Sevilla Notes, Zamora and Season Preview

11zamora

It’s not every day you beat the Champions of Europe. Though for us it is, or so it seems. Having done the double over them last season, this time round we managed to beat a team who’d won an actual European trophy this decade. Twice.

Nor is it every day you re-sign an Albion legend. Last night saw us do just that as Bobby Zamora rejoined on a one year contract. This has been more on and off than a fifth form romance but now it’s officially ON. I went on record as saying I’d rather have young potential than an old flame. I had no idea we could have both. Suddenly things are looking up. But let’s start at the beginning……

Football was back at the Amex and Sevilla were in town on a baking hot day. Having frozen at the back of the Hollies stand at Edgbaston with the lads on Thursday, now I baked at the front of a football stand with The Boy. With the usual crew on holiday we took some friends from his school and football club. Both friends were girls however, one of who insisted she was “bored “(she videoed the penalty though) and one of who loves football and Brighton but particularly Brighton Ladies who she reckons could beat the men any day. Tough crowd. Hence I got the benefit of The Boy’s analysis for ninety non stop minutes like some mini Alan Hansen in a meth lab.

There was plenty to analyse though. And admire. Starting with a genuine 4-4-2 we looked more compact and English than we have done for some time. But guess what? It worked.  The La Liga side would certainly not have been expecting it had they studied us recently but it looked organised and effective. Bruno and March were interchanging and covering nicely down the right while, on the left, Lua Lua (is it me or is he looking a little portly?) and the highly impressive Bong were doing the same. Kayal looked useful in midfield and Hemed and Baldock were a nuisance, the latter confirming he needs to play off or with a stronger, bigger partner. Stockdale had a cracker in goal.

We got a very soft penalty, converted it well, kept them out and had a couple more shots and that was it. Job done, Europa League champions despatched. So that’s it right? We can all relax? It’ll be ok? Well yes. And no. And maybe. Because in The Championship you can never tell (although in my English class you could never start sentences with And and Because so the world’s moving on quickly alright).

Are we strong enough? Will we be come September? Who else is and isn’t? Here is the nearly traditional Brighton But Only At Home season preview. Now with added Bobby.

Us

This is a Brighton and Hove Albion blog so I have to start with us. Looking back at some of the rants on these pages in the first half of this season you might be puzzled to then be reading the reasonably positive “keep calm” pieces I’ve written pre this season and on NSC. Was I kidnapped and subjected to some kind of weird surgery that changed me from wetter to licker at a stroke? Well, no.

Let’s not beat about the bush. Last season was an abortion and there were parts of it that were deeply embarrassing. Having that “One Club, One Ambition” strap line and dominating image when we were comfortably the second worst in the division after Blackpool was ridiculous. So were the upbeat hashtags, misleading attendance figures and relentless PR. It annoyed me immensely. It annoyed everyone immensely. It wasn’t so much that we were failing (every Brighton fan’s used to that, trust me), it was that so many people were pretending we weren’t. So what’s changed?

Firstly the manager and secondly the Burke. Those clear outs alone were enough to keep us up (just) but in no way close to an edifying manner. But make no mistake, Hughton’s mission was purely to keep us up and, however attritional it was he managed it. His real season starts now and there are reasons to be positive.

We go in to this season with the same manager as ended the previous one for the first time in two years and this has led to a slow but sure squad evolution, upwards from the trough. CMS may have been a lovely feller, champion retweeter and all round Mr Nice family guy (and he was) but by the end he was resembling a self parody as he willingly chased another one of his traps, found himself isolated or offside or, with great industry and a winning smile, muffed another chance. At the other end of the scale in terms of both effort and Twitter there was Kemy. Big fat, diamond encrusted, gangsta with OCD, snood wearing waste of space who can bugger off and then bugger off some more when he gets there. These players are gone.

