Brighton fans are enjoying top flight football down on the South coast for the first time since 1983. Despite their picturesque location The Seagulls aren’t treating it as a holiday and intend to become an established Premier League club. FPL Draft Boss spoke to supporter Darren McKay who has been an Albion fan for over 38 years, co-edited Scars & Stripes fanzine and has run the leading website for Brighton fans NorthStandChat.com for 17 years.
After failing to find the net in any of their first 3 games a season of struggle appeared to be on the cards for Brighton. But the team that finished 2nd in the Championship in May silenced their critics with a hugely impressive 3-1 home victory over West Brom in Gameweek 4’s “Battle Of The Albions”. After taking the lead in their next fixture away at Bournemouth the Seagulls conceded 2 goals in the final 25 minutes to lose the game and leave Chris Hughton’s side on 4 points after 5 matches.
“We’re doing OK.” says Darren, “We’re probably about level with where we thought we’d be at this stage although it was disappointing not to have come away from the Vitality Stadium with something on Friday night. Having been 1 nil up in the 66th minute I thought we were largely containing them, putting in a typical Chris Hughton away game performance. Then Jordon Ibe came on and changed things with 2 well-worked assists for Andrew Surman and Jermain Defoe. I think we’re doing OK but if we had come away with something from Bournemouth, I’d have been delighted with our start.”
Brighton have the chance to improve on their current league position with a home fixture against fellow promoted side Newcastle United on Sunday. A win would put them just 2 points behind the visitors who enter Gameweek 6 occupying a Champions League place. Whilst such lofty heights will be out of reach come the end of the season what would be seen as success for BHAFC this term? Darren is in no doubt that maintaining Premier League status is the minimum requirement for Brighton.
“It’s a cliche, but I think it’s as simple as just surviving this first season and giving ourselves the chance to progress from there. Clubs like Swansea, Watford, Burnley and Palace have all proved it can be done. Get through that first season, and then give yourself a chance to be a bit more competitive in the season that follows and move on from there.”
Owner Tony Bloom has certainly backed his manager with The Seagulls breaking their club transfer record 3 times this summer in an effort to compete with the best sides England has to offer. The only notable departure was that of Goalkeeper David Stockdale who made the EFL Championship PFA Team Of The Year in 2016/17 before surprisingly leaving Brighton for Birmingham City when his contract expired in July.
Darren takes up the story, “David Stockdale was a bit of an unusual one in many cases because he was very much loved in the 3 years that he was with us. He earned us a lot of points, including saving 3 penalties in a row. Many fans considered it was quite strange that we wouldn’t put a contract offer on the table that was good enough for him to sign and stay with us. As such he moved on to Birmingham.”
Brighton acted quickly to replace Stockdale with the signing of Australian Mathew Ryan from Valencia for a fee in excess of £5M. Ryan had spent the second half of last season on loan at Belgian side KRC Genk, helping them reach the Quarter Finals of the Europa League.
“Ryan hasn’t had a brilliant start so far, to be honest, however he has looked more assured in the last couple of games. There is a still some concern amongst the fanbase, with some believing that he’s not tall enough . A lot of keepers in the modern game are bigger but I’ve seen lists of 10 or so world class keepers over the last ten years who are Ryan’s height or shorter.”
Some Premier League experience between the sticks was added in the form of Newcastle’s Tim Krul but up to now it is Ryan who has been given the starting role. “Most Premier League squads have 3 reasonable goalkeepers and with Krul joining Maty Ryan and Finland international Niki Mäenpää we now have 3 keepers capable of playing in the Premier League. It will be interesting to see if Tim Krul does pressure to take Maty Ryan’s starting place.”
The next player to become the Club’s record signing was Dutch international midfielder Davy Pröpper who was recruited from PSV Eindhoven. “After the first couple of games, some Albion fans questioned whether Chris Hughton was playing Pröpper out of position. He played for Holland a couple of weeks ago as a number 10, scoring a couple of goals and was Dutch man of the match. With us he’s playing in a central midfield position. Pascal Groß, who we have also brought in this Summer, had been playing as our number 10 without getting any results. As soon as fans started saying Chris Hughton may have got things the wrong way round, Pascal Groß scored 2 goals and set up both of our others. One of the reasons we bought Groß was he created the highest number of chances in the Bundesliga last year despite his team being relegated. After a slow start he seems to be growing into the English game which is clearly a different style of football for him.”
