As the final whistle sounded at the Amex Stadium last Friday evening, and the familiar tune of The Great Escape was pumped out of the speakers and into the ears of joyous home supporters, magic filled the Brighton seaside air.
You could forgive those fans, punching the air as they left the stadium in search of Friday night celebratory refreshment, for believing in the ethereal or giving thanks to whichever deity had authored this story. Almost 21 years previously to the day, Brighton had stayed in the Football League on goal difference. The following season, they finished as the lowest surviving member of the 92 for the second year in a row. This has been an extraordinary journey.
In all likelihood, this will be the third season in Premier League history that all three promoted clubs survive relegation. In 2001/02, Fulham, Bolton and Blackburn managed it. In 2011/12, QPR, Norwich and Swansea achieved the feat. But at a time when the financial gap between English football’s top tier and those below is wider than ever before, the expectation was that Premier League consolidation would get harder. This would an unlikely achievement. Even if Huddersfield do fall – they must lose both of their games and goal-shy Swansea win theirs – they were comfortable favourites to finish bottom.
Supporters of this season’s promoted clubs will have looked to the heavens in thanks during various moments across their seasons. Supporting a football team requires such an emotional sacrifice that we look far beyond reason for our explanations of success or failure. When individual moments of individual matches matter so much, it’s hard not to believe in fatalism.
All three of those clubs – Brighton, Huddersfield and Newcastle – have beaten Manchester United, for example, while two have beaten Arsenal and the third could do the same on the final day. Huddersfield have just earned a point at Manchester City in a fixture that they were priced at 55/1 in places to win. For supporters, these are brief moments that create lasting memories. Many have enjoyed enjoyed entire campaigns of ‘I was there’. Even Newcastle, who remember great times under greater managers in the dim and distant past, have had their joy trampled on by Mike Ashley. For them, the disbelief is that their manager is still there.
But while all the talk is of incredible journeys to unthinkable heights, the killjoy now points out that magic is bunk. It can apply the sprinkling of gold dust, giving tired legs the stamina to hold on against the teams you never thought you’d beat. But it cannot form the structure or the foundations. To discuss magic – however tempting it may be to play on such poetry – is to misrepresent the tireless work of those within each club. It underestimates the power of planning, logic and unity. These are the true foundations.
When Brighton were on the verge of promotion to the Premier League, chief executive Paul Barber revealed that the club had tweaked the customary distribution of promotion bonuses. Usually given solely to the players, Brighton’s management agreed to share it amongst every member of staff, from programme sellers to top goalscorer. That’s how you forge an atmosphere where everyone feels part of success.
At Newcastle, Rafael Benitez’s generosity with his time and money for the club’s various charity initiatives has become famous in the city. His attendance at the Foundation dinner helped to raise a record total of £53,000, but the best story comes from May 2016, when he signed his permanent contract.
Rather than leaving the stadium, Benitez instead walked through the corridors to the Heroes Club hospitality suite. The Newcastle United Disabled Supporters Association were having their end of season dinner, and Benitez wanted to have his photograph taken with every fan. No Premier League manager understands the power of community goodwill like Benitez. The knock-on effect of that is seen at St James’ Park and in the manager’s popularity. Even amidst a difficult political environment, he has created unity.
If these are the off-the-pitch initiatives, seasons are defined by on-field performance. The Premier League affords its clubs the chance to increase transfer budgets, but many have paid the price for a scattergun approach. The QPR-Harry Redknapp relationship is a blue(-and-white)print of how to lose money and alienate people.
Again, Brighton are the example to follow. Paul Winstanley is the club’s head of recruitment and analysis, whose office is deliberately placed adjacent to Chris Hughton’s so the pair meet regularly. No player is signed by Brighton without the manager’s say-so, and he and Winstanley have a wonderful track record. If Anthony Knockaert, Tomer Hemed, Liam Rosenior and Connor Goldson helped Brighton to the Premier League, Mathew Ryan, Jose Izquierdo, Markus Suttner and Davy Propper have helped keep them there. Pascal Gross is Winstanley’s golden boy, the best bargain of this Premier League season.
At Huddersfield, David Wagner extols the virtues of hard work: “As a player, I was always a worker not a dreamer, and it’s the same for me now. We don’t have any reason to dream, but we have every reason to work.”
If that seems a bleak assessment, realism trumps fanciful optimism. No team makes more tackles than Huddersfield and only two make more interceptions as Wagner’s team press high up the pitch in groups of twos and threes. Defending begins with the strikers. Hard work can account for a shortfall in quality.
If all three promoted clubs staying up is unusual, the defensive solidity of this season’s trio is unheard of. Over the last ten years, on only two occasions have a promoted club boasted one of the top eight tightest defences in the league (Crystal Palace – 2013/14 and Watford – 2015/16). This season, both Brighton and Newcastle are in the top eight. The current total goals conceded total of the promoted three is set to comfortably beat the lowest total over that same decade-long period.
This is no fluke, either. Bournemouth and Burnley were both expected to be relegated in their first seasons. Burnley suffered that fate but rebuilt and returned sturdier, while Bournemouth’s incredible tale continues. Last season was Bournemouth’s highest league finish in their history. This season will be Burnley’s highest in 44 years. In terms of resources, both are in the bottom six.
But while the Premier League’s new faces have focused on the more banal techniques of thorough planning, defensive pragmatism, man-management and analytical scouting, their safety has been assisted by the missteps of those below them.
Stoke and Swansea were clubs who used to have a distinctive footballing raison d’etre. Those styles differed drastically, but had the same roots. Both clubs knew that a long-term vision helped sculpt a club’s decision-making in the short term. Both tossed them aside in the hope of bigger and better, blinded by the light.
Swansea and Stoke – and add West Ham and West Brom here too – have suffered from recruitment strategies that bordered on the bizarre. Full pockets only make happy shoppers if you have a list. All five visited the supermarket on an empty stomach and ended up buying lots of things but no square meal.
Jack Butland this week was keen to attack Stoke’s player recruitment, but the same could be said any any of the other four. There is some irony to the potential relegated trio being the three clubs who most spectacularly went for a big name last summer when signing Renato Sanches, Jese Rodriguez and Grzegorz Krychowiak. No one individual is wholly or even majoritively responsible, but they indicate a trend.
West Brom did the same with Alan Pardew and Southampton with Mauricio Pellegrino, and it is instructive that all three promoted clubs not only have the best possible manager they could hope to employ, but also the one who best fits the club’s ethos. Wagner has his demands for hard work; Hughton has his cheery smile and ten minutes for everyone who asks for five; Benitez has the self-generated power of the people. This does not happen by accident.
One thing that struck when planning this piece is that there may never have been more ‘small’ clubs in the Premier League: Brighton, Burnley, Huddersfield, Bournemouth. At a time of financial doping and super clubs, a different pattern emerges below the economic elite. While the Championship is packed with sleeping giants incapable of planning their sustainable futures, those below them in size look down from high above. If Burnley and Bournemouth led the way, Brighton and Huddersfield are doing a fine job of treading in their footsteps.
So don’t get tricked into believing in magic, at least not outside of the moment. It both does a disservice to the achievers and allows the fallen ones to avoid introspection. In the unlikeliest of places, the financially bloated Premier League, a meritocracy can be found. Long may it continue.