When Mike Dean finally brought proceedings to an end on Saturday afternoon after 99 minutes of football at the Riverside between Middlesbrough and Brighton, the teams who would play out this seasons Sky Bet Championship Play-Offs were confirmed. It was final day heartbreak for Brighton, with the 1-1 draw seeing Boro take the second automatic promotion spot by virtue of their superior goal difference, a mere two goals greater than that of their south coast counterparts. But all is not lost for the Seagulls, as they drop into the play-offs, often described as the “best”, although clearly the most tense, method of promotion to the Premier League.
Joining Brighton in the play-offs are Hull City, Derby County and Sheffield Wednesday. The latter three had all confirmed their status as play-off contestants prior to the final day’s events, although Hull and Derby did have the small matter of which side would be at home in the second leg still to play for. In this article we will take a little look at all four teams, who may be best equiped for the play-offs and what the history books suggest may be the most likely outcome.
The teams and their form
Brighton & Hove Albion
Brighton have had a magnificent campaign, spoiled only by their final day disappointment at Middlesbrough. Having finished 20th last season, only two places above the relegation zone, few expected Brighton to maintain such a strong push for automatic promotion throughout the campaign. After an incredible run of 21 league games unbeaten at the start of the season, the Seagulls succumbed to a 3-0 loss at home to Middlesbrough. Failing to win in their next five games, many expected the club to fall away as we headed into the New Year, but Brighton showed they were no flash in the pan, and went on to finish on a highly-creditable 89 points, with only 5 league defeats all season.
Currently unbeaten in 14 matches, if Brighton can extend that run to 17 matches, they will be assured of a place in the Premier League next season. The run shows that Brighton are, and have been all season, hard to beat. Well-drilled, well-organised and with a great team spirit, the Seagulls go into the play-off’s off the back of two draws, although they won their five games previous to that.
Following a 1-0 win away at Ipswich on February 23rd, Hull City sat at the top of the Championship with a game in hand. It is for this reason that a fourth place finish is a rather diminished achievement. With a starting XI which often features as many as nine full internationals, the Hull squad is a strong one, and one which should have recorded automatic promotion this season, were it not for their inconsistency and sloppy away defeats. Still, the Tigers end the season with 83 points and a fourth place finish, despite serious off-field issues and a less than positive attitude surrounding the club at times.
Markedly inconsistent since the end of February, Hull City have managed to put something of a run together ahead of the play-offs. An embarrassing defeat to already relegated Bolton was sandwiched in between two impressive victories against in-form teams, in Brentford and Rotherham. The most important thing for Steve Bruce, perhaps, will be that his team are scoring again, 15 goals in their last 7 games representing a drastic improvement following the goal scoring slump which troubled them previously. It’s worth nothing, though, that this has been twinned with a poorer defensive record.
It has been an unusual season for Derby County. Following some big spending in the summer and once again in January, they shocked many people when they dismissed manager Paul Clement, without having a replacement lined up, instead putting academy coach Darren Wassall in charge of first team duties. Like Hull, Derby led the division, having been top of the league at the start of December, but fell away as they did last term. The second half of this season was not as cataclysmic as Steve McClaren’s collapse though, as the Rams did at least remain solidly within the play-offs and have put in a number of noteworthy performances under their rookie manager, giving the Derby faithful some confidence heading into the play-offs.
Derby have known it would likely be the play-offs – no more but no less – for some time now, but that didn’t stop them seemingly building some momentum towards the end of the campaign. Unfortunately for the Rams, a run of four consecutive wins was cancelled out by the club failing to win any of their final three league games. Draws with Sheffield Wednesday and Brighton were creditable, but a defeat to Ipswich on the final day was disappointing, not least due to the serious injury picked up by George Thorne.
Return to the Premier League has been a long-time coming for Sheffield Wednesday fans, their absence currently standing at 16 years since the Owls were a top flight club, having spent four of those seasons in the third tier. There was an air of optimism around Hillsborough this season though, as Carlos Carvalhal seemed to have built a strong team at this level. The loans and signings of the likes of Gary Hooper, Fernando Forestieri, Daniel Pudil and Barry Bannan proved to be shrewd pieces of business. Whilst the club were never in the hunt for an automatic spot, they looked a good bet for the play-offs from the end of March, and ultimately finished on 74 points, 5 clear of seventh-placed Ipswich Town.
