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.

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.

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.

Three wins out of three, but how good are this Brighton team?

The past two weeks have seen a near perfect start to the season for Brighton. Two wins out of two in the league, through to the 3rd round of the league cup and they go into Saturday’s home match against Everton with the opportunity to go top of the league with a win if other results go their way.

It’s the sort of start to the season that has all but stopped the panic from supporters for the club to sign a new striker… well almost.

But these are very early days and we do have to acknowledge that it was only Burnley, Watford, and Cardiff that Albion have racked up these wins against. A bit of a reality check could go a long way right now.

Yes, as has rightly been pointed out after the win over Watford, these are games that Albion weren’t winning last season. However, beating the teams below you doesn’t indicate progress in terms of league status, despite it still being a sign of improved consistency from Graham Potter’s side.

In contrast, Brighton secured survival last season by picking up wins and points in games many didn’t expect, such as at home to Man City and away to Liverpool. Repeating such successes this season will be tough, so improving results against the teams below them such as the in last two matches will help to safeguard against regression rather than securing progression.

Ultimately the aim of this season, as it has been in the four previous, is to survive relegation, whilst showing further signs of progress. To be able to achieve the club’s long-term goal of an established top half place, far more time and progression is required. This may be the stated aim of some Albion players this season, but that is very different to it being a realistic expectation.

If we look at the team’s Albion would be competing with to achieve that, including Saturday’s opponents Everton, the lack of room for Albion to progress into quickly becomes apparent.

Most pundits seem to think the top 4 this season writes itself (Man City, Chelsea, Liverpool and Man United, not necessarily in that order), with the FA Cup and Community Shield holders Leicester City the only rare exception to some predictions.

In addition to that group of clubs, Arsenal and Spurs – the other two members of the “big 6”, who whilst having had their recent struggles, will know anything less than a top 6 finish would represent an underachievement.

Then there’s Saturday’s opponents Everton, who since the investment of Farhad Moshiri have gone from a team whose glory days appeared to be in the past, to one now reverting to a club aiming to break into the top 6. But whilst the managerial tenures of Marco Silva and Carlo Ancelotti promised much, the club hasn’t finished inside the top 6 since 2014 under Roberto Martinez.

Then there’s the likes of big spending Aston Villa and last season’s big overachievers West Ham, who both have stated ambitions to break into the top 6. For Albion the reality is finishing ahead of any of these sides in the table this season would represent an overachievement. Unfortunately as Albion continue to progress, so do the teams above them.

It seems a matter of time before this weekend’s opponents Everton get it right. According to Spotrac their wage bill stands a just over £81m a year, the 7th highest in the division, only a few million pounds short of Spurs and over £30m ahead of the 8th highest Leicester City.

It also reportedly stands at more than double that of Brighton’s wage bill, reportedly the 15th highest in the division, sandwiched in-between Watford and Southampton.

Wage bills aren’t everything, but they do have a huge say in a team’s performances on the pitch and as such the expectations we should place upon them.

The book “Soccernomics” by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski talks about the degree to which football clubs can improve their competitiveness by spending more money on player wages. It included a study that covered the period 1998 to 2007, which showed spending on wages explains about 89% of performance (Kuper & Szymanski, 2010), whilst a study for the period 2003 to 2012, the explanatory power was about 91% for the clubs in the two top divisions in England.

This isn’t just one study either, several other researchers also document that wage expenditures can explain from 77% to 90% of the variations in the performance of clubs in domestic league competitions (Forrest & Simmons, 2002; Gammelsæter & Ohr, 2002; Sperling, Nordskilde, & Bergander, 2010).

It’s not all bad news, Albion have in successive recent seasons continued to over-perform its financial status. Firstly, by getting into the topflight and then by staying there ahead of some more established clubs.

In part this has been achieved by attempting to out-think its opponents. Tony Bloom realised a long time ago that if the club were to achieve topflight status, let alone sustain it, he would have to find margins and gains on their opponents by being smarter rather than simply through financial stealth.

As Sam Cunningham described in an interview with Bloom for the Daily Mail in 2017, “Bloom talks — and thinks — in edges and gains, in fortune and favour. He pauses before answering questions, always calculating.” And this is how Albion build their squad and make every decision – carefully considering how they can gain an edge on their opponents.

