London – Two days after an exhausted Brighton had lost to Sheffield Wednesday in last season’s play-off semi-final, the club announced that the manager, Chris Hughton, had signed a new four-year contract. In the afterglow of ostensible failure that sort of thing might have been regarded as inadvisable by some, but not Brighton. Hughton is part of a plan, one that has brought them to the Premier League.
It has been a plan 20 years in the making. Year Zero for Brighton was 1997, when they eked out a draw on the final day of the season against Hereford to stay in the Football League. It was a point that saved them not just from relegation but quite possibly from oblivion, the club having been run into the ground and out of their old home. Over the next two decades the former chairman Dick Knight, followed by the current chairman and benefactor to the tune of nearly £250m Tony Bloom – boyhood fans both – first saved what was then a shell of a club, then oversaw its transition.
That defeat by Sheffield Wednesday was Brighton’s third play-off semi-final defeat in four years, the difference now being that in the previous two it had been the respective managers’ final games in charge. Gus Poyet, having taken them from League One to the play-offs, was dismissed owing to an apparent breach of contract, then a year later his replacement, Oscar García, resigned. Hughton arrived at the end of 2014, after one of their few mis-steps, the appointment of Sami Hyypia, had been corrected reasonably swiftly, and set them back on the right path.
When the players talk about Hughton, most refer to his calm authority, a steady head when pressure presents itself. It has become something of a cliche to say he is tougher than his nice guy reputation suggests but it nonetheless forms a big part of why he is successful and respected. “He never gets too high emotionally but gets his point across when we don’t do the job,” the midfielder Dale Stephens says. Hughton seems like the perfect manager for Brighton, one whose understated ambition and ability not to panic when others might, matches their own.
After last season’s disappointment, when they led the division for a couple of months, recovered from a winter blip and faded at the last, Hughton and those above him nonetheless recognised they were on to a good thing, and patience was all that was required. Given the strength of the teams relegated from the Premier League, that might have been regarded as a gamble but, if it was, then it has paid off handsomely.
An already fine squad was added to judiciously, Shane Duffy arriving from Blackburn to form the division’s best central defensive partnership with Lewis Dunk, while Glenn Murray returned to add a few more goals up front. The summer’s biggest task was keeping hold of key talent: Stephens wanted to leave for Burnley but six bids were rejected while Newcastle made moves for the sparkling Anthony Knockaert.
Knockaert is Brighton’s star man, the Championship’s best player, a twinkling and devastatingly effective winger who can often look like an intensely frustrating team-mate to play with. Knockaert will often go for a more difficult option, the path of most resistance by ignoring players in ostensibly better positions. But his faith that it is better for him to keep the ball and do things on his own is usually justified: against Wolves on Good Friday he twice headed towards goal with colleagues madly flapping their arms for a pass but twice he went ahead and scored himself. It is tough to argue that a player is being selfish when he can win games on his own.
Knockaert is a rare concession to individualism in a team who move as a collective. The Frenchman wins games but a more prosaic explanation for their success is strength in depth. Last season’s player of the year Beram Kayal has missed large chunks of this campaign and Brighton have barely blinked. Duties on the opposite flank to Knockaert have been shared by the assorted talents of Jiri Skalak, Jamie Murphy and Solly March. Three strikers – Murray, Tomer Hemed and Sam Baldock – have reached double figures, in addition to Knockaert’s 15. Hughton’s adherence to a fairly traditional 4-4-2 system is not especially fashionable but he has found a formation to suit his players, surely one of the absolute basics of good management.
Brighton play efficient football, not the direct game the former Norwich manager Alex Neil suggested they did earlier in the season, but neither is it often frilly. They can be functional but that is what is required to get out of the Championship. Because of this, along with their individual talents, Brighton are perhaps better than any other side at winning games while playing badly: one example that sticks out is the win at Birmingham in December, when goals in the last 10 minutes from Murray and Knockaert nabbed a 2-1 win. Afterwards Hughton admitted they had been poor for 80 minutes but few cared.
Then there is the old-fashioned notion of team spirit. Most successful sides will present the image of that intangible idea of togetherness but at Brighton it seems genuine and perhaps deeper than most. The story of the squad travelling to France to attend the funeral of Knockaert’s father is well-known but that does not make it any less extraordinary, or valuable. “Because of what the club did for me I could stay here all my life,” Knockaert said about this act of solidarity, later describing it as “the best moment of my life”.
The sense of unity seems to extend to the rest of the club. It does not hurt that all staff, not just the players, will receive a bonus now promotion is secured. For away trips Bloom will often be seen not on the team coach and in the director’s box but among fans on the train and the terraces. In February the TV cameras picked him up celebrating a Murray goal against Brentford with the uncoordinated glee of a kid. This is a club where lines between those in the stands, on the pitch and behind the scenes are blurred.
The Guardian Sport