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.

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Progression vs Financial Sustainability

Following Brighton Mens team’s first ever top-half topflight finish last season, attentions have quickly turned to bettering that next season. Former Albion striker and current club ambassador Bobby Zamora recently said of the club’s prospects on TalkSport that “their aim next year has got to be Europe… There is not a year when they have gone backwards in the last five, ten years… As a club and where they are aiming to be, there has been a progression every year.”

Progression certainly has been the name of the game since Tony Bloom took ownership of the club in 2009. The previous season had seen one of the greatest relegation escapes in the club history as a run of five wins from their last seven overturned an eight point deficit to avoid relegation back to the fourth tier of English Football. The club even went into the final day of the season still needing points to be sure of safety.

But there was an instant upturn in fortunes when Tony Bloom took over, largely associated with the investment he provided to fund building the new stadium, which was opened two years later. After winning League One in 2011, the club were denied a return to the topflight just four years after Bloom took over, losing to Palace in that playoff semifinal. And despite then manager Gus Poyet saying that season was “now or never” for the club’s Premier League ambitions, and a further two playoff semifinal setbacks which followed, the club hasn’t looked back since.

But whilst it’s great talking about ambition and we’ve become accustomed to Albion’s aims of pushing on each season coming to fruition, fulfilling the club’s latest goal of establishing itself within the top half of the Premier League table, whilst working within their sustainable financial ambitions, will be tricky given how much the other Premier League clubs are spending.

If we look at the club’s finances, you can see that Albion have one of the lowest wage bills in the Premier League and a relatively low Wages/Turnover ratio of 72%.

Realistically, I think the club would need to increase their wage bill and up their Wages/Turnover ratio to over 80%, or about another £15m per season in wages to be able to meet those ambitions, which would help the club to keep its existing talent and add to it with additional quality. But that’s unlikely to fit within their important plans for financial sustainability.

The club managed to finish in the top half last season, but as have the likes of Burnley, Leeds and Sheffield United in recent seasons. And as their examples show, achieving that over a consistent period is far tougher and often takes serious investment. Investment of the level which I doubt the club is willing to meet, and for good reason.

The club hasn’t registered a profit since the financial year covering its first Premier League season, 2017/18 (it’s first since 1996/97, a financial result skewed following the sale of the Goldstone Ground), whilst Paul Barber has spoken publicly of the club’s financial target to be breaking even and decrease the reliance on owner Tony Bloom’s ever increasing loan to the club in order to make ends meet, a rather common-sense ambition you would think? But this is Professional Football we are talking about, an industry where common sense is often in short supply and where emotion and ambition often take over.

These financial targets will most likely instead require a reduction in costs, unless there is a significant increase in turnover. Particularly when you consider that in 2021, the club posted a whopping £53.4m loss (which was preceded by a £67.2m loss in 2020), admittedly exacerbated by the pandemic reducing some income sources. Plans to overturn a loss of this extent shows the club can’t expect to rely on additional income alone to achieve a break-even position.

That said, increases in prize money can help to fill that hole. Last season’s 9th place finish saw that increase by £27.5m to £135m. But, the club’s well-known generous performance related bonus structure will have eaten away at some of the additional revenue generated.

Paul Barber has also spoken about increasing other forms of revenue, with increases in revenue from player sales in particular being targeted. This can be seen most prominently with the recent sales of Yves Bissouma, Dan Burn and Ben White, which have all contributed to total player sales of around £100m over the past year, and will no doubt lead to a huge increase in profits from player sales compared to the £15m generated over the previous five years.

However, amounts spent on incoming transfers since promotion to the Premier League more than outweigh that amount and a significant portion of the increase in revenue will be earmarked for future purchases rather than just filling the hole in the bottom line. As Albion’s former Finance Director David Jones said to Andy Naylor for a piece in ‘The Athletic’ “going forward, to reduce the deficit, clearly, player trading needs to be part of the business.”

It is also important to point out here that whilst further increases in player sales could in theory fill the financial gap, it’s questionable whether selling your best players and replacing them on the cheap is a sustainable model to establish yourself in the top half of the Premier League.

As clubs like Southampton have shown, not really. In reality, you need more of a balance and to hold onto some of your best players, whilst replacing those that do leave ahead of time. As Brighton are finding out this summer, the higher you go up the Premier league table the more interest there is in your own players, and the more costly that replacement process becomes.

Ryan Adsett of ‘Seagulls Social’ said on Twitter recently that: “Think fans need to realise that Brighton are not what they once were. The high-quality links suggest we are aiming higher, and because we can now! To progress, the bar must be raised.”

Whilst I think he is right; the problem is I don’t think Albion’s financial model fits with the kind of signings some expect, and the signings that some transfer rumours have alluded to. In the Premier League, money ultimately talks.

So far Albion have managed to reduce their financial deficit and overcome their financial limitations with some smart player purchases. The 2021 accounts showed how transfer expenditure had increased since promotion to the Premier League, with the club now having spent £241m in the last 5 years, but which is still one of the lowest totals in the topflight. Further investment, particularly in attacking areas, will no doubt be required for the club to take that next step.

