Five defeats and 72 goals scored, that’s the form of Champions. In the Championship, it was. Burnley won the title with the same stats while Middlesbrough went up after nine defeats and just 63 goals scored. Yet, Brighton will remain in the Championship for the 2016-17 season as their luck, and form cost them in their play-off tie against Sheffield Wednesday.
Over the course of a 46 game season, it’s not very often that you can claim that bad luck has cost a side promotion. Looking at the table on the final day of the season, seeing Brighton miss out on promotion by two goal difference, the bad luck case is clear to see.
Since promotion as champions of League 1 in 2011 under Gus Poyet, the south coast side proved themselves to be a solid Championship side, and in their first three seasons in the league they didn’t finish lower than 10th and were twice defeated in the play-off semi-final, but this year hurts so much more.
After finishing 20th last season following a disastrous start to the season under Sami Hyypia and a small recovery under Chris Hughton, expectations fell for the former Newcastle and Norwich manager this time around. Despite a flash new ground and a comfortable bank balance, even after a £7 million spending spree in the summer, an amount which is no longer eye-catching in the Championship, The Guardian included them amongst “relegation contenders” in their season preview, while even the most optimistic season preview prediction from the Bleacher Report went for a 13th placed finish for the men in blue and white stripes.
With all that said, it’s fair to say that no-one saw it coming when they enjoyed a 21 game unbeaten run at the start of the season. Topping the Championship throughout the early stages of the season put them in pole position, but a mid-season wobble at the end of their unbeaten run saw them drop down the table.
So, what cost them? Bizarrely, despite being the joint top scorers in the division and not losing a game until mid-December, they did not win a game by a two-goal margin until February, when they then did so three times in one month, and then failed to do so again until late April, when they again recorded three impressive consecutive results with a 5-0 win against Fulham, 4-0 against QPR and 3-1 at Charlton. In a season with 17 draws, one goal can make the slightest difference as it would have in any of their eight 0-0 draws.
But it hasn’t just been scoring goals that has been a problem. At the other end, they conceded 42 goals, only 4 fewer than 15th placed Blackburn Rovers, and Brighton have struggled late on in games. Against Burnley, a 93rd equaliser cost them two points. Against QPR in December, an 88th-minute equaliser. Against Derby just three days earlier, another 88th-minute equaliser. Against Bolton in September, a 94th-minute equaliser. If Brighton had held their nerve for a few more minutes in just one of those games, as would be expected against the likes of QPR and Bolton, or put one chance away in just one of those 0-0s, they’d have been promoted. If they’d done it in two, they’d have been level on points with champions Burnley.
Luck was a major factor too. Whilst blaming the fixture list is a common complaint from many managers in the modern game, Brighton did face three of the top five sides in their final five league games, resulting in a Hughton having to field a fatigued side than Sheffield Wednesday who faced just one of the top five, and could relax on the final day with their playoff position confirmed heading into the final 90 minutes of the season, whilst Brighton fought for their lives with 10 men in an attempt to steal automatic promotion away from Middlesbrough.
With both a first choice centre-back and central midfielder missing through suspension, after Lewis Dunk and Dale Stephens both picked up red cards in their final two league games, Sheffield Wednesday provided a difficult challenge. Whilst Wednesday’s quality was on show, Brighton lost four key players to injury, leaving them with no substitutes and ten men left on the field as Kieran Lee buried a decisive second goal to put the Owls in pole position as the two sides headed to the Amex to see who would head to Wembley.
At the Amex, Brighton started on fire. Quick, fast flowing, attacking football put them one goal ahead on the night, and looking almost certain to score again. No side had ever come back from 2-0 down from the first leg of a play-off final, but after a free-kick bounced off the post, across the line and out, and Lewis Dunk found the back of the net, the odds were increasingly in Brighton’s favour, with Sheffield Wednesday struggling to get the ball out of their own half, let alone into the danger zone. Then disaster struck for Brighton, as Ross Wallace’s cross evaded everyone and referee Roger East failed to spot Gary Hooper’s nudge in the back of Lewis Dunk.
With the Seagulls now needing three more goals to go through with an hour left to play, their play dipped and heads dropped as Wednesday produced a defensive masterclass to send them to Wembley with a chance of promotion to the Premier League. Few fans of either side would disagree with the claim that Brighton had the superior quality in their side, but the 7th placed side were the one who produced the tactical display to win the game by keeping their defence tight at the back for the full 90 minutes despite the early onslaught from Chris Hughton’s men.
What next for Brighton? Here is where they may have a bit more luck. Brighton have built a strong, young side, and, up to now, few players have been linked with moves away. The challenge for Brighton will be to add strength in depth to their quality squad and to return in similar form to what they have enjoyed this season. Whilst the relegation of Newcastle will provide them with a major challenge for promotion, as Chris Hughton will know only too well, with the right additions, there is no reason why the former Magpie boss can’t push them close in their efforts to bounce back to the Premier League at the first time of asking.
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