Sheffield Wednesday head into the play-off’s in the worst form of the four clubs that will contest the end of season promotion battle. Just one win in their last six games represents a very poor return for the Owls, most disappointingly losing 4-1 to Bristol City and drawing 0-0 with MK Dons. On the bright side for Wednesday, they go into the play-off’s with virtually a clean bill of health. Only Filipe Melo and Modou Sougou will miss out, and both would be unlikely to feature anyway.
How much you read into the ‘stats’ is up to you, but we’ll give you them anyway. If one looks back over the last 20 second tier play-off’s, history shows the side who finishes in third place wins the play-off’s most often. There is something of an anomaly in the results, and poor news for Hull City, as over the last 20 seasons, the team who finishes 4th has only gone up via the play-off’s twice. The full sample shows 8 sides who finished 3rd went up, 2 who finished 4th, 6 who finished 5th and 4 who finished 6th. As for the semi-finals, over the last decade, the team who finished third has an 82% chance of reaching the final, to sixth place’s 18%, whilst the percentages for 4th and 5th are much closer, standing at 55% to 45% in favour of the side who finishes 5th.
Brighton & Hove Albion vs Sheffield Wednesday
Brighton are the favourites to progress to the final in this clash, and understandably so. They come into this match on a 14 game unbeaten run, whilst Wednesday have won only one of their last six. A full 15 points separates the two sides in the final league table, although of course that will stand for nothing when the first ball is kicked on Friday night. The two games between these two sides this season have both ended scoreless, and one wouldn’t be surprised if both games are low-scoring once more.
A lot will depend on how Brighton deal with missing out on automatic promotion. It is crucial that the Seagulls don’t let their heads drop, because Wednesday will be bouncing and take advantage of any such psychological weaknesses. I, for one, can’t see that happening though. The Brighton squad are a tight-knit bunch, and well-motivated by Chris Hughton. However, one problem for Brighton could be the absence of Lewis Dunk and Dale Stephens. Whilst the former will definitely miss out, Brighton are appealing Stephens’ red card against Middlesbrough, so we will have to wait and see on that front.
Ultimately, it is my belief that this tie rests on the outcome of the first leg. Sheffield Wednesday are very good at home, especially when there is a big, noisy crowd at Hillsborough, which there undoubtedly will be for this one. Brighton come into the game with their excellent unbeaten run, and Wednesday need to win, probably by a two goal margin, as it is difficult to see Brighton not winning the home game by at least one goal.
Hull City vs Derby County
It is virtually impossible to predict the game between Hull City and Derby County. Steve Bruce rested players away at Bolton, leading to a dreadful performance, but they came back fit and fighting for the final game against Rotherham, and were scintillating going forward at times. Derby have an aggregate 6-0 lead over the Tigers this season, having pulled off a convincing double against the East Yorkshire club, although they will be without key man George Thorne now.
It will be interesting to see who comes in for Thorne. There is no like-for-like change within the Derby squad, and Darren Wassall could call upon any three of Craig Bryson, Jeff Hendrick, Bradley Johnson, Jacob Butterfield and Will Hughes, or even switch to a midfield four. The most likely tact by Wassall would be to bring Bradley Johnson back into the fold, and drop Will Hughes into a slightly deeper role vacated by Thorne. Steve Bruce meanwhile will almost certainly name the same starting XI which thumped Rotherham 5-1 on Saturday, calling upon his most experienced and big name players.
Derby must win the home leg, one would imagine, given Hull City’s home record this season. The Tigers have put in a number of lacklustre away performances this season, and if they do so again, they will be turned over, although Steve Bruce appears convinced his players will turn on the style for the big occasion. Between how Derby react to Thorne’s absence and which Hull City will turn up, this tie has too many variables to predict.
Featured Image: All rights reserved by Adam Bowie
Rodrigo reported as Brighton target, but he is surely too expensive?
The Valencia striker is reportedly wanted by a trio of Premier League clubs.
Brighton, along with Tottenham Hotspur and Everton have been linked with a move for Valencia forward Rodrigo this summer.
Calciomercato claims that all three clubs are interested in signing the Spanish international come the summer. The report discloses his massive €120 million (£105.4 million) release clause, but that offers in the region of €40 million (£35 million) are expected.