Coming in we have Tomar Hemed who looks strong, willing and can put a penalty away along with Gaetan Bong who will be up and down that left flank all season but, unlike Joe Bennett, looks like he might be able to tackle and intercept. Liam Rosenior is (if you’ll excuse me an ‘Arry moment) a top, top pro. I’d have preferred to have seen Walton challenge for the starting spot in goal than bringing in another keeper but I’ll reserve that thought until I’ve seen Mäenpää properly.  Harper is a coup and Hambo a gamble. We will start solid (and we didn’t do that last season). And now there is Bobby. I don’t expect him to start every game or be injury free. He IS a gamble, hence the one year contract. But he should score goals at this level, he will give starting and bench options, there’s the mutual love thing and he has given the whole place a buzz. Suddenly there’s optimism. However………

We badly need centre backs and more creativity. Centre back I’ll return to but our attacking needs are still clear cut.  Having played 4-4-2 at the start on Sunday, 4-5-1 at the end and having used 4-4-1-1- you’d think one or two wingers are needed to help March with his lack of experience and injury record and Lua Lua (did I mention I thought he’d bulked up? Am I wrong?) with the fact he’s been sussed. Jack Harper may or may not be our number 10 later this season but he’s carrying an eight week injury straight out of Madrid C and will surely start in the DS. That’s, say,  three attackers needed.

But the Centre Back issue is all around Mr Dunk. The club may be able to turn down silly money for him but what of the player? We gave him his break, his family is local and I think we handled what I shall only refer to as “the unfortunate business” pretty well for him. There should be a degree of loyalty there. However, were the wages Fulham are offering to be eye watering what then? We need at least one centre back anyway to replace Halford / Hughes.  To replace Dunk adequately we’d have to reinvest his transfer fee in full and potentially up the wages for that position anyway, while still getting another centre back in. To sell him makes no sense. However, there is just the possibility that to keep him will cost us just as much. Or that we can’t. Watch this space. Actually don’t, watch NSC and the official club site.

So prediction? Should we secure those creative players and have at least an adequate central defence then we are definitely looking at top half. Around 10th would be my current prediction. Fail to further strengthen up front, however, or cover the defence adequately and we could end up lower than that. Should Bobby fire beyond expectations? Who knows.

Promotion Candidates

You can’t see past Boro and Derby. Boro are going for it. They may well fail FFP if they don’t go up and Stuart Downing will take this league apart (he may be average at International level but at Championship? Dynamite.) Derby were the best side in the division the season they knocked us out of the playoffs, they should have done better last season and it’s no secret Tony Bloom fluttered his eyelids at Paul Clement (perhaps that’s why he didn’t come). They are also spending. Brentford will potentially be there or thereabouts. They may have lost Warburton (who I really admired, his side played cracking football last season) and gone down the “moneyball” route but they have a Chairman who would dearly love to put one over on our Tone and some confidence and momentum. These are my three to watch.

Down the bottom

Blackburn could yet end up a basket case. If they lost Gestade, Rhodes and Marshall (even if the latter doesn’t come to us) they would end up in serious bother. Bolton have also done terrible business, bringing in just three players and with an older, bigger Dobbie the House Donkey on trial. Rotherham are bound to struggle, mainly because Steve Evans has eaten half the first team and, on a personal level, I would love to see MK Dons go down with nil points.

Middle Diddle

Reading should be safer than last season but I can’t see them challenging for much. Ditto Birmingham.

Who knows?

Sheffield Wednesday are going for it big style. Surely it’s time for the massive club that invented away days and not being bummed to get what they richly deserve, which is the unending recognition of the impressiveness of their working class enormity. What QPR richly deserve is a trip to the auditor and a points deduction. Forest have decent remains but can’t sign anyone. And who the bloody hell knows what Cardiff will do this season?

It’s going to be an interesting ride. A very interesting ride. Friday, however, now proves to be quite an atmosphere.

Opinion Piece – Lucky Safety At What Cost?

So there you have it. Championship football – bar Millwall overturning a goal difference deficit of twenty four when they have only scored thirty seven times so far all season – is guaranteed for next season. We. Are. Staying. Up. Woohoo. Excuse me while I go and open some chocolates.

Oh no, wait.

