This is a headline Brighton fans have become all too familiar with recently. In fact, in three of the last four seasons we have ended up in the lottery that is the Football League Championship Play-Offs. Why do we never seem to excel? Why do we have such a poor record? On the biggest stage, we appear to fall short every time. Our record in the six play-off games in the last four seasons is nothing short of, in polite terms, relegation form. Six games: no wins; two draws; four defeats. Three goals scored, 11 conceded. Not even a single trip to the hallowed turf at Wembley for the final. Of the three, last season was probably our best shot at promotion. I’d go as far as saying that it was the best campaign we have had in the 29 years I’ve been watching the Albion.
The best, ever
It was the best we have consistently played at the highest level I have seen! Although we missed out on promotion twice in one season, we can hold our heads high with pride. There was the ‘Pre Play-Off Play Off’ versus Middlesbrough and the play-offs themselves. Even though we didn’t win the home second leg against Sheffield Wednesday, the first half was the greatest 45 minutes of football I have seen any Brighton side play – ever! It was almost as action-packed as the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan! Bodies on the line, wave after wave of attacks and a whole series of emotions being played out on the coast! When Oscar took us there in 2013/14, we were not really that good a team in a strong division. At no point did we even feature in the top six until the final minute, of the final game of the season. The goal to take us into the play-offs was the most euphoric I’ve ever felt watching Brighton at an away game. The scenes in the Bridgford Stand when Ulloa headed in Mackail-Smith’s perfect cross will live long in my memory. Pandemonium! Only Tommy Elphick at Aston Villa and Bas Savage at Hartlepool come close!
As for the play-offs, we got what we deserved – nothing! We lost the home leg 2-1 and then the away fixture 4-1. I think we played Derby County four times during the season, and lost on all four occasions. So, to 2012/13, and the leadership of HRH Sir Gus Poyet. We were a decent team on a decent run of form, on a head-on collision with our out-of-sorts rivals, Crystal Palace. Maybe everyone got a bit cocky – from the team to our fans – thinking we were better than them, especially when we drew the away leg, taking them back to the Amex having not lost at home in the whole of 2013. Who knows what happened that night; the club seemed to implode in between the two legs, then ‘Poo-Gate’ happened, Zaha happened and Palace went on to bigger and better things, leaving us way behind. Maybe this is where the underlying problem lies in our recent past, thinking it should’ve been our year for promotion, our best crack at the whip and still we failed?
Finding the target
For me, the obvious answer to promotion or shaking off the play-off hoodoo is a goal scorer. When we had a great striker, we never had an attacking team. Now we have an attacking team – could Murray be that great goal scorer? Imagine Ulloa linking up with the attacking squad of last season, he would have had a field day, and we probably would be starting this season in the top tier of English football. Under Gus and Oscar, he was often isolated 30 yards from any other player on the pitch, but when he got a chance he was deadly. Somehow, we ended up joint top scorers in the league last season without a prolific striker. Hemed, although he got to double figures, was never prolific. Baldock scored four, which was less than Stephens in midfield and Knockaert on the wing, who only joined halfway through the campaign. Bobby weighed in with a decent effort when he could walk and Wilson looked great when he looked human enough to play for more than five minutes.
For once we have kept our crown jewels, and seem to be in a great position, as Tony Bloom once put it to “strengthen from a position of strength”. We have a very good goalkeeper, a solid defence, probably the best central midfield pairing in the division, and in Knockaert maybe the most exciting player in the division. So it’s just up top where we really need to do something. The legend that is Glenn Murray has returned to add some much needed guile and firepower in attack, but is that enough? We shall see…