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.