This has been the most awful, turgid season since Mickey Adams part two fiddled about with poor quality signings and too many loan players, some out of position. Sound familiar? It should. But in some ways even that season was more fun. Until Russell Slade and Lloyd Owusu rode in on their white horses and raised the roof we looked dead and buried, but how much fun was that April for those who were there? Improbable win followed improbable win until we took on Stockport at Withdean with at least a couple of different permutations of staying up, the main one being in our own hands. A sold out Withdean followed and, for me, a pub that was nearly as packed with my old mates as before the Doncaster opener at the Amex. We won easily – it was never in doubt – and my pub friends chaired Slade high in the air off the pitch. Compare that to this April. One goal scored the whole month, one point attained in the most awful match I can remember at The Amex in terms of quality. We have survived because Blackpool are a basket case and Wigan and Millwall have been just a bit more consistently awful than us.

Since that day at Withdean in 2009 we have mainly been on the up, while our opponents that day, Stockport, are currently playing pub football. Slade couldn’t repeat his form but Poyet came in and steadied the ship before we went in to overdrive in the following season. Then came the Amex, the first two seasons a whirl of excitement as we got used to our new home and signed a mixture of exciting young prospects (Buckley, Mattock), ex internationals (Bridge, Upson and Vicente), relative unknowns (Ulloa, Spanish Dave) and Swansea cast offs, plus the odd crap loan striker. We had a style, we had an identity, we had a massively out of control expenses bill. Now we’ve got a slogan and it’s all gone a bit wrong.

So where? Where have we gone wrong? Can we rescue any crumb of comfort from an abortion of a season? What are our prospects for next term?

Where Did It Go Wrong?

Managerial Revolving Door

To lose one manager at the end of a season may be regarded as a misfortune; to hack through five in three seasons looks like carelessness. Especially when two of those seasons were relative successes. Already there are “Hughton out” tweets and posts on NSC but they miss the point. Right now we are at about square three on the metaphorical Snakes and Ladders board, but going back to square one AGAIN would not seem to be the right way to move from that position. Chris Hughton will have been given one objective and one objective only when appointed and that was to keep us up. He did it, no matter how. We were second bottom when Sami left with less that a point per game average. The current run we are on is devastatingly poor but, at one point, Hughton was on a 1.6 point average and the team were sailing up the table. It’s not that long ago we were putting three past Ipswich and four past Birmingham at home. I think there are other factors to the slide which I’ll come on to.

The point to take from this particular misfortune is that the club were briefing hard against Oscar after his resignation. It is beginning to look like both he and Andy Naylor had a very good point indeed. Not least because of…..

Recruitment of Players

What. A. Shambles. David Burke’s sacking mid season would seem to confirm that the club agree. The list of players we were supposedly after – according to transfer rumours and another Naylor report – included Stephen Ward and Adam Clayton, now plying their trade in the Premier League and top of the Championship respectively. What we ended up with was Joe Bennett (another loan left back, a liability in defence all season), Danny Holla (in and out of the side since Christmas), Toko (who?), McCourt (quickly shipped off to Notts County when it became obvious he only had ten minutes in him), Colunga (a worse quality Baldock who got home sick in two seconds flat), Aaron Hughes (barely played), Chris O’Grady (nice bloke but REALLY?) and David Stockdale (marmite). We made a great loan signing in Darren Bent, played him in isolation, got him injured and lost him again, replacing him with the vastly inappropriately named Leon Best.

There were one or two successes. Teixeira has been mostly excellent and very good to watch, but as a result tried to win games for us single handed. I’m not convinced that’s what Liverpool would have had in mind when they loaned him to us. Kayal was a great signing. Baldock, meanwhile, was just coming really good when he got injured. For me it is no coincidence that the goals dried up once he was out. A forward choice of CMS, O’Grady or Best is never going to score you goals. Talking of which….

No Goals From Strikers

If you’re going to play one up front make sure it’s Leo Ulloa and not, say, COG or Best. The stats bear this out, horribly.

Sami

Sorry, nice and honourable bloke he might be but it takes a great chef to make a decent meal out of scraps. Sami made scraps.