Which is surely when the links to Brighton have to stop.
Rodrigo, who had a spell at Bolton Wanderers as a young player on loan from Benfica, would be a tremendous signing for Brighton.
The 22-year-old has scored 16 goals in 35 games for Los Che this season. Such form could see him earn a place in Spain’s squad for this summer’s World Cup in Russia.
Brighton, however, simply cannot afford such a massive sum of money on one player, especially considering the club recently broke their record to sign Dutch striker Jurgen Locadia.
According to the Guardian, that fee was around £14 million. Paying more than double that on Rodrigo is simply inconceivable.
It would immediately undermine the money they spent on Locadia, who arrived from PSV Eindhoven and leave very little in the kitty to improve other areas of the team this summer.
Rodrigo would undoubtedly be a dream signing for Brighton. The Seagulls look increasingly safe in the Premier League and bringing in a top name this summer would be a popular move among fans at the Amex Arena.
But simply put, £35 million is just not a figure Brighton can or should pay for just one player. Instead, such money should be spread out throughout the team evenly. Distributing the funds in this way will allow Brighton to fully strengthen their side and maintain the balance that has taken them to a brilliant first Premier League campaign.
There might come a day when Brighton can afford to splurge £35 million on just one player. That day, however, will not be in 2018.
Is Brighton’s Christian Walton a future England star?
The 22-year-old stopper has been in fine form at Wigan Athletic.
Wigan Athletic’s FA Cup run has come to an end. The Latics lost 2-0 against Southampton at the DW Stadium, despite being the better team in the first-half. However, Southampton came alive in the second period and goals from Pierre Hojbjerg and Cedric Soares settled the tie.
It could have been more, were it not for a brilliant penalty save from Wigan goalkeeper Christian Walton. He dived to his left and got a strong palm to a driven effort from 12 yards by Manolo Gabbiadini. Unbelievably, Walton managed to get enough on the ball to turn it around the post and keep Wigan in the tie.
It was a brilliant save in what was another excellent performance from the young stopper. So do Brighton and Hove Albion have a future star on their hands?
Walton is on loan at Wigan from Brighton until the end of the season. It is the fifth loan spell of Walton’s career after similar spells at Bury, Plymouth Argyle, Luton Town and Southend United.
The 22-year-old’s brilliant performance v Southampton was no anomaly. He was in fine form in Wigan’s recent famous win against Manchester City.
Brighton clearly know they have a top talent on their hands, yet Chris Hughton has not yet pulled the trigger on the player.
In the summer, when Brighton lost number one David Stockdale to Birmingham City, Hughton signed two new keepers. Australian international Mat Ryan arrived from Valencia whilst Tim Krul was a free transfer from Newcastle United.
But Brighton did secure Walton to a new deal, keeping him at the Amex Arena until 2021. With Krul’s deal ending at the end of the season, perhaps Walton will be in line to be the Seagulls second-choice keeper from next season.
England currently have something of a concern regarding the goalkeeper position but the future is bright. Sam Johnstone, Freddie Woodman and Angus Gunn look like top talents and Walton must be included in the same company.
Not only an excellent shot-stopper, but Walton is confident coming off his line and good with the ball at his feet.
The competition is certainly fierce, with the likes of Jack Butland, Jordan Pickford and Nick Pope also potential future England goalkeepers.
But Walton might just be in with a shout of such accolades in the future as well if he can find his way at Brighton.
Manager of the Month: Can Chris Hughton now play out a dream season with Brighton?
The Brighton boss was recently crowned February Manager of the Month.
Chris Hughton has not received a huge amount of exposure for the job that he is doing with Brighton, but back-to-back Premier League wins have seen the Seagulls rise to 10th position in the table and he has subsequently been rewarded with the February Manager of the Month award.
As a newly-promoted team, they will have targeted survival. Although it remains tight at the bottom, it would take a considerable drop-off for the South Coast team to suffer relegation, especially following an unbeaten run throughout the last month.
But Hughton won’t be getting too far ahead of himself. After all, his team squandered a seven-point lead with three games to go in the Championship last season.
That said, he has done a tremendous job at the Amex Stadium and gone a long way to proving those that doubted him wrong. Hughton is seen as one of the nicest men in football and a safe pair of hands, but he hasn’t always convinced as a Premier League manager.