The issue is of course, that’s the most expensive area of the pitch to recruit for. Recent rumours have linked Brighton with the signing of former loan player Jesse Lingard, which would make sense, particularly with him being out of contract this summer meaning the club could arguably justify the higher wage demands due to a lack of transfer fee. A scenario not dissimilar to Albion’s signing of another former England international, Adam Lallana. But with the likes of West Ham and Newcastle also reportedly interested in Lingard, the prospective deal would be a difficult signing to pull off.

As the reported £41m spent on Alireza Jahanbakhsh, Jurgen Locadia, Florin Andone and Percy Tau is evidence of. You can’t always rely on big money transfer solving your problems.

The club’s other ploy in reducing player transfer spend is to purchase young attacking talent and develop them (via its academy and various loan spells) into the attacking talent the club requires, with this summer’s new signings Julio Enciso and Simon Adingra the latest additions to a long list of young attacking talent, all of whom have yet to reach fruition in terms of first team impact.

That model will probably be tested properly for the first time this season with some of Albion’s returning loanees expected to bolster the first team attacking numbers.

In a recent piece for ‘The Athletic’ Andy Naylor discussed our old favourite subject of taking chances as part of a piece on required areas of improvement, saying: “The additions of Undav, Mitoma and Enciso could help Potter’s side to both create more chances and score more goals.” And along with those three names there’s plenty more aside in terms of potential future attacking talent at the club.

But, whoever you pick off that growing list of names, it’s hard to find a player that you’d hang your hat on for the upcoming season, outside of Albion’s existing attackers. Time will tell if the likes of Sima, Ferguson and Zeqiri will become Albion first team regulars in the future. But the problem for the club in the meantime will be, if the likes of Maupay, Trossard and/or Welbeck leave, then they are relying on those others being ready (or in some cases even capable) of making the step up. The amount who weren’t even involved with the first team last season suggests that many are not. And if not, then an unavoidably large financial outlay would still be required to sign a necessarily established replacement and maintain the club’s level from last season in the short-term, which given the financial constraints is hard to see happening.

The South American football correspondent Tim Vickery has been full of praise for Albion’s transfer strategy of signing young (mostly South American, Vickery’s wheelhouse) talent with a view of developing them into future stars and selling them on at a huge profit, comparing this to the models established by Portuguese giants Benfica and Porto. A model recently seen most prominently with the purchases by Liverpool of Luis Diaz from Porto, and former Albion target Darwin Nunez from Benfica for a combined total of over £100m.

The difficulty Albion have in this area is twofold. Firstly, as the club’s fruitless pursuit of Darwin Nunez showed, their lack of European football makes the club less attractive to some players compared to other clubs from across the continent. And secondly signing younger players with the potential to have the first team impact means, particularly due to the rigours of the Premier League relative to the Portuguese Primeira Liga for example, these players will inevitably spend much of their initial time developing out on loan or on the fringes of the first team.

As the example of Ben White shows (admittedly a youth team product rather than a bought in talent), once Albion’s young talent is up to Premier League standard, if good enough, it won’t take long for them to be of interest to the top clubs, meaning they don’t stick around for long and so only have a short period of impact on the first team. A factor that again raises questions over this transfer strategies impact on the long-term sustainability of first team performance.

Some will say the example of Alexis Mac Allister tells a slightly different story, and that sustained and long-term first team impact is achievable with this approach. But of course, he isn’t primarily filling a position at the very top end of the pitch, being responsible for, as Graham Potter puts it, the hardest thing to do in football, score goals.

As Football finance expert and Albion fan Kieran Maguire spoke about in a recent article for ‘The Business Magazine’, Brighton have provided a financial model for Premier League survival, through expert oversight, cohesive management, a culture of steady, realistic improvement, and a healthy supportive atmosphere.

But to do more than just survive and achieve the club’s long term aim of establishing itself in the top half of the topflight, the club will have to continue to outsmart their opponents and find what Kieran calls “marginal gains”.

The club’s wage budget is currently in the bottom six, and with aims to balance the books at the club coming alongside a culture of spend, spend, spend among many of its Premier League competitors, it’s hard to see that changing.

The Premier League, financially at least, is the most competitive in the world. So, whilst ambitions of continuing to challenge for and become established amongst, the top ten remain,expectations on performance at the club will no doubt stay more grounded.

Whilst the progression has been the name of the game at the club since Tony Bloom became owner in 2009, probability is the likely trajectory of the club going forward could well be downwards from last season’s 9th place rather than upwards. And that relegation, or at least a relegation struggle is very likely in the near term.

There is some cynicism of the recent praise in the national media that both Graham Potter and the club has widely received for what these cynics see as fairly moderate achievements. But with the club’s financial limitations in mind, Albion continue to defy expectations and achieve progression beyond what many have deemed possible, time and time again.

If recent history shows us anything, it’s that Tony Bloom has built a structure and a financial model at the club which is giving the club an edge over its competition. Going forward as ambitions for further progress grows, the club wIll have to make some tough decisions as to how they balance those ambitions with the importance of the club’s financial sustainability.

Frustration and promise, with Albion set to break multiple records

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A trip to Elland Road with many permutations and much bravado

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Progress under Potter yet to be seen at the AMEX

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drab, uninspired and winless in eleven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Boos are back in town

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When the love is gone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Brighton were Skint

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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