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.

The Boos are back in town

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Restructure plans add to an increasingly tumultuous week

I started my most recent blog about the Premier Leagues recent Pay Per View scheme by suggesting that it had been a tumultuous week in the history of Premier League, and that was before the proposed plans for the restructuring of English Football were released.

Project Big Picture has been largely derided by most on-lookers, but it appears to have a great deal of consensus from those with the game. Matt Slater of The Athletic stated “If it went to a vote of the 92 clubs in the top 4 divisions, I think it gets 2/3 majority. It’s not. And it won’t. But what next?”

In the early 2000s Brighton chairman Dick Knight cashed in a number of future incentive based payments in a transfer deal with Aston Villa for the former Albion youth player and future Villa club captain Gareth Barry for £500k. These incentives included a 15% sell on clause, which after in 2009 he was sold to Man City for £12.5m effectively cost the club £1.8m alone.

But with Villa using their power to stall on payments, (one of which had to be deducted from their TV broadcasting fee and paid to Albion instead after Doug Ellis had refused to pay it) the club simply needed the cash to ensure its short term survival and couldn’t risk further delay in future payments being made effecting cash flow any further.

It’s on a similar basis I assume that the latest Premier League restructure plans have been able garner EFL support. Amongst great economic uncertainty and widespread threat of clubs going out of business throughout its three divisions, survival is paramount. Even if it is at the expense of future revenue and leads to a decrease in opportunities for success.

Part of the restructure plans would see the League Cup scrapped. A competition much derided but which forms a huge part of the EFL’s £119m a year TV deal. Yes, the increase in redistribution of the Premier league’s TV broadcasting revenue would see significantly increase revenue for EFL clubs. But at what expense?

What’s then to stop the Premier League from changing its mind and greatly reducing the distribution of funds a few years down the line?

Put simply the big clubs behind this like Liverpool and Man United are exploiting the adversity faced across English football for their own gain.

The Guardian journalist David Conn has been a rare voice in support of the plans and said “There should be a fight over ‘Big 6’ plans for Premier League power, but proposal to share 25% of TV deals with the EFL could secure the pyramid, and should not be swept off the table. The other 14 Premier League clubs have come up with nothing like it.”

It’s a fair point, I’m no fan of these plans but David’s right, intervention is needed to secure the futures of many clubs in the EFL and beyond and what are clubs like our own proposing?

No help whatsoever seemingly. Brighton’s CEO and Deputy Chairman Paul Barber has instead spent the last few weeks arguing that Premier League clubs need to protect their own interest first.

Yes Premier League club need to look after its own interest. But there is a huge difference between looking after your own business and doing so at the expense of others in your industry.

Paul Barber talks a lot about football clubs being a business, and they are. But unlike most businesses they’re hugely reliant on their competitors to increase the industry’s spectacle for their own financial success.

He’s come in for a lot of well-earned criticism lately, but it should be said that Paul Barber is a great Chief Executive and always represents the club well. However, in an industry in crisis with income plummeting across the board due to no fans being allowed in stadiums in English football’s top 6 tiers, protecting every job may sadly be a fallacy.

Brighton and Hove Albion Football Club prospers most when the entire football community prospers, losing clubs helps no one.

During the late 1990’s and 2000’s the club attracted funds from various sources to make ends meet amongst its lengthening stadium battle. Without the prosperity that the depth of the English football pyramid offers, who knows if that funding would have been forthcoming.

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we all need each other a lot more than we previously appreciated. Premier League clubs need to do better to remember that.