His first spell in charge of a top-flight club was at Newcastle United. Hughton led them back to the Premier League at the first attempt and the team were in 11th position when he was dismissed. It was considered harsh at the time and even Magpies owner Mike Ashley has admitted since that it was a mistake in an interview with Sky Sports:
“I thought I was very unfair to Chris Hughton, who got us promoted, I don’t think I gave him enough time.”
Hughton was well liked by both the players and supporters at Newcastle. He pulled the club together after the disaster of relegation and managed to win the Championship with ease. Considering it was his first job in management, he was thrown straight into a difficult job and coped well with it. The sacking has unfairly put a black mark on his record and he has been trying to erase it ever since.
The next Premier League he was given was at Norwich City and he fared okay with the Canaries. During his first season, he led them to 11th position. Considering their relative stature in the game, that is a great achievement. However, the style of play was bland and supporters were quick to turn on him in the following season.
The club sacked him with five matches to go in the 2013/14 campaign with the club lying five points above the relegation zone. It was a strange decision, especially as Neil Adams was chosen to take over with no experience of top-flight management. Norwich were relegated that season. They may have faced the same fate had they kept faith in Hughton, but they would have had a better chance of survival.
How he has enhanced his reputation at Brighton
Despite doing a decent job with Norwich before dismissal, Hughton had to drop a division to take his next job and it was with Brighton and Hove Albion. The Seagulls were in 21st position at the time after the poor tenure of Sami Hyypia, but the potential was obvious.
The facilities were great and the new stadium was built with Premier League football as the target. The club had challenged at the top for a number of years previous and had become regulars in the play-offs, but they couldn’t get over the line.
Hughton had won promotion with Newcastle and came close with Birmingham. It was a perfect match as he needed to repair his reputation out of the spotlight. It wasn’t instant success as he fought relegation for the rest of the season and stayed up by only six points. However, he did enough to win favour with the board and he hasn’t looked back since.
During his second season, the club challenged for promotion and missed out only on goal difference by two goals. It was heartbreak on the final day as they needed a win against rivals Middlesbrough, but came up short. They couldn’t get themselves back up for the play-offs and were knocked out by Sheffield Wednesday.
It seemed like both Hughton and Brighton had missed their opportunity of promotion, but they regrouped and earned it the following season in convincing fashion. They may have collapsed late to lose out on the title, but they had won promotion by April and it was never really in doubt.
That was an excellent achievement, but there remained doubts about Hughton’s ability to establish Brighton in the Premier League.
The summer saw him make shrewd additions with Pascal Gross, Mathew Ryan, Davy Propper, Ezequiel Schelotto and Jose Izquierdo coming in to strengthen the first-team. It took some of them time to settle, but they are all now starters. As a newly-promoted club, it is important to add quality to the squad if you are to survive.
Despite being a newly-promoted club, Brighton haven’t really been in much danger of relegation this season. They haven’t been in the relegation zone since the second week of the season. The bottom-half of the table has been tight, but the Seagulls have always had a buffer to the relegation zone. They have taken points from 18 of their 19 matches and their recent match display against Arsenal was the highlight of their season to date.
In the first-half, they attacked with vigour and caused Arsenal a lot of problems. They went 2-0 up and could have scored more on another day.
Although the Gunners got a goal back, the result never looked in serious danger and the home side managed the game well. It was a performance fitting of a Premier League team and the aim now will be to establish themselves at this level over the course of several years.
It is a challenge that Hughton will be relishing. In a period of few British coaches at the highest level, the Brighton manager is proving that he is one of the best and he could start to be linked with bigger jobs if he continues to impress.
The Seagulls remain in the FA Cup and have reached the quarter-final stage for the first time since 1986. Hughton is establishing himself as one of the best managers in the club’s history and although they face a difficult match against Manchester United to reach Wembley, they have the ability to get to the next round.
There is a long way to go in this season, but Brighton could feasibly finish in the top half of the Premier League and win the FA Cup. That would be a season beyond the wildest dreams of many supporters. It remains a long shot, but to be in with a chance is a great achievement by Hughton.
If his side can finish the season strongly, he has to be in contention to win Manager of the Year award.
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