When Brighton drew 0-0 at Middlesbrough last season, a dismal, depressing campaign had finally come to a close. While the home side dropped to fourth in the Championship and suffered eventual play-off disappointment, Brighton clung on to 20th position. It didn’t feel like a record-breaking run had just begun.
Twenty-three matches (and over seven months) later against the same opponents, Brighton have finally tasted league defeat, the last team in the country to do so this season. Having finished six points ahead of Millwall in 2014/15 – who are now ninth in League One – Brighton welcomed the Championship leaders to the Amex on Saturday lunchtime. Against all predictions, Chris Hughton’s team were behind Middlesbrough only on goal difference.
In truth, Middlesbrough were just too good. They started quickly and scored early, Kike’s header from Albert Adomah’s cross beating David Stockdale. Gordon Greer’s marking of Daniel Ayala for Boro’s second was non-existent, and I’m being kind. Christian Stuani added a third header after the break.
Aitor Karanka’s side will be the Championship’s Christmas No. 1. The last ten sides to match that achievement have earned automatic promotion – six as champions. Middlesbrough mean business.
Brighton’s response to their first setback of the season is now crucial. Having dropped points from winning positions against QPR and Derby in the last seven days, they must guard against an ‘after the Lord Mayor’s show’ effect.
Yet few in pre-season predicted a sustained title challenge. Fourteen clubs were available at shorter odds for promotion than Brighton. Alongside Burton Albion in League One, they have been the surprise story of this Football League season.
Despite the striking nature of Brighton’s rise, this is no house built on sand. Sustainability is a characteristic lacking from so many Championship clubs; Brighton have it in abundance. Look around the club at every player, member of staff and supporter – everyone is smiling.
At the heart of the club’s success is Tony Bloom, poker player, professional gambler and property investor who financed the move to the exceptional Amex Stadium. Elsewhere in the Championship, rich owners have talked a good game before rolling s**t in expensive glitter. Bloom is the perfect antidote – reserved, quiet, generous and committed.
Significant investment has been made into the areas of the club unaffected by Financial Fair Play regulations. As well as the new stadium, Brighton have wonderful new training facilities and have invested hugely in their analytics and scouting networks. “I’ve played in all four divisions, but this is the best training ground I’ve seen,” said Bobby Zamora after arriving this summer. There is no secret: Brighton is a club where players want to play.
Bloom has not thrown money at players, but this summer Brighton recruited 13 while shedding the significant pile of deadwood. The most notable arrivals are James Wilson, gaining temporary relief from his persona non grata status at Old Trafford, and Zamora. The striker turns 35 in January, but any suggestion his impact would be restricted to a mentorial role have been eradicated. His five league goals have included an 83rd-minute equaliser and three match-winning goals.
Brighton’s total spend was under £6m, approximately the same as their Saturday opponents spent on Stewart Downing alone. Aitor Karanka was also able to bring in David Nugent for £4m and Stuani for £2.8m. Middlesbrough are banking on promotion, a vision that may well come to fruition.
After strictly adhering to FFP criteria (Nottingham Forest, Leeds United and Blackburn Rovers take note) Bloom waited for the appropriate opportunity to step up his investment in Hughton’s squad, but his attitude will never be carefree. It’s a clanging cliché, but the owner is running a marathon, not a sprint. Nobody at Brighton is in danger of getting a stitch.
It is not just Bloom who deserves immense credit, but Hughton too. Brighton’s squad last season was low on quantity, quality and morale, but the Irishman led them to safety. This season his true impact can be seen. The rise in performance – and effort – from Beram Kayal, Dale Stephens and Tomer Hemed is no fluke.
“We’re getting points we wouldn’t have last year,” Hughton said in October. “If you’re analysing games, we’re trying to be the best we can. I was hopeful we could challenge better. At the moment the margins are going our way. Just now we have fit players and good options, and we have continued the momentum.”
That momentum has now been pierced. Brighton are still a work in progress, but ‘progress’ itself is enough to keep supporters happy. They have already won more league games than in the whole of last season. More importantly, Brighton are finally back on an even keel after a tumultuous two decades.
How a Championship club chooses to develop is key to its long-term success; growing the right way trumps playing the right way. Ignoring the circuses at Elland Road and City Ground, among several others, Brighton are instead following the blueprint set by Southampton and Swansea.
The club’s longest ever unbeaten run ending won’t change that. A battle may finally have been lost, but the war is gradually being won.