a freak defeat to eventual National League Champions of that season Lincoln City in 2017, (a game which saw Casper Ankergren’s 67th and final appearance for the club and a calamitous one at that, along with an equally calamitous debut from the now Chelsea and England defender Fikayo Tomori), this was the last time the club had exited the FA Cup to non-league opponents having progressing past 7 non-league sides since then.

In contrast Hereford fans had little to sing about subsequent to that cup match. It took them 9 years of trying to finally retain their Football League status, but they were once again relegated back to the non-league four years later. And after two further seasons they were then expelled from the conference for financial irregularities in 2014 and were wound up by the high court over unpaid debts to HMRC later that year. A new Hereford football club has since been formed that still play at Edgar Street and in the National League North, two leagues below the Football League.

The varying stories of both club’s recent history just show how important that decisive match in 1997 which sealed Hereford’s relegation has been for both clubs. A fact highlighted even more by the cup match which reunited the sides a few months afterwards.

So as Brighton get set to make a trip to Old Trafford on Sunday sitting 8th in the Premier League and two places higher than their hosts, Hereford have a weekend off before they host Alfreton Town in the National League North on Tuesday. And as such, all Albion fans should count our lucky stars that we aren’t instead preparing for another FA cup first round tie with a team full of transfer listed players we cannot afford and journeymen signed on free transfers.

Ian Wright – From Brighton reject to Palace legend

The first football game I ever saw live was Arsenal vs Coventry at the now defunct Highbury Stadium in 1996. My brother and I were taken by our parents and had spent the week prior to the game telling anyone at school who’d listen that we were going. But whilst we were excited about going to the game, we were most excited about seeing Ian Wright.

There is no strange coincidence here. When my brother and I grew up in the 90s and started taking an interest in football, Ian Wright was one of the biggest names around. He was the star striker of Arsenal and he was a huge icon of ours. By the time I started supporting Brighton when the club moved to Withdean Stadium in 1999 he had caught not just mine, but the hearts of the whole nation with his loveable happy-go-lucky attitude and cheeky smile as much as with his goalscoring record. So when I realised he was an ex-Palace player, I was too far down the line with my admiration for him to turn back (and to be honest I never bought into all that ‘we hate Palace’ stuff anyway). And either way it’s hard not to admire his story. A story he documented fantastically here.

In this piece, he speaks about how after a troubled childhood and young-adulthood, he almost missed his chance to make it in the game. And after having spent some time in prison for non-payment of driving fines he temporarily gave up football before being convinced to go back and have a trial with Crystal Palace.

One of the key elements of Wright’s journey into professional football came just before that prison spell and involved a number of unsuccessful trials, one of which was a trial with our very own Brighton and Hove Albion. A period of six weeks that in Wright’s article he referred to as where he “chased the dream”, but ultimately didn’t achieve it, his dream would have to wait.

He spent six weeks on trial with Brighton in the early eighties. It was a period where he thought he’d done well enough in to get a contract saying: “I’d been doing well. I was scoring goals against the first team, and I was actually thinking that I was going to get offered something. They had kept me around for more than a month, so I was thinking I must be doing something right.”

In his Autobiography “A Life in Football” Wright said of his trial at Brighton that he “scored goals everywhere there – I scored goals against the first team when we had to play them.” He mentions one occasion where Brighton defender Chris Ramsey even helped him out by telling him: “I’ll let you go past me a few times, but after that, that’s it.” But it was all to no avail.

Wright states in his book he was even told that he would be offered a deal at one point, but ultimately he wasn’t. It’s a decision that then Brighton first team manager Chris Cattlin referred to on a recent Albion Roar podcast as; “a massive mistake that could have taken this club in a completely different direction.”

This was 1983, Brighton were in the Second Division having been relegated from the First Division the season before and had just lost that years FA Cup final. As a result, they had a squad that was being torn apart and needed bolstering, which meant Wright was in line to do just that. But it was a time of great financial struggle and instability at the club, so it may have worked in Wright’s favour to have missed this particular opportunity.

After 1983 the club began a demise from possibly its greatest day to arguably its darkest days. The club was again relegated to the third tier in 1987 and despite an instant return to the second tier and a brief flurry with the playoffs during a promotion push back to the top flight in the 1990/91 season, the club continued its demise up to 1997 where it was a game from going out of the Football League. In contrast, by this point Ian Wright was a national football superstar.

