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Brighton's journey from brink of non-league to Europe

Nick Szczepanik 24 May 2023

Nick Szczepanik chronicles how club went from homeless in late 1990s to playing in Europe next season

When Brighton & Hove Albion trailed 1-0 away to Hereford United in the final match of the 1996/97 season, the idea that the Seagulls might one day play in Europe would have been dismissed as a cruel fantasy by the loyal fans on the away terrace at Edgar Street.

Brighton faced relegation from the Football League, and had no home after the departing board of directors had sold the Goldstone Ground.

And yet here we are. Fantasy has become reality, with Brighton booking a European place for the first time in their history, qualifying for the UEFA Europa League.

Early struggles

Robbie Reinelt’s equaliser that sunny day in Hereford solved the first problem by keeping Brighton in the League, but Dick Knight, the new chairman, faced many battles before he could find an answer to the second.

He had inherited an arrangement to ground-share at Gillingham’s Priestfield Stadium, but it was 70 miles from Brighton.

It took him two years to get the team back to their home city. But playing at Withdean Stadium, a council-owned 6,000-capacity athletics facility, with mostly open-air seating was an unsatisfactory "temporary" arrangement that lasted 12 years.

Brighton, 1999
Withdean Stadium, seen here in 1999, was unsuited for football but Brighton's home for 12 years as they sought a new stadium

Life at Withdean was seldom dull, with managers including Micky Adams, Peter Taylor, Steve Coppell and Mark McGhee overseeing four promotions and two relegations, a playoff final and a defeat of Manchester City in the League Cup.

But there were few available sites for a new permanent stadium, and very little money.

Skint, the record label on which celebrity fan Fatboy Slim recorded, was a comment on the club’s finances as well as the shirt sponsor.

When a location for a stadium was found, a succession of planning rebuffs drained more funds. The fans signed petitions, went on marches and even sent Valentine cards to government ministers, before permission was finally granted.

Bloom to the rescue

Bankrolling the building of the new American Express Community Stadium ("Amex") was the next problem, overcome when Tony Bloom, a lifelong fan and the grandson of a former club vice-chairman, stepped forward.

A maths graduate, Bloom had made a fortune in the world of betting and invested it wisely in property, so was able to fund the new ground in return for succeeding Knight as chairman.

Bloom also transformed the team’s fortunes by appointing Gustavo Poyet to his first job in management. Poyet established the passing ethos at the club and winning the League One title ensured that the new ground would host Championship football when it opened in 2011.

Brighton, 2011
Gus Poyet and chairman Tony Bloom hold aloft the Division One trophy in 2011

The crowds who could not fit into Withdean returned and the initial capacity of 25,000 at the Amex was soon expanded to its present 31,800.

Premier League promotion

Now the target was the Premier League. Poyet, Oscar Garcia and Chris Hughton all fell at the first playoff hurdle, before Hughton succeeded at his second attempt with automatic promotion in 2017, Withdean veteran Glenn Murray the returning hero whose goals made the difference.

The first two seasons back at the top were battles for safety, based on the defending of Lewis Dunk and Shane Duffy, with the occasional victory over a top-six club or traditional rivals Crystal Palace to boost morale.

Brighton, 2017/18
Lewis Dunk in action during Brighton's debut Premier League match against Manchester City in August 2017

Bloom knew something different was required to make his vision last. Graham Potter succeeded Hughton in 2019 with a brief to make the team younger and the football more entertaining.

With the help of a recruitment department turbo-charged by access to Bloom’s stats and algorithms, Potter led Brighton to an unprecedented ninth-place finish in 2022.

The season ended strongly, thanks to the introduction of Ecuador midfield enforcer Moises Caicedo, the latest in a series of bargain signings that paid off handsomely.

Pundits predicted Brighton’s demise when Potter and player of the season Marc Cucurella were head-hunted by Chelsea that autumn, but they reckoned without Bloom and CEO Paul Barber’s meticulous succession planning.

Brighton, 2022
Graham Potter and Marc Cucurella would eventually depart for Chelsea

A potential replacement is earmarked for every role in the club, from technical director to tea lady.

Indeed, part of the sales pitch to new signings is that the club will not stand in their way if they want to move on to supposedly better things - with the important proviso that the price has to be right.

Ready-made replacements

So in came former Shakhtar Donetsk coach Roberto De Zerbi and Ecuador left-back Pervis Estupinan, signed from Villarreal to replace Cucurella, for a fraction of the £62million or so that Chelsea had paid.

And when Belgium forward Leandro Trossard agitated for a move to Arsenal, there was a ready-made replacement. Japan winger Kaoru Mitoma had been signed from Kawasaki Frontale for a bargain £2.5m 15 months earlier and loaned out to Union Saint-Gilloise in Belgium, also owned by Bloom.

Kaoru Mitoma
The rise of Kaoru Mitoma has epitomised Brighton's savvy transfer dealings

See: The story of Mitoma's rise to Brighton superstar

To say that De Zerbi has been a revelation is an understatement. Fans who researched his Sassuolo side worried whether Brighton’s defenders could cope with the risk/reward of his insistence on playing out from their own penalty area.

But Dunk and company thrived on the challenge and the rest of the league looked on in bewilderment, as Brighton passed their way through them.

Brighton, Roberto De Zerbi
Despite coming to Brighton mid-season Roberto De Zerbi set targets for his players that they have exceeded

The Italian proved a master psychologist as well as a tactician. For example, he unlocked the potential that fans had always seen in Solly March and transformed the local lad into a confident Premier League performer, who was mentioned in the conversation about the England squad.

De Zerbi spoke of Europe and the players believed. He set targets and they were surpassed. Ninth last season has become sixth this time round and the UEFA Europa League.

What next? Will Brighton become the victims of their own success? Will resources be stretched by the European adventure? Will richer clubs come for more of their star players and can they continue to replace them if so?

Perhaps most important, will De Zerbi himself be poached?

He says not. “For me it is an honour to work here and continue to work here,” he said after the Southampton match.

“I never thought to go back in Italy with another team or a Premier League team. I want to stay, I don’t know how many years but I’m enjoying a lot to work with these people.”

Now fans wait with mounting excitement to find out where the Albion adventure will take them next. From Hereford to Hajduk Split?

Nick Szczepanik is a sports writer and author, whose byline has appeared in every national daily and Sunday newspaper in England. His 2017 book "Brighton Up" chronicled the club’s promotion to the Premier League.

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