By Leo Linden
After 34 years of hard-knocks football in the English lower leagues, Brighton and Hove Albion — generally known as Brighton, Albion, or the Seagulls — are heading to the Premier League. When they last left the top flight, the FA hadn’t yet rebranded the league as the Premiership of today, but after a few tough twists of fate, including a nasty end to last season, Brighton have finally fought their way back to the pinnacle. Staying up next season certainly won’t be easy — it never is for a promoted side — but a solid set up including an encouraging owner who doubles as an old fan has Brighton in as good a spot as any to succeed when they return to the top flight.
As many teams do, Brighton began play at the regional level in 1901 in the Southern League. The Seagulls won their first (and only, if lower-league titles are disregarded) trophy to date when they captured the Southern League crown in the 1909-10 season. That allowed them to play in the FA Charity Shield –– and old version of the Community Shield –– where they beat the winners of the Football League, Aston Villa, to capture their only national honors.
Brighton found it hard to escape mediocrity over the next few decades. Albion put forth multiple valiant efforts to earn promotion, but despite 10 top-five finishes in the South section of the third division of the national system, they could never cross the line before World War II again suspended play in 1939. The Seagulls came out of the war years worse for the wear, dropping to the lower half of the table, but they were able to quickly rise, and after finishing second twice, Albion finally topped the Third Division South in 1958, earning promotion to the second tier.
The celebration was short-lived, though. Subsequent relegations in 1962 and 1963 saw Albion tumble to the fourth division for the first time. Two years later, they escaped that mediocrity with a promotion, and that began the Seagulls’ first charge to the top flight. After momentarily toeing the line between the second and third divisions in the early 1970s, Brighton broke into the top flight with promotions in 1977 and 1979.
They quickly learned that the top flight is volatile, and after holding onto their place for three seasons but never finishing better than 13th, Albion took the drop in 1983, finishing a league-worst 22nd.
Since then, the Seagulls have never really had a home, either in a single league or place (more on that to come), bouncing between the whole of the English Football League. Disaster almost struck in 1997 and 1998 when, in both seasons, Brighton finished in 23rd place in the fourth tier and nearly dropped out of the football league all together. They recovered and rose, but promotions in 2001, 2002, and 2004 were offset by relegations in 2003 and 2006, leaving Albion back in League 1.
It was a significant investment largely because Brighton had previously sold their home field, Goldstone Ground, in 1997, and until the completion of the sparkling Falmer Stadium, Albion played at a few different local stadiums, sometimes having to travel as far as 70 miles to play home games. Their final season in the Withdean Stadium –– a local ground where they played the majority of their games while homeless –– ended on a major a high as the Seagulls earned promotion to the Championship.
Bloom’s continued financial investment in the side has correlated with a stark rise in the second flight. Albion finished fourth and sixth in the Championship in 2013 and 2014, respectively, but they were beat in the first round of the promotion playoff each time.
However, they regressed during the 2014-15 campaign, sinking to 20th under manager Sami Hyypia, who drove the club straight into the ground before his firing midway through the season. Albion had dug themselves too deep a hole to climb out of that year, but the talent was still there, and under new boss Chris Hughton, they bounced back strong last season.
The club came out of the starting blocks on fire in 2015-16, going unbeaten until getting thrashed by Middlesbrough 3-0 on matchday 22. That kicked off a quick fall of four losses and a draw in five games, but Brighton emerged strong on the other side and only lost once the rest of the season.
Then came the rematch with Boro. On the last day of the season, the clubs sat tied on points in second place, and the winner (or, in the case of a draw, Boro due to their superior goal difference) would earn promotion to the top flight. However, the game ended in a 1-1 draw, and Boro gained promotion while Brighton dropped to the playoff. Hampered by injury, the Seagulls never found their legs against sixth-place
But Hughton made sure the continued failure didn’t seep into the squad. They might have had a bit of a hangover early, starting this season 2-2-2, but Brighton have been brilliant ever since. The club put together an unbeaten run which included 14 wins and four draws between mid-September and early January, pushing past Newcastle and to the top of the league. There were a few worrying signs when they lost three out of five in February and March, but Albion were determined not to let the opportunity slip again. Since April 1, Brighton have won five straight, with the last of those victories, on Monday against Wigan, clinching their spot in the top two and earning the automatic promotion they narrowly missed out on a season ago.
Now, Brighton will start planning for next season. Hughton and Bloom will have to shore up their squad so that they can survive the world’s most competitive league, but they’re well prepared to do so.
It has been the defense that has carried Brighton to this point, and that should translate well into their PL campaign. The club has allowed a league-low 36 goals and has been led by a pair of 25-year-old centerbacks, Lewis Dunk and Shane Duffy. That bit of youth is a fantastic sign for Albion, but the squad as a whole isn’t all that young, so they may very well need to reinvest in younger players in the upcoming seasons.
The Seagulls’ leading scorer this season, with 22 talies, is 33-year-old Glenn Murray, who has a small amount of previous PL experience but is on the wrong side of 30. He will undoubtedly be a big part of next year’s team, but the future may rely on another 25-year-old, French winger Anthony Knockaert, who has 15 goals of his own, a team-leading eight assists, and was named Championship player of the year. He will also have help
What Brighton lack in top-flight experience next year could well be made up for by their willingness to fight through adversity. In less than a decade, the club has gone from one languishing in the lower tiers without a stadium to a Premier League side with a spine capable of winning the vital points needed to survive. The top division will undoubtedly present a whole host of new challenges, but with an increased revenue and a couple of quality offseason additions, Albion could be poised to stay up. And, once they dig their teeth into the top flight, as they’ve shown, resilience can make anything happen.