Four years ago yesterday, the 17th of April 2017, Brighton and Hove Albion were promoted to the Premier League for the first time in their history. In an Amex Stadium packed full of excited yet anxious Seagulls supporters, the South Coast club managed to secure all three points over the already-relegated Wigan Athletic and earn promotion to the top-flight of English football.
I spoke to club legend and top scorer that season Glenn Murray about the success of the season and what it was like being a part of the squad.
Having not hit the heights he would have hoped to at AFC Bournemouth, the striker joined Brighton on loan in July 2016, with a desire to hit the ground running and bounce back in the new season. But he was not the only member of his new-found squad that was feeling the same way. Chris Hughton and his team had narrowly missed out on automatic promotion in the 2015/16 campaign on goal difference and were then unsuccessful in the play-offs following several significant injuries.Embed from Getty Images
After that disappointing season, there was a risk that the squad may not have had the desire to right the wrong of the previous campaign. This was considered by Murray before he returned to Brighton having played at the club from 2008-2011. He explained, “One of my worries signing for the club was whether the group were going to be able to pick themselves up and go again because it’s tough the way they missed out twice.
“Also, whether the club was going to even cash in on some of their assets, so to speak, but I was assured that they wouldn’t. As soon as I got into the group, when I joined them in Tenerife, they were fine and bang up for the season. They couldn’t wait to get going again, to put what had happened the year before right.”Embed from Getty Images
Brighton was an almost unstoppable force for the majority of the season, winning 28 games, drawing nine. Their defensive partnership of Lewis Dunk and Shane Duffy proved difficult to break through, their ever-rotating central midfielders were always assured and calm, and their attack was fierce and creative.
Murray said, “When you do get promoted it’s about, obviously, having the right group players and talent which all fits together nicely, but also on the days when you don’t play very well you still pick up three points and it becomes a habit, we did that quite a bit. Being in that dressing room day in, day out, you could just feel that there was something special happening between the group.
“One moment where we really thought we was going to get promoted was the Birmingham away game around Christmas time, I think we felt pretty invincible. We played rubbish that night, really badly, we were going into the last 10 minutes one-nil down and we turned it around, and that just stinks of promotion.”Embed from Getty Images
One player that was the heart of Brighton’s promotion bid was Frenchman, and now Murray’s teammate at Nottingham Forest, Anthony Knockaert, who won EFL Player of the Season for the 2016/17 campaign. The winger’s mazy runs, link-up with fullback Bruno Saltor and goalscoring prowess made him a defensive nightmare.
Knockaert provided plenty of chances for his teammates but he could also be slightly frustrating for the players waiting in the box for an early cross. This was due to how he was playing with such confidence that often taking on his man was a necessity rather than an option.
Murray said, “Sometimes when Anthony chopped somebody two, three, four times it made it difficult for me to reposition myself, which was frustrating. But I understood that I needed to be patient with him and had to let him learn to trust me to score the goals when he did actually put the ball in the box. There came a point in that season where teams were so scared of Anthony they would double up on him, which just meant more space for me.”
The versatility of Hughton’s team meant that the Seagulls weren’t purely reliant on chances being created out wide, with opportunities being crafted out of nothing by Murray and his strike partner Sam Baldock. The combination was very similar to Portsmouth’s front line in 2008 of Peter Crouch and Jermaine Defoe, with Murray often winning long balls and knocking it down to Baldock to fuel attacks.Embed from Getty Images
On his partnership with Baldock, now playing for Reading, Murray said, “We just connected really well on the pitch and we understood each other, we didn’t mind doing each other’s work. I would always try and look for my strike partner first and foremost, and he would to me as well. I think it just worked really well.
“I remember a goal against Aston Villa at home, which I think was probably our best little move. I flicked it into his path, spun round the defender, he laid it off and I shot from a long way out and scored, that goal just showed how in tune we were at that point.”
Looking back on the promotion season, Brighton fans could single out several games where promotion felt inevitable. But many would point to the game away at QPR on the 7th of April where it really hit home that their club would be battling against the likes of Liverpool and Manchester United next season.
It was goals from Murray and the on-loan Sebastien Pocognoli that helped Brighton to those crucial three points. Murray spoke of that evening, “I think leading into that game we’d had a bit of a ropey run. We were beaten 3-0 by Nottingham Forest, funnily enough, and then Leeds a few games later. Shane Duffy had got injured and so we lost him for the rest of the season. It was coming to the point where it was sink or swim having been up the top for the majority of the season.
“I remember the game was just after the international break and we’d been away, we went to Valencia and we did our training and were ready to go. We had sat down as a group and chatted about the upcoming games, I think we looked at the next three games and we knew they were huge. If we could put those games to bed then the other teams around us were running out of time to catch us.Embed from Getty Images
“That evening is one of my fondest memories in Brighton shirt. It was that turning point of the season where it starts getting a little bit warmer and the nights are a bit lighter, coming out into West London having had a packed away end, it was a nice feeling. Obviously to get that goal in front of our fans was an amazing moment for me, and then Seb (Pocognoli) scored an unbelievable goal.”
That victory was followed up by a 2-0 away win at Wolverhampton, with Knockaert scoring a brace in a Man of the Match performance. Results elsewhere also favoured the Albion, meaning that a victory at home to Wigan would mean that Huddersfield could not afford to drop any points in their remaining four games of the season.Embed from Getty Images
Murray said, “We knew by that stage that it was in our hands, if we didn’t lose two or three games then it was done. We went into that game, like any other, we were buoyant, we were upbeat, but there was also a little bit of apprehension and a bit of nervousness. With an almost relegated team, you just never know how they’re going to react. If you can have a say in the league, no matter what your position is then you’ll try. There’s no rolling over and wishing them the best at this level.
“I think my goal really calmed us down, there was almost a tension in the ground that eased once we got that first goal and then when Solly (March) scored it was almost party time, but they got one back and we had to hold on towards the end.”
A pitch invasion ensued after the final whistle that day. Thousands and thousands of fans fled on to the field in hope of celebrating with the men in blue and white, who were quickly escorted off the pitch and into the section of the West Stand. Armed with microphones, flags, champagne, the players and fans celebrated deep into the night.Embed from Getty Images
That wasn’t the case for Murray though, who chose not to get too involved in the long night ahead that many players did. The 37-year-old explained, “The celebrations were good. For me, I try not to over celebrate so I never get too high and never get too low. That might sound a little bit boring, but there’s a real calmness and contentedness that comes over me once I’ve achieved something because as a professional footballer there’s very little time where you’re not being judged. I know there are lots of good things about being a footballer, but living constantly on the rollercoaster of emotions regarding results, whether they’re yours or someone else’s, injuries, form, it’s quite a stressful life.”
Murray added, “Even now I think back to that season with really, really fond memories, it was one of the best seasons I ever had as a professional player, but being in it wasn’t like that. It was really hard work and really stressful, every week we would be working out what the results from Huddersfield, Newcastle, whoever, meant for us. It’s a job where you never, ever knock off and you’re always scrutinized. So, for that moment when you are promoted, there’s just a calmness in your life because it all starts again very soon.”
Now under the helm of Graham Potter, Brighton are enjoying their fourth consecutive Premier League season. Although to date, the idea of relegation has loomed over the South Coast, progress both on and off the field has been made and the foundations are in place for the Seagulls to make progress in the league and show that they are there to stay.Embed from Getty Images
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