Unlike now, the club had little resemblance to a top flight club in those years. The Goldstone Ground was a crumbling mess, with sections so bad they were deemed unusable. And the finances were even more of a mess, with the club haemorrhaging money for a number of years and at one point reportedly losing £6,000 a week. So, this was hardly the environment where a rough diamond talent like Ian Wright was likely to flourish, maybe he got lucky.

Wright would also have been competing with some decent striking talent that was at the club at the time. Most notably Terry Connor, who signed for the club towards the end of the 1982/83 season but was cup tied for the memorable cup run of that season and so struggled to get a place in the team until a few months into the following season, when the club found themselves playing in the Second Division. Later that season he starring in a 7-0 win over Charlton and so won over the Albion faithful after they had initially been sceptical of his ability. That game would have been around the time of Wright’s trial with the club, so it’s likely to have made it tougher for Wright to subsequently gain a contract.

Terry Connor flourished at the Albion in the following four seasons, top scoring in all but one. The man who stopped him in that other season was future Welsh international and later to be British transfer record breaking striker Dean Saunders, as the two frontmen scored 35 goals between them, with Connor contributing 16. So, it’s safe to say that Brighton weren’t short of striking talent in this time.

Ian Wright said to Catlin towards the end of his trial “you either sign me or I go”, which was an attitude Cattlin said he liked. However, in part on the advice of his coaches Wright was let go. This was becoming a common story for Wright, who said in his piece for the players tribune, “I blew it. So many times.” As Catlin said, Wright had been to clubs “all over London and nobody wanted him.” This was less a case of a player in demand, and more a case of a speculating wanderer running out of road.

But it appears Brighton Manager Cattlin actually had little involvement in the trial, admitting as much in his Albion Roar interview. And Ian Wright said in his interview with the Players Tribune that it was one of Cattlin’s coaching staff who told him he wasn’t being offered a deal.

This is where the story gets confused chronologically. In Wright’s piece “how I earned my smile” he states he was 19 and it was in fact 1982 when he had his trial at Brighton. But this appears to be an error. In his autobiography “A life in football” he says he was 19 or 20 when he went to prison, and him being 20 would make the timings of Catlin’s version of events work as this directly followed his trial at Brighton. This mistake is particularly evident as Chris Catlin wasn’t appointed Brighton manager until 1st October 1983.

Another reason to believe Catlin’s story of events is that Wright was on trial at the same time as Steve Penney who then signed for the club in late 1983. In fact, even in Wright’s autobiography he references Penney and states the club signed Penney “instead” of him, which further backs up this chronology of events.

Steve Penney is man who is highly regarded amongst many of the Albion fans who saw him play in the stripes. In Spencer Vines book ‘a few good men’, in which he picked Steve Penney in his Albion dream team, he stated that Penney was one of the first names on his team-sheet. In the book Spencer says Steve Penney was: “a breath of fresh air, a flying winger whose close control and devastating pace left opponents and spectators alike lost for words.”

So, with Penney’s talent overshadowing the young Ian Wright in a reserve game and the problems of Wright’s troubled upbringing held against him, Wright wasn’t offered a deal whilst Penney was. So, whilst Steve Penney made his debut for Brighton on 26 November 1983 in a 3-1 defeat to Barnsley, Wright left and it wouldn’t be until August 1985 that he’d sign a professional contract with Albion’s arch rivals Crystal Palace.

It would be wrong not to reference race here too. With Wright being a young Black man who grew up on a South East London council estate, he will most likely have experienced his fair share of discrimination. But whilst the sort of unconscious biases to minority groups that still exist to various degrees in society to this day will likely have counted against him, he admits in his autobiography that he didn’t blame race. Wright instead recognised how easy it was for talented players to be rejected flippantly due to the large supply of young talent that was available to clubs. Either way, it would be wrong to make assumptions on this issue for this specific case without any suggestions that any prejudice was involved in the decision making.

“I was done after Brighton” Wright says in his Players Tribune article, whilst describing how he just wanted to concentrate on working and looking after his family. Whilst in his autobiography he states he “honesty thought it was because he wasn’t good enough.” An understandable reaction to repeated rejection. So, despite his obvious talent he found himself playing for a local non-league team Greenwich Borough. And it was here that he was eventually spotted by Crystal Palace.

And after a trial, he signed for Palace in 1985 but he admits that he “very nearly blew it” once again. Wright nearly turned up late for a reserve game after going to Crystal Palace athletic stadium by mistake and had to run to Selhurst Park to get there just in time for kick off. Nonetheless he came off the bench in that game and impressed enough to earn a contract. The rest of course is Crystal Palace folklore. A heartwarming local South London boy done good story.