A growing theme of Albion under Graham Potter is the success stories of so many players who’ve previously been written off. Be it Solly March, who signed a long-term contract extension this week, man of the moment Shane Duffy, the often written-off Neal Maupay, the regularly disregarded Dan Burn, or the perennially underrated Pascal Gross. I could go on, but you get the point.

Neal Maupay in particular is a player whom opinions of have flip-flopped more than most. Have a game where he doesn’t score and misses a big chance and he’s not good enough, but then score two games in a row and he’s Albion most important player and his potential injury is a crisis. Following the prevailing thought of football supporters and pundits can be exhausting. It’s a good thing Graham Potter and the senior leadership team at the club are above such things.

Where some like the Guardian have called Maupay a “flop” (the Guardian named him as one of the five flops of the 2020/21 season despite being Albion’s top scorer for the second season running), Albion see potential. Two goals in his first two games doesn’t make a successful season, but it’s a great start. His story of patient progress that has seen him break hit the 20 goal landmark in the Premier League, is a great example of how Albion are trying to build on their previous successes and progress to one day be able to compete toe to toe with the likes of Everton and Leicester throughout a season.

Neil Maupay has gone through tough periods in an Albion shirt, but the continued trust placed in him, and others alike, is a testament to their position as important members of this squad of players.

This isn’t just about Maupay, this is an entire group of players who’ve had question marks over them at one point or another. A couple of weeks ago most Albion fans had given up on Shane Duffy, but all of a sudden he’s now a hero again.

This time last year Pascal Gross could barely get into the team, whilst the same could be said of Yves Bissouma’s after a tricky first season with the club just two years ago. But both are now widely admired and have been instrumental to Albion’s continued success and progression on the pitch.

The reality of this progress however is that it will continue to be steady, the risk of relegation remains very real and the forecast for Albion’s season is that there will be a fair few downs to go with the ups of the last few weeks. But through it all the club will remain consistent in its approach, which has served it well so far.

We are very quick to categorise players or teams as either very good or very bad. The reality, as ever, is always somewhere in the middle. Albion’s good start does not make them shoe-ins for European qualification, nor would going top on Saturday. And even if this season saw a significant overachievement it wouldn’t suddenly make them an established top half side, as both Burnley’s and Wolves’s recent brief flirtation with European competition show.

But with the steady hand of Tony Bloom on the steering wheel, the steady progress of this team looks likely to continue.

As Graham Potter said after the victory at home to Man City towards the end of last season: “I’ve never really lost that support from Tony, to be honest. No matter what is said on the outside, no matter what people write or talk about on different things, I’ve never paid attention to it.”

But all that being said, how good actually is this Brighton team?

The reality is probably about as good as it’s wage bill suggests, somewhere floating above the relegation zone in the bottom half, but, with the leadership at the club as it is, the likelihood of continuing to outperform that status (within a reasonable margin) is good this season.

However, the degree to which the club does that may be less than some fans are hoping for. A European challenge is unlikely, but finishing a few places higher than last season’s 16th place and matching its best ever finish of 13th would be a fantastic achievement, especially if the team added to last seasons disappointing goals scored tally.

As the financial might of Saturday’s opponents shows, anything above this looks increasingly difficult and will likely rely on the clubs previously mentioned underperforming, combined with Albion consistently over-performing, which over the course of an entire season is incredibly difficult to see happening.

Are Brighton paying the price of too much long-term thinking?

This Saturday sees the first of two important matches in Brighton’s third Premier League season, as they travel to fellow strugglers West Ham this Saturday before hosting a rejuvenated but nonetheless relegation threatened Watford the next.

Brighton’s recent “crisis” is put into context when you consider the goings on at their next venue the London Stadium. Since moving from their previous long-term home Upton Park in 2017 with promises of Champions League football and exciting new signings, West Ham have instead experienced three seasons of struggle on the field and strife off it. It makes you glad that at very least we have an owner who cares about more than profit margins and a chief executive that we can trust.

