Sport

SEE GULLS GO

Brighton have risen to dizzying heights thanks to a solid blueprint, shrewd business and a poker face

Brighton have risen to dizzying heights thanks to a solid blueprint, shrewd business and a poker face
Joel Anker of Milton Keynes Dons contests the ball with Joe Knight of Brighton & Hove Albion U21 at Stadium MK in Milton Keynes on 5 December 2023. (Photo: Pete Norton / Getty Images)

The hierarchy of Brighton & Hove Albion has mastered the art of growing a club organically. With so many milestones already clocked, the sky’s not the limit for the Seagulls.

Since making their Premier League debut during the 2017/18 season after finishing second in the English second tier the season before, Brighton & Hove Albion have just kept shooting up the ladder. 

Currently making their maiden appearance in European soccer, the English side is making its mark on the continent as well. Brighton were grouped with Dutch giants Ajax Amsterdam, France’s Marseille and AEK Athens of Greece in this season’s Europa League.  

Now they are just one win away from finishing at the summit of Group B. Having already qualified alongside table-topping Marseille. The two teams face each other in the last round of group fixtures – in what will be a winner-takes-all tussle. 

For Brighton, qualifying for the knockout phase on their Europa debut is already a milestone on its own. Finishing top of their group will be a cherry on top. But that’s what they will be aiming for. The club’s Italian manager Roberto de Zerbi will want no less from his group of overachievers. 

Brighton

Roberto de Zerbi, manager of Brighton & Hove Albion, applauds the fans following the team’s victory in a Uefa Europa League 2023/24 match against AFC Ajax at Johan Cruijff Arena in Amsterdam on 9 November 2023. (Photo: Dean Mouhtaropoulos / Getty Images)

The art of adapting

When English manager Graeme Potter left the club for what seemed like greener pastures at Chelsea, many predicted that the Seagulls (as Brighton are affectionately known) would regress from the immense progress they had made during Potter’s three years at the helm. 

In his first season at the wheel, Potter guided the club to what was then a club record of 15th spot on the log table. The 41 points and 39 goals scored in that campaign were also milestones for the club. 

Potter, now forging a proper identity and culture at the club, steered the team to a maiden top-10 finish when they eclipsed their previous record to finish ninth on the table. The club reached dizzying heights, by their modest standards.

Read more in Daily Maverick: In spite of the heartbreak suffered last season, Arsenal are in red-hot form

Surely now they would tumble and fall back to being relegation candidates, as they were in their opening two seasons of top-flight soccer. 

Potter and a large chunk of his backroom staff being poached by Chelsea towards the end of 2022 certainly helped strengthen the belief that the Seagulls had hit their glass ceiling and would not soar any higher.

The constant luring away of their key players by bigger clubs and fatter paycheques did little to hush the death knell some were sounding for the club.

Dating back to July 2021, Brighton have sold nine of their stars to top-flight rivals. Three of those – Marc Cucurella, Robert Sanchez and Moises Caicedo – have been snapped up by the same Chelsea.

Also on the list are stars such as Arsenal duo Ben White and Ben White, as well as Alexis Mac Allister – now at Liverpool. Plus Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Yves Bissouma.

So far this season De Zerbi and his charges have demonstrated the outstanding juggling abilities of a veteran circus clown.

The club has banked staggering fees for these sales, making massive profit when the fees they initially paid to acquire their stars are contrasted with the amounts they sell them for. One example is Colombian Caicedo, who was bought for £4-million. They sold him to Chelsea for £115-million.

Despite their squad being picked apart every season, the team recruits players who align with their now well-established personality as an institution. With the regenerative powers of a salamander the club keeps trudging along. 

Sammy Chouchane of Brighton & Hove Albion in action with Dawson Devoy of Milton Keynes Dons at Stadium MK in Milton Keynes on 5 December 2023. (Photo: Marc Atkins / Getty Images)

Watch the Seagulls soar

Under De Zerbi’s tutelage, the Seagulls continue to fly even higher. Following his appointment in September 2022, the Italian tactician led Brighton to another club-high sixth place in the Premier League last season.

It was an even more of an acrophobia-inducing finish than those managed by Potter during his impressive stint at the club. It is how they qualified for the Europa League. 

That De Zerbi, formerly with Ukraine’s Shakhtar Donetsk before the Russian invasion forced his departure, did it in his maiden season of managing in English soccer solidifies just how commendable the achievement was.

This season the Seagulls are once again showing their quality and ability to adapt to the challenges thrown their way. It would have been easy for the team to fail to juggle European competition with the demands of the Premier League. 

What we don’t want to do is to build a squad for this coach, and this coach leaves, and then you have to build an entirely different squad for the next coach.

They do not possess the vast resources of many of the sides they are competing with. Nor the pedigree and aura. Regardless, so far this season De Zerbi and his charges have demonstrated the outstanding juggling abilities of a veteran circus clown.   

But what’s the secret to this continuity, consistency and organic growth that the club has shown? 

According to the club’s chief executive, Paul Barber, their success lies in the fact that they have fostered a team identity that is not dependent on the presence or absence of any individuals.   

Jacob Slater of Brighton & Hove Albion competes for the ball against Matthew Dennis of Milton Keynes Dons at Stadium MK on 5 December 2023. (Photo by Marc Atkins / Getty Images)

“One trick we have to try and pull off as a club of our size is evolution,” Barber told The New York Times.

“So, what we don’t want to do is to build a squad for this coach, and this coach leaves, and then you have to build an entirely different squad for the next coach.” 

To date, this formula seems to be working impeccably. The calculating nature of the club’s majority shareholder, Tony Bloom, has also played a pivotal part in the side blossoming.  

Read more in Daily Maverick: Bloodbath as a dozen English Premier League managers fall to the axe

“When it comes to football, people get very emotional. And when I’m watching a game, I’m as emotional as the rest of them,” Bloom told The Times just two years after taking over as chairperson of the club.  

“But, running the football club, it’s really important to get that emotion to the back. Otherwise, you’ll end up doing what a lot of chairs always do and make some horrendous decisions. I don’t quite understand why a lot of successful businessmen get into football clubs and sometimes make a pig’s ear of it.”

Bloom’s strategic thinking is aided by his background as a professional poker player and avid gambler. 

Depending on how much higher they can continue to soar, buying a majority stake in the Seagulls may just be the most satisfying Royal Flush of his life. DM

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