BY KEVIN O’NEILL
It was coming on Christmas two years ago when Sami Hyypia, the respected former Liverpool defender, walked in to the office of Brighton & Hove Albion chairman Tony Bloom and tendered his resignation as manager.
Then, the Seagulls were suffering. For despite reaching the promotion play-offs in the previous Championship season (2013/14) – under Spanish coach Oscar Garcia – they were floundering in the relegation zone. And it presented as no surprise when Hyypia’s offer to prematurely part with the club was accepted by Bloom and the Brighton board.
Their plight had been surprising given that the arrival of the former Bayer Leverkusen head coach, earlier in 2014, was met with optimism among Brighton fans.
Their enthusiasm was understandable, as Hyypia’s arrival meant they certainly had a renowned name at the helm.
And it was felt that his vast experience of English football, having played with Liverpool for ten years – winning the UEFA Champions League along the way – would stand him in good stead for the task ahead.
But under the ex-Finland international, Brighton managed just six wins from 26 matches (only three in the league), to leave Hyypia’s position almost untenable. His reign was, frankly, an unmitigated disaster.
Indeed, Brighton looked shaken – despite having retained the bulk of a squad that looked pretty unshakeable for the majority of the previous campaign when promotion to The Premier League looked a distinct possibility for some time.
It had been a pretty drastic and painful change in fortune, leaving most Brighton fans certain that a change in manager had been completely necessary.
For instead of dreaming about playing against teams like Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United, the growing prospect and potential disaster of relegation to League 1 had become the new reality; an almost unthinkable scenario for the club, particularly after they moved in 2011 to a brand spanking new home, the 30,750-capacity Falmer Stadium, known for commercial reasons as the American Express Community Stadium or, more simply, as the Amex.
Going down to the third tier could have been catastrophic for Brighton, whose stadium move saw average attendances rise above 27,000. And it would have dealt a formidable blow to their future prospects, as an ambitious club with aspirations to compete among the big boys.
So, the next appointment would be crucial.
And soon after Hyypia’s exit, a pair of former Tottenham Hotspur heroes emerged as the main contenders for the job: Chris Hughton and Tim Sherwood.
Although initial reports suggested the latter as the most likely appointment, it was to Hughton that Brighton ultimately turned.
While the appointment was met with a lukewarm response by some Brighton fans, it appeared a solid decision, as the club veered away from a tendency to appoint foreign managers – all three previous managers had been foreign – to put trust in someone with proven ability in the Championship having won promotion, as manager, with Newcastle United in 2010.
While working for the Magpies, it was said that Hughton brought an air of calm and dignity to the Newcastle dug-out and dressing-room, and those characteristics seemed to immediately help the Brighton team, as his tenure kicked-off with an FA Cup 3rd Round win against Brentford and ended with the side eventually pulling clear of the relegation zone.
Alone, that achievement was enough for Hughton to win over any doubters. But it was only the start of the job and ahead of the 2015/16 season, Hughton brought in some astute new signings that included Israeli striker Tomer Hemed, who top-scored for the club in the 2015/16 season, and the former Leicester City winger Anthony Knockaert, whose game-changing ability proved a fantastic weapon for a team often accused of over-conservatism and lacking in flair.
And as Christmas 2016 was upon us, Brighton were again completely free from relegation worries and back among the leading contenders for promotion from this season’s Championship – having gone agonisingly close to achieving that feat in 2015/16 when finishing third and losing in the end-of-season play-offs.
Despite that disappointment, Hughton wouldn’t allow his players feel sorry for themselves. Instead, he set about finding the ingredients that had been missing from his team in 2015/16 including an out-and-out goalscorer at Championship level. In Glenn Murray, who rejoined the club on-loan from Bournemouth, Hughton found the perfect player to fill that particular void.
“This season,” said Scott McCarthy (wearebrighton.com), “the centre-backs Shane Duffy (signed from Blackburn Rovers) and Lewis Dunk have been outstanding. Knockaert is the creator-in-chief and one of the most dangerous players in the league. But Murray makes a huge difference. He takes chances that last season we would’ve missed and when you think that two goals cost us automatic promotion the importance of that cannot be underestimated,” he said.
“When Hughton came in, we were in real danger of dropping to League 1,” McCarthy, a lifelong fan, remembered.
“But the transformation since his appointment has been incredible. In one summer (before the 2015/16 season) to turn a squad that had struggled in to a team that missed out on going up by two goals was genuinely the stuff of miracles,” he added.
Indeed, to describe the team’s transformation as ‘the stuff of miracles’ is actually not really over-the-top.
For last season, a Brighton team that had been previously short on confidence scored the most goals in the Championship and only lost five times in the mammoth 46-game league season.
Despite drawing too many times (17 games) they still accumulated 89 points – a tally likely to grant promotion in most Championship seasons.
But coming in third behind champions Burnley and promoted Middlesbrough, meant that Brighton were pitted against Sheffield Wednesday in the play-off semi-finals and despite finishing the league proper 15 points ahead of sixth-placed Wednesday, they were beaten by a Sheffield side going through a terrific run of end-of-season form.
“Unfortunately, by the time the play-offs came around the players’ efforts over the course of the other 46 games caught up with them and we continued our woeful record in end-of-season play-offs,” said McCarthy.
The play-off defeat was hard to take, especially as Brighton had led the way in the table for quite some time before getting overtaken in the race for automatic promotion by Sean Dyche’s Burnley and Middlesbrough.
Such was the level of devastation around the club after the play-offs that it seemed difficult to see Hughton’s side lifting themselves in time for the current season.
Yet, lift themselves they have. And Brighton are right in the mix for promotion again and that’s largely down to the quiet but deadly efficiency of their manager.
Hughton, it seems, knows exactly what he wants in his side with defensive organisation and discipline given equal importance to scoring goals and turning on the style. Like most good sides of the past, they seem truly capable of mixing it up to suit the occasion; whether in a dogged war of attrition that requires they knuckle down and get the job done, or a more straightforward contest where the opponent sits back and dictates that Brighton get on the ball and set the tone and pattern of the contest.
“At home we have the players to attack and win games with the likes of Knockaert and Jamie Murphy flying down the wings and Murray and Sam Baldock banging in goals. Hughton though, is a conservative manager, so if we go away to a team in the top six we become a lot more defensive in order to get a point. It may not be the most exciting way of doing things, especially away from home, but it works,” said McCarthy.
The approach is working, for sure, as Brighton were right in the promotion race heading in to the hectic Christmas and New Year schedule. To maintain this season’s promotion assault, said Scott, the Albion are better equipped than last season.
“Every team has a little wobble at some stage in the season. Last season our wobble came at Christmas and the New Year. I’m naturally quite pessimistic – when you’ve been a Brighton fan as long as I have it comes naturally – but I’d be surprised if we aren’t at least in the top six at the end of the season,” he said.
Hughton, one suspects, will be fighting tooth and nail to ensure the disappointment of last season is not repeated. But in the Championship even the best prepared and most talented sides can come a cropper, which makes the division exceptionally hard to predict and get out of.
But with Hughton at the helm, whatever Brighton do will be done without panic or fuss and in a fashion designed to get the very best out of the players, collectively.
Whether that will be enough to end Brighton’s 34-year wait for a return to the top-flight remains to be seen. But in the assured Hughton, they appear to have the ideal manager to at least get very close to doing so.