Sunday 30 April 2017

Hughton hauls Brighton back to the big time

Anthony Knockaert takes a picture to capture the scene after Brighton fans invaded the pitch to celebrate promotion to the Premier League. Photo: GETTY
Anthony Knockaert takes a picture to capture the scene after Brighton fans invaded the pitch to celebrate promotion to the Premier League. Photo: GETTY

Paul Hayward

Brighton pitch invasions have tended to be torrid: the closure of the Goldstone Ground, or the near-death experience at Hereford 20 years ago.

But this one was a fiesta - an eruption of pleasure that sent Lewis Dunk, their star centre-back, off the field in his underpants, and had the owner twirling his scarf at the sea of supporters on the pitch.

Dunk lost his shorts and shirt to souvenir hunters, but gained a place as a Premier League defender. Tony Bloom, the owner, has spent £250m on the stadium, training ground and annual losses, but now holds a golden betting slip.

And the fans out there on Sussex turf earned their reward for 20 years of faith and perseverance since the Goldstone Ground was turned into a retail park and the club nearly fell into the sea.

Agonising

For the first time since the 1982-83 season, Brighton and Hove Albion are in the top division. The last five years alone have been a drama: three Championship play-off defeats in four seasons and, last year, a near-miss on automatic promotion so agonising that it might have crushed the club's morale.

Chris Hughton, manager of Brighton & Hove Albion. Photo: Dan Istitene/Getty Images
Chris Hughton, manager of Brighton & Hove Albion. Photo: Dan Istitene/Getty Images

Twelve months ago Brighton finished with 89 points but missed out on the top spots by two goals. Now, they are guaranteed promotion on points by virtue of Derby's late equaliser against Huddersfield in the day's 5.0 kick-off.

After decades of pent-up frustration, and hope, it was no surprise to see a 29,940 crowd pour over the barriers of the comely Amex Stadium, despite requests to resist that temptation.

Manager Chris Hughton, who took over a team in relegation peril in January 2015, said: "All those memos that went out to stop the supporters going on the pitch didn't work too well, but I can understand the emotions this club have gone through.

"I'm a manager who's been here for two years and four months. There are supporters out there who have been through all the difficult periods, supporting this club for 20 to 30 years. I can understand their emotions, even if it's not mathematically certain yet."

At that stage it was a goal-difference promotion. But the Derby-Huddersfield result sealed it after a pummelling run of five Brighton wins in 17 days. This was an elevation seized, with Hughton's managerial skill to the fore, along with a core of resilient regulars, led by Dunk, Dale Stephens, Anthony Knockaert and Glenn Murray, who scored his 22nd league goal of the season against Wigan, who also conceded to Solly March after the interval.

"We recruited well - not many, but we started the season with a better team and squad," Hughton (pictured) said. "But it wasn't just about missing out last year. The team really enjoyed being at that end of the table, and winning more games than we lost. They made up their minds they wanted more of it. They wanted to be at this end.

"When I came to this club two years ago we were in the bottom three. It didn't feel like a club in the bottom three of the Championship, though. It's an incredibly well-run club, with wonderful support base and a great training facility that the players really appreciate."

Bloom's scarf-waving display below the directors' area as his players occupied the press box to be closer to their acolytes was a dramatic counterpoint to that day at Hereford, when survival was the only thing worth celebrating. Bloom told the audience here: "Twenty years ago we were hopeless - we were going nowhere. And now we're going to the Premier League."

Later he reflected on the long climb from Championship to Premier League. "You can get six or seven chances on the spin and not make it. It gets tougher every year," he said.

"There are more owners coming in, spending a lot of money. After getting so close last season (in the play-offs) we had a board meeting planned the next day - and had the meeting as intended, as the first day of the new season.

"I've been a passionate Brighton supporter for 40 years. When I took over eight years ago and became chairman, and committed to building the stadium and the training ground, I did it because I love this club and I was in the fortunate position that I'd made enough money.

"It was an easy decision for me. But it's not enough to do that. You have to run the club in the right way and run it correctly. Many local owners have put money in and it hasn't worked out well for them.

So it was important that, outside the 90 minutes of games, I make rational and unemotional decisions."

Bloom paid tribute to Hughton: "He has done a magnificent job. The team spirit is fantastic and he has done remarkably well in a very tough league. It's thoroughly deserved."

Promotion is worth an estimated minimum £170m, but with three games left Hughton wants more than second place.

"It's a great achievement to get promotion, but an even greater one to win the Championship," he said. This is a club with ever-expanding aims.

After Derby equalised, Brighton's fans and players, who had been watching on TV, invaded the pitch again. This time Dunk managed to keep his clothes on. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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