Calderwood

We have had two really bad runs this season. The first under Sami and the second currently. The reasons for the first are above, the reasons for the second are slightly more nebulous. Baldock getting injured certainly didn’t help but, for me, we became far too defensive once Colin Calderwood arrived. Under Jones and Hughton together we looked like we had real belief. Recently we are going through the motions in a desperate attempt not to lose.

Dreadful Performances Against Poor Sides

Our record this season against Blackpool, Wigan, Millwall and Rotherham says it all about the above. One win, having now played each of them twice. And yet it looks like we will survive on forty six points, eight less than Peterborough went down with just a couple of seasons ago. We have not had any quality when it has most been needed and that is really what has depressed the fans throughout the season.

That Massively Out Of Control Expenses Bill I Mentioned

Even Tony Bloom doesn’t have bottomless pockets. Whatever you say about this season the man has kept us alive. But have we targeted that money in the right way? Early on we overspent on facilities AND players. That was unsustainable. With an Academy to build we had to make the choice between one or the other and we chose to focus on the facilities in my opinion, certainly in terms of quality. FFP is a factor for sure but a massive increase to the playing budget would have killed the golden goose.

So What Next?

The good thing is that we have stayed up and that the club has miraculously achieved a near ninety percent renewal rate of season tickets. Many players are playing as if they are already at another club next season which can only be a positive. We have great young prospects in Dunk and Ince who we really need not to sell and Kayal looks an excellent player. Baldock will return. The major overhauls in the summer need to be at both full back positions and up front. I would also rather see Halford, not retained and Aaron Hughes (out of contact) replaced with a single quality centre back. Sell COG to Sheffield United, get rid of Best (PLEASE) and do not retain CMS. This should free up budget for Hughton to bring in his own men up front. Oh, and PLEASE again, as few loans as possible.

Long term let’s hope that spend on the Academy works and we become another Southampton. We need to stop relying on Tony Bloom’s money, not because of any jokes he may have made about being skint on Wigan station but because it’s not fair.

Meanwhile, don’t forget to enjoy the 3-0 defeat to Watford on Saturday and pray that Millwall don’t win by nine at the same time. Joke. Maybe.

 

A New Year Present from Tony – Welcome Chris Hughton

Happy new year Albion fans. And happy new manager.

Chris Hughton will be unveiled as our new boss this morning. After what felt like half a season of despairing at the club’s previous choice Tony Bloom has chosen my preferred choice of boss on to replace him. Why was he preferred? Simply because of the number of boxes he ticked when compared to the others on the shortlist. Now was not a time for another risk. Tony has been successful enough in poker and business to know when to keep on and when to change strategy,

We needed Championship experience and a man with contacts in the British game. We needed someone who will be up for a fight. Having got a club the size of Newcastle back up (albeit with one of the best squads ever seen in the Championship) Hughton certainly has guts. He is well respected in the game having recently appeared on Goals on Sunday and the Radio 4 Today programme and he will bring a level of interest in the club not seen since the Poyet days, though unlike Poyet he knows what to say and when to say it.

Of the other contenders Tony Pulis had two main stumbling blocks for me (though he was the choice of many long term fans). Firstly his clashes at Palace over budget and recruitment. Yes, David Burke was removed but there is not an open chequebook here yet and that is a good thing. Secondly the combative style he would employ would not suit a squad that still looks a little powder puff. An overhaul of players and style would have represented as much risk as an unknown from Spain.

Tim Sherwood meanwhile attended the Gus Poyet Finishing School  of Opening Ones Mouth To Change Feet. That in itself wouldn’t be a show stopper but his lack of Championship experience and desire to bring in his own back room team would have been. And that gillet? That salute?

No, if anyone is unlucky here it is Nathan Jones who did a brilliant job as caretaker with a two point average and the passion restored to the stands and dressing room. I would have been perfectly happy to see Nathan continue but my reservation would be around recruitment where he lacks experience. With Burke gone any new manager would need to be able to secure “his” players.

We’ll see how Chris gets on over the coming months but I feel like a dark cloud has lifted from the club and it is onwards and upwards from here. Happy New Year Tony and thank you.

