Brighton & Hove Albion emphatically turned the league table on its head in 2015, as Chris Hughton used mid-table as Albion’s line of symmetry, guiding the fluttering Seagulls from 21st position to an impressive 4th place finish as we head into 2016.
It’s been a remarkable turnaround on the south coast and after a dramatic change in fortunes, Albion fans are now dreaming of Premier League football in comparison to the fear of relegation they felt just 12 months ago.
Despite the positive table flip and Albion’s 22-game unbeaten run throughout the back end of 2015, it’s hard to believe Albion’s year may have begun on a more encouraging note to how it ended.
Recent losses at home to Middlesbrough and Ipswich either side of a stalemate at Brentford have dampened the mood at the Amex Stadium, with a long list of injuries impacting both results and performances as the year came to a close.
Rewind back to the start of 2015, Albion fans were rejuvenated with back-to-back wins in Hughton’s first games in charge, boosting optimism around the club as an injection of belief was restored between the manager and the club’s fans.
Three successive home victories over Birmingham City, Leeds United and Derby County were imperative on route to Championship survival in May, however five losses and two draws in Albion’s final seven games meant the club’s escape was largely due to the failure of other teams as Brighton miserably ended the season on poor terms.
Following the freefall under Sami Hyypia, Tony Bloom’s successor was brought in to steady the ship and after keeping Albion afloat, Chris Hughton had a whole summer to work with and this is where Albion’s rehabilitation really took place.
A handful of summer signings arrived in Sussex and over the course of a tough pre-season of hard work and construction; Albion’s squad bonded and took shape for the eagerly anticipated league season that began in August.
Israeli striker Tomer Hemed arrived from Almeria, the same club Leonardo Ulloa departed before his successful spell at the Albion ended in an £8m deal with Premier League outfit Leicester City. Experienced utility player Liam Rosenior also signed for the club alongside Cameroon international Gaetan Bong, providing solid options at left back.
German central defender Uwe Hunemeier was recruited from FC Paderborn, as well as Shrewsbury Town’s player of the season Conor Goldson, joining the trusted partnership of Lewis Dunk and Gordon Greer as defensive options.
Feyenoord youngster Elvis Manu and Sheffield United winger Jamie Murphy also signed before the transfer window shut on September 1st. The signings were thick and fast throughout the summer months but there was one addition that well and truly stole the show, the emotional return of Albion legend Bobby Zamora.
The arrival of Zamora created a noticeable buzz around the club as Hughton captured not only a man who understands the club from top to bottom, but an experienced player who has played on the European stage and made the cut in the top two tiers of English football.
His enthusiastic return was a needed lift following a season of disappointment, not only for the players in the dressing room but for the fans of the club who deserved more for the money and time they invested throughout Albion’s wretched relegation escape.
Albion’s league season started with a narrow 1-0 win over Nottingham Forest and that game really was a sign of things to come. August concluded with an impressive 3-2 away win at Ipswich Town, leaving Hughton and his hard working team unbeaten and top of the table.
Promotion rivals Hull City arrived at the start of September and before the game, stunning tributes were made in honour of the 11 people who lost their lives in the Shoreham Air Show disaster that took place just weeks beforehand.
Club Groundsman Matthew Grimstone and talented young footballer Jacob Schilt were remembered on an emotional day at the Amex Stadium, with Tomer Hemed’s winning goal a fitting way to celebrate not only three points but the wonderful lives of those who were sadly taken on that fateful day.
The month ended with frustrating draws at both Wanderer clubs, as Albion missed a penalty against the ten men of Wolves and surrendered a 2-0 lead on their trip to Bolton. Albion fans were enjoying a complete change in expectations, with the club still unbeaten heading into October as momentum continued to build.
Bobby Zamora had been carefully used throughout the opening weeks of the season, however with Albion drawing 1-1 in the later stages at Elland Road, Zamora scored the winning goal over Leeds United and clinically announced himself in a Brighton shirt once again.
He was at it again just days later, appearing from the bench to score the winning goal against Bristol City before successive draws over Preston North End and Reading saw out yet another unbeaten month.
Albion’s ability to secure maximum points at home and pick up draws on the road continued throughout November, taking six points from MK Dons and Birmingham City in amongst respectable points shared with promotion candidates Sheffield Wednesday and Burnley.
Recruitment was back on the agenda for Hughton as the loan window was nearing completion and once again, a feeling of satisfaction was felt following quality additions to Albion’s overachieving squad. Promising 19-year-old striker James Wilson arrived from Manchester United for the season and Wolves wide man Rajiv van La Parra put pen to paper until the New Year.
The win over MK Dons stretched Albion’s unbeaten run to 17 games, breaking the club record of 16 that stood since 1931. Something special was clearly in the making and Charlton’s visit at the start of December was a magical afternoon that cemented that belief in breathtaking fashion.
The unbeaten record was under serious threat for the first time as Albion trailed 2-0 heading into half time. The first half performance was unnoticeable from an Albion side who had been so consistent up until this point and following Hughton’s team talk at the break, a revitalized team appeared from the tunnel and reengaged in battle.
Goals from James Wilson, Bobby Zamora and Tomer Hemed completed a dramatic turnaround and the atmosphere inside the Amex Stadium was one to remember. Albion found themselves in deep water but showed the character needed to lift themselves out of trouble.
Leads were squandered in the following away games at Derby and QPR, as frustration built before Middlesbrough’s visit prior to Christmas. The four points dropped were all the more important when Albion’s 22-game unbeaten streak came to a crushing halt, as Boro ran out 3-0 winners in a game that resembled ‘men against boys’.
Albion’s injury list had been stacking up prior to Middlesbrough’s arrival, with key players such as Kazenga Lua Lua, Liam Rosenior, Solly March and Gataen Bong missing from Hughton’s depleted squad that finally gave in.
The year concluded with a Boxing Day stalemate at Brentford and a second league defeat of the season as Ipswich visited the south coast to take all three points, rounding off a sequence of three games in which Albion failed to score.
The year may have ended on a sour note but the overall picture is sweeter than ever. 2015 was a year of redemption for the Albion, rising from the depths of relegation to the heights of Premier League potential.
New Year’s resolutions often dwindle within the opening months, however nothing can be taken from the stunning progress Brighton & Hove Albion made in 2015. Survival was imperative last time round and following the resurrection under Chris Hughton, eyes are now well and truly fixed on the ultimate prize, Premier League football.