Fair winds for Seagulls again under Hughton
About the only blemish in a glowing inspection report of Brighton and Hove Albion's £32m Category 1 academy and training complex was that it lacked a muddy pitch to prepare for games at the wrong end of football's pyramid. An FA Cup tie, say, at a non-league ground.
After the near-extinction drama of 1997, when Brighton escaped demotion from the Football League on the season's final day, the Seagulls were hardly traumatised by this unusual caveat, as their stunning HQ at Lancing was awarded the highest grade under the Premier League's Elite Players Performance Plan. changes the face of what the GAA is and what it can be."
Under Chris Hughton, the senior team aim to go 18 games unbeaten in the Championship's battle between second and third at Burnley today. The new Southampton are taking shape along England's South Coast, where a beautifully designed academy complements the 30,750-seat American Express Community Stadium, which this year staged two Rugby World Cup games, including Japan's epic win over South Africa.
"Southampton is a wonderful example. And Swansea," Hughton agrees. "A lot of people could identify Brighton with a Swansea, and that was possibly down to the way of playing. As a model, yes, absolutely Southampton, with what they have as a stadium catchment area and training facilities. They have, with a definite philosophy, wanted to bring through young players. Certainly that's something this club is working very hard on.
"We recognise that we've been in this training facility for only 18 months. We only got Category 1 status for the academy a year ago. It's the early part of it. But there have been some wonderful things happening."
First-team results are at the heart of it. More so than Bobby Zamora's return to the club where he made his name, or the signing of 19-year-old Jack Harper from Real Madrid. In the 11 months since Sami Hyypia resigned, after winning six of 26, Hughton has transformed Brighton from relegation candidates to promotion contenders, and the only unbeaten side this season in the 92 League clubs.
Incredibly, Newcastle United were 11th in the Premier League when Hughton was sacked in December 2010. At Norwich City, in the same echelon, he was dismissed five games before the end of the season (and might have saved them from relegation). Look properly and his record contradicts an unfair reputation for being a Championship specialist.
So does he see himself as a top-flight coach or a dab hand in the next league down? "I'd see myself as a manager . I've been fortunate to have close to 2.5 seasons at Premier League level and probably the same at Championship. I'd see myself as a manager that wants to get this club into the Premier League."
Hughton is what Brighton needed. A savvy Championship-literate coach to lead them away from a continental passing game that ceased to be effective during a poor recruiting phase. Hughton and the chief executive, Paul Barber, reversed that trend, primarily by buying Jamie Murphy, Uwe Hunemeier, Tomer Hemed, Liam Rosenior, Niki Maenpaa and Gaetan Bong. The shift towards more realistic and efficient football has worked wonders.
Hughton takes up the story: "We knew it was going to be a big recruitment summer. We lost nine players, and knew we had to bring in nine, which is really too many. But of course, I'd had since January with the staff to process what we wanted. What did help was that maybe the first four we brought in were the goalkeeper, Maenpaa; Rosenior, Hemed and Bong. All good, experienced players. Every player that came in after that, [saw] these players had set a real good example and a real good standard for them to come into.
"If we're looking at the secrets of doing well in this division - firstly, it is an incredibly demanding division. If I look at the 16 games we've had this season we haven't had a comfortable game, even against teams in that bottom area. Bristol City, Rotherham, Preston.
"You absolutely have to have a blend in your squad of players that are Championship-hardened. If you looked at all three teams that went up last season - Bournemouth, Watford, Norwich - they all had a lot of quality. So you've got to have quality and you've got to have team identity."
Managers are wary of linking improvements to criticism of what went before, but Hughton is content to discuss a shift away from a Spanish formula. "There's no doubt the way of playing has changed. With previous managers, most formations would have been a 4-3-3, which was very much possession-based football.
"Where I've benefited is that the players I've inherited from that era are good footballers, comfortable on the ball: Gordon Greer, Lewis Dunk, Bruno Saltor, Inigo Calderon. Players that have come through that system are not going to change because they're good enough players on the ball. I've changed the formation.
"I've gone to a form of 4-4-2. And I just felt I wanted to be able to get the ball forward a little quicker. Still be a possession-based team, but as much as possible try to have more of that possession in the opposition half."
The striker Hemed, Hughton says, "has given us the nice balance of a player who wants to work hard but can also give us some of the physicality you need in this division". Harper is being sheltered from hype, but Hughton will say: "If he can live up to the ability he's showed it could be a wonderful one for the club."
And Brighton have their own Jamie Vardy or Duncan Watmore: Solly March, an England under 21 acquired from Lewes, four miles away. Hughton says: "It's always a wonderful story when someone has come through the ranks - a Lewis Dunk or a Jake Forster Caskey, or a local-ish lad who's come through in a different way. He [March] is still a developing player. For this football club it's a really nice feeling when you bring someone in from one of the local clubs."
March now reports to a training complex from where you can see across the coastal acres to owner Tony Bloom's old school, Lancing College. They have all come a long way.