The final major arrival of the summer was Colombian winger Jose Izquierdo, a former winner of Belgian Player Of The Year for his work at Club Brugge. “We haven’t really seen much of Izquierdo yet. He signed for around £16 Million but he’s barely played yet. He came on for around 10 minutes against Watford, and he came on against Bournemouth but only once we had gone 2-1 down and it was far too late by then. By all accounts he didn’t have much of a pre-season so he’s still getting his fitness and his match sharpness.”
Markus Suttner has been brought in to bolster the defence and has 20 international caps to his name. The Austrian has played every minute in the Premier League so far but is yet to convince of his qualities, “We needed a new left back and he been OK but is arguably the least impressive of our outfield signings at this early stage.” Fans will be hoping he settles quickly, having arrived from the same German side as Pascal Groß, FC Ingolstadt 04.
The only negative from the summer business was an inability to land a centre forward in what proved to be a difficult market for several Premier League clubs.
“That’s the where we failed to strengthen in the transfer window and the club have been very open about that. We were linked with a few strikers from overseas and one from Spain fell through at the last minute and we made a very late move for Vincent Janssen from Spurs. I’ve no idea how much we were looking to pay for him but West Brom reportedly had a bid of £23 Million turned down earlier that day. We tried to get him in and a deal was agreed with Tottenham but Janssen, who was away on international duty playing with Davy Pröpper for the Netherlands, turned the move down and he’s since gone off to Fenerbahce. So we tried very hard but unfortunately, like many other teams, Everton, Crystal Palace, even Man City to some degree with Alexis Sanchez we tried to bring another striker in and weren’t able to do it.”
“It’s certainly the area where we are light. Glenn Murray & Tomer Hemed have got very good records in the Championship, and Sam Baldock offers something different but he’s not an out and out goalscorer. Unfortunately, he’s also had a bad injury record and he hasn’t featured yet this season. We did get goals from all around the team last season, Anthony Knockaert got 15 League goals from midfield, Solly March will get a few, Jamie Murphy if he plays will get a few and both Pascal Groß and Davy Pröpper should chip in as well. Clearly it is the area of concern for us and as long as we’re not hopelessly adrift by Christmas then that will be a position that gets strengthened in the January window. Until then we will be hoping that Glenn Murray stays fit and scores some goals.”
“It seems likely that we will spend big in January, certainly by our own standards, to get a striker in. Originally there was talk about signing 2 forwards over the Summer, and it seemed that Tomer Hemed would be available to leave for £7M or £8M if we had managed to land our targets.”
Israel striker Hemed scored and assisted in the game against West Brom but Darren sees him as only a short term solution for Brighton. “With what we’ve got at the moment Glenn Murray would be our main man up front and I would expect him to return to the starting lineup if possible this Sunday. Murray is still coming back from injury so hasn’t been 100% fit over the last couple of games. It will then be interesting to see what Hughton does with the number 10 position because Izzy Brown, on loan from Chelsea, is back in training now after going off injured in the first half of our opening game against Manchester City. Reports suggest he will be close this weekend so may be on the bench against Newcastle. It will be interesting, once he’s fit , to see who Chris Hughton will go for at number 10 because Izzy Brown started the first game of the season in that role but now Pascal Groß has since found his form.”
Albion have been playing a 4-4-1-1 formation so far in 2016/17 and this looks set to continue. “I think that will be our starting formation all season – Hughton’s been pretty clear about that. In the Championship we were very much 4-4-2 but he feels we can’t afford to play that way given that in most games we’re not going to be the strongest side. I think it will only revert to 4-4-2 if we are chasing the game which is what happened in the last 10-15 minutes away at Bournemouth on Friday night.”
“I can’t see us being prolific goalscorers so I can see Chris Hughton looking to keep things tight and nick some 1 nil wins. That said I thought that the West Brom game would be tight, and we went on to score 3 and it could have been more to be honest.”
