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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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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