A remarkable team effort has lifted Brighton & Hove Albion from the depths of near-destruction to within touching distance of Premier League paradise. Promotion to the top flight is the ultimate team reward, but as far as individual honours go, a collection of Albion players are unfortunate to be walking away empty-handed.
On Sunday evening, the club held their annual awards ceremony at the American Express Community Stadium, with midfielder Beram Kayal picking up the hotly-contested Player of the Season accolade.
Other winners included Conor Goldson, who collected the Young Player of the Season award, Bruno, for his inclusion in the Football Manager and PFA Championship Team of the Season, and also Jiri Skalak, who walked away with the Goal of the Season prize, for his stunning 30-yard strike against Queens Park Rangers.
It was a wonderful evening that celebrated the successful turnaround on the pitch, but also remembered the devastating scenes from the Shoreham Air Disaster, a tragic event that saw the football club come together as one and pay touching tributes to those who sadly lost their lives.
David Stockdale was rewarded for his efforts to support the affected families following the tragedy, as he received his PFA Community Champion trophy. The Sarah Watts Inspiration Award was given to the first responders from the airshow disaster, 84-year-old Graham Wood won Fan of the Season and the Community Achievement Award went to ex-Albion player’s Guy Butters and Danny Cullip.
Kayal wrote his name in Albion history, joining the likes of Bobby Zamora, Liam Bridcutt and Jimmy Case, who were all recognised as ‘Player of the Season’ in years gone by. The 27-year-old is a worthy winner, following a consistent campaign in the heart of Albion’s promotion-chasing team.
The Israeli’s tenacious work rate and composure on the ball makes Albion tick, his non-stop endeavour to retain possession rubs off on his team-mates and his leadership qualities make him a firm favourite for the club’s next captain.
Take nothing away from Kayal, he’s been faultless and undeniably brilliant, but there was more than one horse in this race and a photo finish wouldn’t have been a surprise.
Lewis Dunk endured a brief mid-season wobble and fans of the club certainly let him know about it. Every minor mistake made by the 24-year-old was punished, placing pressure on Chris Hughton to remove Dunk from Albion’s starting XI, as the club trickled down the league table.
Hughton stuck with the young central defender and what a brilliant showing of faith that has turned out to be. Dunk recovered and reacted with sublime confidence, forming a solid partnership with Goldson, who would have been a contender had he played more games, to provide the perfect defensive platform to build upon.
Dunk has been instrumental in securing ten clean sheets from 18 games since losing to Rotherham United 2-0 in January. Five consecutive shutouts were the perfect reaction to a 4-1 defeat at Cardiff City and provided the launchpad for Albion’s 12-game unbeaten run that leaves them level on points with Burnley and Middlesbrough, with only two games to go.
Dunk was heavily involved in the 21-game unbeaten streak at the beginning of the season, where he was equally as influential in Albion’s rise to the Championship summit. In Albion’s penultimate run of away fixtures, Dunk has arguably been man of the match on all three occasions, scoring crucial goals against Birmingham City and Nottingham Forest, before a commanding display at the Valley.
At the young age of 24, Dunk has dealt with monumental pressure on his shoulders, making 37 league appearances as Albion’s first-choice centre back. Putting his short-lived mid-season struggle to one side, Dunk has performed above and beyond his age, shown high levels of consistency and been a key figure in Albion’s trusted spine.
Another player that slipped under the radar at the awards ceremony was Kayal’s midfielder partner and right-hand man, Dale Stephens. The 26-year-old has only missed one league game this season, appearing 43 times and scoring six goals along the way.
Stephens, who joined the Albion from Charlton in January 2014, pulls the strings in central midfield, but his unglorified impact can often go unnoticed. His decision making and intelligence on the ball makes him a vital component alongside Kayal, who would struggle to operate as freely as he does, without the controlled head of Stephens beside him.
A 0-0 stalemate with Preston North End in October highlighted the lack of creation when Stephens and Kayal are missing from the team. Although the Israel international is Albion’s leading assistor, Stephens has been involved in more goals this season, scoring six and laying on four, compared to Kayal’s seven assists and two goals.
Stephens was also ranked the sixth best player in the league this season in a vote carried out by the managers of all 24 Championship clubs. Dunk was Albion’s only other player inside the top 15, but neither made the top-four shortlist for Sunday evening’s Player of the Season presentation.
Liam Rosenior can feel unfortunate to not have his hat thrown in the ring, due to an injury that interrupted his season and also triggered an awful run of form for the Seagulls. Following his departure from the field against Birmingham in November, Albion won just one game in nine, losing five, as they dropped down the league table and exited the FA Cup.
His versatility has been called upon by Hughton throughout the season, deputising on the wing to real effect, before replacing Gataen Bong at left-back in an unnoticeable change to Albion’s defensive strength. In fact, Rosenior’s attacking presence has been the more impressive aspect of his game, with numerous overlapping runs adding another string to Albion’s bow.
Despite Rosenior failing to hit the back of the net this season and only chipping in with a single assist, the 31-year-old’s experience has helped balance the Seagulls and if he had of escaped injury, his consistent performances would have challenged Kayal for his Player of the Season crown.
Tomer Hemed has 17 goals in his debut season, which is a tremendous return, but a long barren spell of form sandwiched between his prolific exploits at either end of the season was enough to rule him out. Bruno was recognised for his contribution this season on a broader scale, however he should have no arguments at losing out to Kayal on this occasion.
Stockdale has considerably improved on his calamitous debut season, making a number of important saves in tight games, but occasionally showing signs that a mistake is never too far away. His inclusion in the four-man shortlist was a huge pat on the back, but winning the trophy over Kayal or Bruno would have been optimism at its boldest.
Bobby Zamora’s match-wining impact, Anthony Knockaert’s flare and Jiri Skalak’s deadly deliveries are all worth a mention, as well as Jamie Murphy’s old-fashioned wing play, but none could argue a case for Albion’s top accolade.
Kayal fought off fierce competition to take the main prize and was a popular winner on the night. The fact Albion had several worthy contenders for the end-of-season crown is testament to just how good they’ve been this season.
But now it’s time to focus on the ultimate prize, as Hughton’s awe-inspiring team reach for the promised land, with only two hurdles to go.