One nil wins have to begin with a clean sheet and Brighton have the tools to shut out teams even at this level. “Our defence is probably our strongest area, especially in the middle with Lewis Dunk who’s been outstanding already so far. Dunk is partnered with Shane Duffy who is very much an old- fashioned centre half. He wins everything in the air, he’s very uncompromising and quite good at getting on the end of set pieces at the other end of the pitch as well.”
“Lewis Dunk is a bit more cultured, he plays with his feet and likes to surge forward with the ball out of defence. He can ping long diagonal quarterback-style passes, often to Knockaert on the right wing. He’s a very good player and this is a big season for him and could shape the direction of the rest of his career. If he continues to impress, then regardless of what happens to us he could be set for a big move at the end of the season and probably shouldn’t be too far away from an England squad place. He’s that good.”
Another player with potential to set alight the top division this campaign is Anthony Knockaert who won the Championship Player of the year last term. However after 5 games he is yet to register a goal or an assist and faces a tough task to replicate his form from a year ago.
“I have been slightly concerned that he won’t have the impact we’d all hope for” says Darren, “My worry is that Premier League defenders are just that much savvier and clearly he’s the main player in our team that opposition managers will be trying to keep quiet. Also, he can lose his temper at times, and when he does he becomes less effective. I hope I’m wrong because he’s a fantastic player and he’s been brilliant for us and has shown some promise without really standing out so far but we will see.”
Solly March is someone who does appear to be seizing his chance on the big stage after a difficult couple of years with injury. He scored the opener last week against Bournemouth and the 23 year old Englishman has impressed in recent matches.
“For a young player he’s been very unlucky with injuries. He went down away at Derby County the season before last and their fans gave him stick as they thought he was faking injury. He wasn’t, and was out for a year as as result. Understandably it took him a while to get back and he returned to the side last season, mainly from the bench. Once again he’s started to show the promise he had before his layoff. He withdrew from the England U21s this Summer to focus on getting fit for the start of the Premier League season. He’s still a young player even if it feels as though he’s been around for years, and he should have a very bright future ahead of him. It will be interesting to see what happens because Jose Izquierdo plays in that left wing position and if Solly March doesn’t perform he could find himself spending a lot of time on the bench.”
There seems to be a lot of good will towards Brighton now they have finally made it to the top table after a few years at the top end of the Championship. In 2015/16 a draw away at Middlesbrough on the final day of the season saw the Teessiders clinch automatic promotion at Brighton’s expense thanks to a goal difference advantage of just +2. They bounced straight back from that disappointment and just over 12 months later are in the Premier League.
Manager Chris Hughton has also proven to be a popular figure. “It’s become obvious since he’s been with us that across the whole game there doesn’t seem to be anyone that has a bad word to say about him. He seems to be one of the most liked men in football and he’s been fantastic for Brighton. He’s a very humble and softly spoken man and whilst I’m sure that’s not always the case when he’s behind the dressing room door, everything he says in public is so positive. He never looks to blame other people, other clubs nor referees – he’s a very measured man.”
Such is Hughton’s standing at Albion that his position seems secure even if things don’t go well for Brighton this season. Could he be put under pressure if his side suffers from a bad run? “I’d be surprised. I think Tony Bloom is a very patient man and he has a lot of respect for Hughton and what he’s done. If we were to go down he would need someone very good to try and get us back up again. There’s possibly no one better than Chris Hughton for that so I really couldn’t see him losing his job this season with us no matter what.”
Have Brighton got what it takes to enjoy an extended stay in the elite tier of English football? “In terms of resources most of the money that Bloom has put into the club has gone on infrastructure in terms of the ground and our training complex but he’s also spent reasonably on the team. Last season we averaged around 28,000 fans for every home game in the Championship and we have sold out every away game so far this season. Given the other clubs that have done so I don’t see a reason why we can’t establish ourselves in the Premier League.”
Brighton fans will be hoping the likes of Lewis Dunk can progress their careers without ever having to leave the South Coast club. The first step on that journey would be 3 points at home to Newcastle this Sunday.
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