Last weekend, Brighton & Hove Albion stretched their impressive unbeaten run to 10 league games with a comprehensive 2-0 victory at Bristol City to keep their place amongst the automatic promotion places. They started strongly last season before their challenge faded away. Can they go all the way this year?
In an emotional match for the Seagulls, in which Steve Sidwell dedicated his stunning 50-yard strike to winger Anthony Knockaert’s late father, they showed their resolve, and their passion was unquestionable – both were non-transparent in their promotion push last season.
As a result of this victory, Brighton opened a favourable five-point gap between them and third placed Huddersfield Town, who had enjoyed an explosive start to the season, but are now beginning to fizzle out.
Cut back to this time last year, and Brighton were sitting pretty in second place amongst the likes of Middlesbrough and Burnley, a race that would continue for the entirety of the season, culminating in an epic finale in which Brighton, ultimately, choked.
After occupying the last automatic promotion spot for a large chunk of the season, the Seagulls fell at the last hurdle, failing to win any of their last three games. Middlesbrough duly leapfrogged them to claim promotion to the Premier League on goal difference. Brighton fell into the play-off spots, and after two jaded, complacent displays, succumbed to a 3-1 aggregate loss at the hands of Sheffield Wednesday in the semi-finals.
However, despite early comparisons, this new-look side seem far superior to the Brighton of old.
For a start, they’ve shifted the dead wood, an aspect of their squad that held them back towards the backend of last season. Players leaning towards the end of their footballing careers like Bobby Zamora, Inigo Calderon and Gordon Greer have all moved on to pastures new and have been replaced with better, younger players. Signing Glenn Murray, albeit on loan, was a great deal for the club; a proven goal-scorer who won’t fall off the pace as the fixture list becomes congested. He may be the man to fire them to England’s top division.
They have a far greater squad than previous seasons, with the areas that needed improvement duly seen to by manager Chris Hughton and the backroom staff. Their defensive line has been solidified with the signing of Shane Duffy from Blackburn and they’ve added depth to their midfield with the addition of Northern Irish playmaker, Oliver Norwood.
Fundamentally, we’re far from the ‘business end’ of the season. The Seagulls found themselves in a familiar position this time last season, but if their form continues, there’s no limit to what they can achieve. With a far stronger squad, and a favourable December fixture list approaching, they may well increase the gap between themselves and third place, offering a far larger cushion to lean on.
The final months are still a little way off, but how will Brighton cope with the pressure this time around?