Whilst with Palace, Wright had a great deal of success and was ultimately voted the club’s “player of the century” as part of the Centenary celebrations in 2005. He helped Palace to gain promotion to the top flight in 1989, to an FA cup final in 1990 in which they lost to Man United in a replay (welcome to the club), and to a third-place finish in the First Division in 1991 after which he left to join Arsenal.

Whilst at Palace Ian Wright was also involved in a match against Brighton that has gone down as one of the rivalries best. A game which saw five penalties awarded (three of which that were missed), a goal from Wright which he has called “the best of his Palace career” and ultimately a 2-1 win for Crystal Palace in 1989. It would turn out to be the last meeting between the sides for 13 years as Palace flirted with the top flight and Brighton flirted with extinction.

Once with Arsenal he was the First Division top scorer in his first season at the club and went onto become the club’s record goal scorer in 1997 only to be replaced by Thierry Henry just 8 years later. During his time at Arsenal he won the Premier League and FA Cup double in 1998 as well as three other cup winning medals and cemented his place as one of the best English strikers of that time, in a period where the competition was plentiful.

Ian Wright is probably the most famous of the subsequently successful trialist Brighton turned down, although this is arguable. Before he signed for Nottingham Forest in 1990 and later became captain of the multiple trophy winning Man United side of the 1990’s, Roy Keane had an ill-fated trial at Brighton too. It had been arranged by then Brighton player and Keane’s former Rockmount football club teammate Paul McCarthy, but the club decided he was too small and rejected him.

I guess these things happen from time to time, but it’s this sort of ‘what if’ story that football is littered with. What if Wright and Keane had signed for Brighton? What if Smith had scored? Unfortunately, we can’t rewrite history, we just have to learn from it.

Nonetheless, would it have worked for Ian Wright at Brighton had he been given the contract anyway? Maybe it was too soon for him, or maybe he would have done for Brighton what he later did for Palace, who knows. But the silver lining of the story is that the investment made by the club’s current owner Tony Bloom, in its training facilities and youth academy means its far less likely to let such talented footballers slip from its grasp again.

As for Ian Wright himself, he is rightly proud of what he’s achieved despite his difficult upbringing. The success that Wright had in the face of multiple rejections amongst an environment of widespread racism and discrimination in English football during the 1980’s is an inspiration to any of us who have faced adversity and failure. As the old saying goes, you can’t trust someone who has never failed. And it appears to me that Ian Wright’s experience of his failure to gain a contract at Brighton helped him to achieve what he did as a professional footballer all those years later.

1983 and all that – a modern day comparison

As Brighton approach only their second ever FA Cup semi final this weekend whilst still in the midst of a relegation battle, the obvious comparisons with the events at the club during the season of 1982/83 have been made, but how close a comparison is it?

At the end of the 1982/83 season, Brighton found themselves relegated from the First Division as the bottom placed club with 40 points from 42 games and runners up in the FA Cup. One of Brighton’s most famous days was that 1983 cup final, a thrilling 2-2 draw with Man United, after which they eventually lost 4-0 in the replay. So whilst the club reached its first, and to date only ever FA cup final appearance, they also ended their first spell in the top flight. A status the club would have to wait 34 years to regain.

In 1983 and in the midst of their iconic cup run Brighton took a modest total of nine points from the last nine league games, which this season would have taken Brighton to a surely unassailable 42 points. But in 1983, with the club already in a difficult position and their last 4 games including defeats to also relegated Man City and bottom half sides Norwich and Notts County, they were relegated as the league’s bottom side.

Whilst we couldn’t go as far as saying this 1983 Brighton side was too good to go down, they were a more established team at the top level than the one of today. After gaining promotion in 1979, they had finished 16th in 1980, 19th in 1981 and a club high of 13th in 1982 (in a 22-team division with 3 teams relegated). As such, they went into the 82/83 season with a reasonable amount of expectation that they would sustain their top-flight status once again. And the subsequent cup run was further evidence of the team’s ability at the time, nonetheless they were unable to consistently reach this level in the league on a weekly basis.

But things weren’t as stable and positive as the previous three years in the league suggests. After 2 promotions in 3 seasons followed by 2 seasons of retaining the clubs top flight status, Alan Mullery resigned as manager after falling out with Chairman Mike Bamber over the club’s transfer policy.

In his place the club appointed Mike Bailey as manager at the beginning of the 1981/82 season. And Bailey set the team up playing a defensive style of football that wasn’t to everyone’s taste, including chairman Mike Bamber. But it at first produced results, with a landmark 1-0 win at Anfield leaving the team 8th in the league, but afterwards a run of ten defeats in the last 14 games of the season meant the club finished in 13th, which whilst a significant fall was still the clubs highest league finish, which stands to this day. 