Welcome Sami Hyypia

So – we have a new manager. Welcome on board Sami Hyypia, a name not many were expecting though he was put in to the frame a couple of times when people weren’t really noticing thanks to the bookies declaring it a two horse race between Paul Clement and Tim Sherwood. Hyypia is an exciting and very Tony Bloom appointment. More of all that in a bit.

Since I last wrote, Oscar Garcia has rejoined Maccabi Tel Aviv. Some have said this demonstrates the Spaniard’s lack of ambition. Others have said that’s harsh on him. I’m firmly in the first camp. It shows he didn’t really want to leave there in the first place and that he’s happy to be a big fish in a small pond. Sure there’s Champions League football but with zero expectations. Another job in England – or perhaps back in Spain – would have pushed him and shown to the world just how much of Brighton’s successful season was really down to Garcia. Instead he’s retreated to his comfort zone, rather reinforcing the stories that he was last in and first home and unreachable at key times. I can’t imagine Maccabi Tel Aviv have a hectic January transfer window.

Successful season did I say? I did, and I think, in hindsight, it was. The playoffs would have been a minimum achievement and it’s what we hit. Ultimately we were undone by lack of belief and the defence that had been so solid all season finally cracking in terms of injuries. There just wasn’t quite enough fuel left in their tanks. As I write the main rock, Matt Upson, has left for Leicester (good luck Matt, the fans will always appreciate your efforts) and my own personal player of the season, Stephen Ward, is in limbo. In fact the team has disintegrated with only thirteen first team professionals around currently. Luckily it is holiday season unless you are involved in the World Cup. The new manager should have plenty of time and budget to bring in his own players in conjunction with David Burke.

And what a new manager. Who saw that coming really? Mentioned a few times on Twitter by a fellow blogger Not Worth That but largely out of the betting markets and discussions, Hyypia’s name suddenly crashed in to the frame this week and he became a firm odds on favourite. For a change there seemed to be more to it from the start with Sky Sports News reporting him to be in talks and hints on twitter that he was the one.

Astonishingly some fans seem underwhelmed. When Oscar was appointed last summer I wrote on this very blog that I had little idea what to expect, not being the greatest fan of Israeli football. But most of us have watched a Hyypia team. Whether it was the Bundesliga on satellite or cable (or perhaps a trip over to Germany as many English fans do now) or his Champions League campaign, the chances are that, like me, you caught at least one Hyypia game last season. That’s right. Last season Hyypia was coach in the German top division and Champions League with Bayer Leverkusen where he had a win ratio (during the time he was sole coach) of 51% (56% when sharing the lead role with Lewondowski). Though he was fired after a series of defeats put qualifying for this season’s Champions League in doubt he still had a winning percentage better than Garcia in a much tougher environment.

What’s more it is  a very Tony Bloom appointment. Like his two predecessors Hyypia is young and with an impressive pedigree as a player. He has worked with the Finnish national side and will come with contacts in the German and Finnish game as well as a bundle built up in his many seasons in England playing for Liverpool. Also, like his two predecessors, he is being given his break in Englsih football. One can only hope he repays us.

A few things point to the fact that he will. Unlike when Garcia joined there is no large shadow looming over the club. So unobtrusive was Garcia in fact that there are no real “Garcia” players at the club. Oscar clearly had favourites and not so favourites and this might be a time for clear the air talks with Kemy Agustien and to work Buckley and Lua Lua back in to roles that suit them better. The departing PIG and Upson will free up a large amount of wages and, with the signing of Nzuzi Toko there may be no immediate need to resign Keith Andrews.

Furthermore the new training ground is about to open with its replica Amex pitches, something that will hopefully reduce this season’s injury list.

So there we have it. A genuine new appointment and a clean break with the Spanish style (though not the possession football that is part of the club’s philosophy). An ex Liverpool stalwart who has coached at the highest level with a majority win percentage. A chance to rebuild the squad and heal some bruised egos. This may just be a very exciting season indeed. If you are underwhelmed you are probably not going to be happy until Sam Allerdyce, Billy Davies or Neil Warnock rock up at the Amex. Trust me, that’s not going to happen.