Our following weekends opponents Watford were in all sorts of trouble earlier in the season, when it looked like the continuous upheaval in their playing and coaching staff was finally catching up with them. (Ironically after the first summer break when they stuck with their manager since 2013, two years prior to their promotion to the topflight). But the clubs third ‘permanent’ manager of the season Nigel Pearson has instead improved the club’s fortunes with 15 points in his first 8 games in charge. A total which equates to 2/3rds of the points the club have accumulated all season.

In contrast Brighton’s focus in recent years has been about stability and long-term planning, but the club has come under increasing criticism of late, primarily for its record in the transfer market. Whilst this type of criticism is part and parcel of a bad run of form, Brighton’s current predicament does raise important questions that need to be answered.

Primarily: Can the club be accused of looking too far into the long term and neglecting its focus from short term success?

The initial signs from this season were good. After dispensing with first team manager Chris Hughton for a younger, more exciting and attack-minded coach in Graham Potter, performances looked to be improving. And whilst results at first were somewhat hard to come by, three wins at home to Spurs, Everton and then Norwich won most sceptics over.

Along with that, a MoM performance in front of the Sky Sports cameras by U23 graduate Steven Alzate away at Newcastle, followed by a brace from fellow U23 graduate and last season’s Premier League 2 player of the season Aaron Connolly, added further evidence of Potter’s good work and appeared to justify the trust he has placed in the younger members of the squad to fill the gaps. 

And there is plenty of evidence of his good work, no more so than the team’s change in tactical style. A change in which Potter has innovated and evolved the team from a deep lying defensively-minded team to a more front-foot attack-minded side. 

But change has come with growing pains. Pains not eased by the at times poor execution of Potter’s management. Be that through constantly altering team selections, a growing tendency for panicked substitutions of varying success when his changes in personnel don’t work, or simply asking too much of certain players. All in all, Graham Potter’s relative inexperience in topflight management has been on show, just as much as his innovative and exciting tactical ideas.

Possibly the biggest anomaly so far is that despite how much tactical innovation and adaptability he’s shown, and despite how much ability he’s shown to develop players, this ability is seemingly not enough to get the best out of arguably the club’s two best players from the previous two Premier League seasons in both Glenn Murray and Shane Duffy.

Whilst Murray’s age can excuse Potter over some of the criticism of his absence from the top scorers list, this coupled with Connolly failing to add to his two goals against Tottenham in early October has meant much of Albion’s goal threat has been placed on the shoulders of the inexperienced if talented Neal Maupay, who has proved at times deadly but at times unreliable in front of goal.

After the club were arguably swept away in the early season optimism, Potter was given what was then an unexpected and what now looks like an unnecessary two-year extension to his already long-term four-year contract. On announcing the news the club said: “In the summer we unveiled a new long-term vision for us to become an established top-ten Premier League club, and we feel even more strongly that Graham as a bright, energetic and innovative head coach, is the right man to lead us there.” Comments that add further suspicion to the fact that the club’s long-term goals might be overshadowing its short-term objectives.

But it hasn’t just been the Brighton Board of directors who’ve been praising Potter’s work potentially too soon. Many jumped to praise him after the 3-0 win away to Watford on the opening day, a win that looks far less impressive in hindsight given how Watford’s season then played out. Others have added high praise following the wins over Everton, Spurs and Arsenal, wins that look more like anomalies than signs of improvement considering the more recent disappointing results and performances.

But Potter’s work and the club’s senior management have certainly still got plenty to be proud of. It pays to think about the long-term, but a key element to success is finding a balance between a focus on long-term goals with an equally important focus on short- and medium-term objectives.

Short-termism has become an unattractive characteristic amongst much of English football in the Premier League era, but long-termism can be just as dangerous. As Ken Favaro said in the Harvard Business Review “You cannot sacrifice the short-term for the long-term and expect to have a future any more than the other way around. In other words, long-termism is just as bad as short-termism.”

For Brighton, having the long-term goal of becoming a top-half topflight club certainly adds value to the club’s operations. But without achieving the short-term objective of another season of Premier League survival, that goal becomes much harder to achieve and moreover becomes an implausible prospect to have faith in.

Whether the club has and will continue to find that balance and avoid the harm to its long-term goals that would come with relegation to the Championship will become much clearer over the next two matches.