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.” Foster would end up staying for the 82/83 season but miss the original cup final through suspension before returning for the replay.

It’s fair to say that Mike 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. Attendances at times were falling under 10,000 and 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.

But Brighton’s average attendance wasn’t much lower than the average. With their season average of 14,673 making them 18th of 22-team First Division that season and only 5,500 short of the league average, which is of course inflated by the larger attendances of the Manchester United’s and Liverpool’s of the league. And whilst the club’s attendances were on average 4,000 down on the previous season, taking a few of the larger clubs out of the equation, Brighton’s attendances were in fact fairly normal of the time.

Whilst the football wasn’t necessarily entertaining, the bigger reason for the low gates was that in general, English football was at a low ebb. This was two years prior to the Bradford stadium fire that killed 56, five prior to the Hillsborough stadium disaster that killed 96 and still ten years prior to the beginning of the Premier League that came just after the Taylor report was published which instigated a significant investment in upgrading football stadiums across to country to become all-seater stadiums.

Furthermore, hooliganism was a huge issue and detracted many from going to matches. It’s no coincidence that at this time whilst football was struggling other sports were having their day. For instance, if you talk to anyone old enough to remember and who knows about Snooker, they’ll tell you the greatest World Championship final was the Steve Davis v Dennis Taylor final in 1985. Millions of people stayed up beyond midnight to watch the final frame which was won by Taylor and decided on the final black ball of the final frame. An iconic moment in the sport still to this day, something English football in the 80’s largely lacked from a positive perspective.

The attendances were certainly not because of poor results, Brighton were in fact unbeaten at home in the league until early November that season, including wins over Arsenal and Manchester United in that period. Instead it was their bad away form that was pushing them towards the relegation zone.

Much of this will strike a chord with today, except for one crucial thing, the stable leadership of the club in the modern-day. In contrast to 1983, whilst the club made only its second operating profit last season since the sale of the Goldstone in 1997, the club is now on a stable financial footing thanks to the continued investment of the current day Chairman Tony Bloom.

Furthermore, a typical modern football club’s organisational model allows for whole departments to take care of some tasks that in 1983 would be just one of many areas of the manager’s job description. The people the club have employed such as Paul Winstanley, Paul Barber and Dan Ashworth allow Chris Hughton and his coaches to focus on ensuring the team is settled, happy and well prepared for the next match. A key ingredient to the Albion’s success in recent seasons.

This is demonstrated in the comparison of the current team to Brighton’s record under Bailey that season. Despite their reputation as a defensive side, whilst Bailey remained in charge up to 4th December that season Brighton conceded 3 goals or more on average once every three games. In comparison, in the first half of this season, Brighton conceded three once, in a 3-1 away defeat to Everton. Whilst Hughton’s team can rightly be called defence-minded at times, the record during this period of Bailey’s tenure in comparison makes his side look like a team which was poorly set up defensively.

Back to 1983, it now looked inevitable that with the instability the club had financially coupled with the decreasing attendances that the club were experiencing that it would be panicked into making a change and they did so in December by sacking manager Mike Bailey. Chairman Mike Bamber justified the change by saying: “Our public need to be entertained and our style of play had become too boring”.

In the current day sacking managers is not something Tony Bloom has shown himself to be afraid of, but more important than that is his ability to appoint the right man in their place. Which is something that the almost instantaneous differences between Bamber and Bailey suggest was a skill which Bamber at times lacked. This is not to suggest Bailey did a bad job, he indeed took the club to its highest ever league finish the season before. But quite clearly he wasn’t the man for the brief Bamber was looking for.

In order to turn things around former Liverpool ‘keeper Jimmy Melia was appointed with clear instructions to bring in exciting, attacking football and the cup run was a perfect remedy for that. He won his first game in charge against Norwich 3-0, but aside from the Cup run this win proved to be a false dawn. No wins and just four points from their next 10 games left Brighton bottom of the table. Unfortunately attacking football and an iconic cup run came at the expense of the club’s league form and ultimately, its top-flight status.

Despite a more attacking emphasis in their play and the positivity that came with the cup run, the club couldn’t turn around its poor league form. Then Brighton player Jimmy Case said: “Everyone was lifted by the magic and the dream of Wembley, but against that background, it was difficult to get the team motivated for the never-ending struggle for League points.”

