Adam’s latest “The Championship Corner” column.
As his Brighton team made the journey back from the capital on Monday, manager Chris Hughton would have allowed himself a satisfactory smile.
Hughton knows better than most, given Brighton’s failure to get promoted last term despite finishing on 89 points, there is a long way to go until the Seagulls reach the top-flight but victory at Craven Cottage moved them top, ahead of Newcastle United.
Newcastle sat 12th in the Premier League when chairman Mike Ashley decided to sack Hughton, the record-breaking promotion of the season before counting for little, and it will be personally sweet to the 58-year-old if he can secure Brighton’s long-awaited position in the top-flight at the expense of his former employers.
Brighton have experienced play-off heartbreak, under Oscar Garcia on the first occasion, in two of the last three seasons and the posting of a turnover-stripping £25.9 million loss up to June 30 last year suggests the burning desire to break the ceiling.
As Glenn Murray bags the goals with Anthony Knockaert in supply, this appears finally to be the season that years of generous investment from their property magnate chairman Tony Bloom will be rewarded.
The hard-fought 1-2 win at Fulham, where Brighton were outplayed for long periods by Slavisa Jokanovic’s team, was their fifth straight league win and their 18th match unbeaten in a run that extends back to a loss to Brentford at the start of September.
Their presence at the summit of the table is astounding given the lack of parachute payments that benefit them, while the contest with Newcastle is one they should not be winning given the eye-watering wage-bill at St James’s Park, and that Rafael Benitez’s team is the most expensively-assembled in history at this level.
Hughton’s team are 2 points clear of Newcastle having won both of their festive fixtures and having benefitted from the extra day’s rest given to them by the postponement of Friday’s match with Cardiff.
Thrifty and organized
In typical Hughton style, with the focus on team structure and spirit that he honed in spells in charge at Birmingham and Norwich in full effect, Brighton have been thrifty, marshalled by Shane Duffy, prized away from Blackburn back in August, and the impregnable Lewis Dunk (only Ipswich’s Christophe Berra has made more interceptions), their 15 goals conceded makes them the most miserly defence in the league.
Their resolve was rigorously tested at Fulham on Monday but following a penalty save from David Stockdale and a goal-line clearance from Dunk, their back-line was breached by Lucas Piazon.
Hughton’s men are made of much sterner stuff however and substitute Tomer Hemed equalised from the spot before, 72 seconds later, Knockaert’s shot was headed in on the rebound by Dunk.
Knockaert has been the driving force in Brighton’s attack, urged to cut in from the right and be more direct as the strength of Murray occupies defenders, his 8 goals have come from a total of 58 shots, the most in the Brighton squad.
Jiri Skalak has 5 assists from the opposite flank but Hughton’s system has instructed full-backs Bruno and Gaeten Bong to venture forward freely, creating 38 chances between them. Bong has provided Knockaert with 3 goals from left-back.
Both Knockaert and Czech international Skalak were acquired last January and have been allowed to continue on the south coast despite the failure to make it out of the Championship last year due to Bloom’s refusal to “cash-in on key assets”.
The “growing investment in the playing squad” has also fielded the wages of Steve Sidwell, whose wise head and leadership is crucial in midfield alongside the energetic Dale Stephens, and the fee to loan Murray back for the season from Bournemouth which the 33-year-old’s 15 goals, including recent late winners at Birmingham and Blackburn, have more than repaid.
Quiet and studious leader
At the head of it all is a quiet, studious coach whose man-management skills are proving peerless in the Championship.
His work has already been admirable in lifting a squad that once again hit disappointment in the play-offs back to the top of the table.
“What he did exceptionally well at Brighton last year was the No.12 to No.25. He deals with them extremely well” is the appraisal of Ewan Chester, the football consultant who worked with Hughton at Birmingham. “The spirit of the 25-man squad was outstanding. If we had to call on a player they were very committed and ready to slot in.”
Oliver Norwood, Jamie Murphy, Sam Baldock, Beram Kayal and Hemed have all made valuable contributions from reserve this season and Hughton’s resilient, hard-working and talented squad sit top, on course for the Premier League football they have continued to budget for regardless of the set-backs.
The club has the basis and ambition
Brighton have the basis of a top-flight squad, a top-flight stadium in the 30,000-seater Amex which Bloom-himself bankrolled in 2009, top-flight ambition and, as Newcastle fully know and what many more should appreciate, a top-flight manager.
Written by Adam Gray
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