Don’t be fooled though, this team were no bunch of chancers, Jimmy Case was a former multiple time First Division and European Cup winner from his days with Liverpool, Steve Foster had just represented England at the 1982 World Cup and Gordon Smith had signed for the club in 1980 for a then Glasgow Rangers record fee for £440k. In comparison an analysis produced at the start of this season showed how relatively inexperienced the current Brighton squad is compared to the rest of their competitors. Brighton’s squad cumulative experience was the fifth lowest in the Premier League, totalling 563 Premier League appearances, over 1,000 less than next place Newcastle.

That said, the realities for Chris Hughton managing his modern-day Brighton side are very different. Whilst his first eleven may be relatively inexperienced, the squad depth he has available enables him to prioritise the league over the cup whilst still putting a competitive side out in the cup competitions. This is very different to 1983. For example, the man who infamously missed the chance to win the cup final in the 120th minute, Gordon Smith, was more of a right winger but was playing up front as first choice striker Terry Connor was cup-tied, and club-hero Peter Ward’s loan had ended after parent club Nottingham Forest refused to extend it.

Jimmy Melia’s brief when he was brought in as manager was one of playing attacking football but doing so with a side that had been previously set up to defend first feels a bit like not maximising the potential of your resources. And this is an issue the odd new signing was unable to resolve. In contrast, maximising the potential of his available resources is something Hughton has been an expert at doing since joining the club.

Many will talk of the increase in salary of a first team player since 1983 at Brighton, but this is largely in line with the average inflation seen in the English top flight football since then. But the relative riches and competitive status of English club football compared to other leagues across Europe and further afield, means even the lowlier ranked top-flight clubs in England like Brighton can attract players from all over globe. Brighton’s 1983 squad was made up of entirely British & Irish players but now the club has a first team squad containing 15 nationalities across four continents including Davy Pröpper of the Netherlands, Jose Izquierdo of Columbia, Maty Ryan of Australia and Yves Bissouma of Mali.

Nonetheless back in 1983 the club was financially in trouble, a situation that coupled with relegation most clubs can nowadays limit the damage of due to the Premier League parachute payments they receive after relegation, as well as contracted relegation clauses. But in those days clubs had to fend much more for themselves, especially without the level of revenue clubs now generate from TV rights sales, even in the lower leagues of the English Football League.

Whilst 1983 saw arguably the club’s greatest day competing in the showpiece event of the football calendar, it was achieved with all this chaos going on in the background. This along with the emphasis on playing attacking and entertaining football despite difficult circumstances is more reminiscent of Brighton during the Withdean years than of today.

It will come as no surprise to you that subsequent to relegation the squad was dismantled. With first team players including Gary Stevens, Michael Robinson, Steve Foster, Tony Grealish, and Gordon Smith all leaving the club before the end of the following season. Melia resigned in October of the following season after yet another falling out at the club, this time between him and new chief coach Chris Cattlin who subsequently replaced Melia as manager. 

The squad depth of today means selling off the best players would have less of a negative effect. This is shown not just by the success of the fringe players in the cup but also taking into account players who are out on loan and others currently in the successful u23 squad. 

Furthermore, whilst the legacy left of the First Division days was little but memories, today is a very different story. Whereas the 1980’s saw the clubs ground the Goldstone become an ever more crumbling mess. The club now have a plethora of great facilities. Most notably a world-class stadium in Falmer and a training ground in Shoreham that is the envy of many other clubs.

After 1983 the club began a demise from possibly its greatest day to arguably its darkest days. The club was again relegated to the third tier in 1987 and despite an instant return to the second tier and a brief flurry with the playoffs during a promotion push back to the top flight in the 1990/91 season, it continued its demise up to 1997 where it was a game from going out of the Football League. After subsequently spending the next two years in exile ground sharing with Gillingham, the club returned to Brighton at the make-shift location of Withdean Stadium, not moving into a permanent home until the AMEX was opened in Falmer in 2011.

Whilst there are obvious comparisons between the 1983 and 2019 teams, after all these are two of the best sides the club has had in its 118 year history, there are far more differences. Many make the comparison to 1983, in part as it’s possibly the most notable season in the club’s history. But the reality is that modern football has changed considerably and as a club Brighton are a perfect example of how much things have progressed.

Will the club repeat the contrasting feats of the 1983 side this season? It’s still possible, but the club is well positioned to attack the relegation battle successfully with any further progression in the cup a bonus, in contrast to the aftermath of the 1982/83 season. Moreover, even if relegation were the outcome of this season, the club’s stability and infrastructure put in place by the investment of Tony Bloom, means it is well positioned to not continue the fall as seen by the club subsequent to the 1983 cup final defeat.