The Albion’s recent transition from a club at the bottom of the Football League, blighted with financial problems and no permanent ground to twenty years later being on the cusp of Premier League promotion is nothing short of remarkable. From October to the penultimate game of the 1996/97 season Albion were rooted to the bottom of the Football League, matters were also made worse when they were handed a two-point penalty for failing to control supporters protesting about the ownership of the club. It was a second half Robbie Reinelt equaliser which secured Albion’s football league status at the expense of Hereford United which proved to be the turning point in Albion’s recent history saving the club from potential liquidation. Since then it’s been a rocky road for the Albion, relegations and promotions a plenty saw the club bounce around the Football League before a more permanent status has been established in recent years since the 2010/2011 Seagulls squad assembled by Gus Poyet romped to become champions of League One. We investigate Albion’s recent inability to gain promotion to the Premier League.
So why have the Albion been unable to gain promotion?
Past mistakes have continually come back to haunt the Albion when it matters most. Albion have a terrible habit of losing the big games and freezing on the biggest stages, scoring few goals in the process.
The 2012/2013 season under Gus Poyet on the whole was handled very well. After an opening day defeat to Hull City who went on to gain automatic promotion the Albion won five of their next six games. Throughout the season they picked up some big wins, Hull City at home in the reverse fixture were turned over, four out of a possible six points were also taken from eventual champions Cardiff. A particular highlight was also the three-nil thumping of arch enemies and promotion rivals Crystal Palace in the spring which confirmed Albion as genuine promotion challengers.
Unfortunately the semi final play-off show piece against Palace saw the start of a reoccurring nightmare for the Albion. After an encouraging performance and good result at Selhurst Park in a goalless draw the Seagulls took the Eagles back to the Amex. Confidence was high in the Albion camp following a superb run-in, meanwhile in comparison Palace’s performances in the closing weeks of the season had started to falter. It was Albion’s confidence which proved to be their undoing as they played in to Palace’s hands over committing men in the second half at the Amex. The feeling around the ground and what appeared to have transferred over to the players was that Palace were there for the taking and it was a matter of when and not if the Albion would break through. The Palace team had built its promotion campaign around a solid back line and unsurprisingly for the neutral the stuttering Seagulls looked bereft of imagination and guile in their attempts to break down the Eagle’s defence. It was two swift Palace counter attacks finished by the superb Wilfried Zaha who went on to land a £15million transfer to Manchester United later that summer which confirmed Albion’s fate but the overconfidence and naivety displayed by the Seagulls that day has become a recurring event.
Following on from the previous season the Albion again came close to promotion, all be it two places lower and three points less than their 2012/2013 haul the Seagulls again landed themselves a place in the play offs. An up and down season saw the Albion scrape into the play-offs, a strong run in, going unbeaten in their final eight games saw the Seagulls safely into a promotion place. A lack of goals had blighted their season, fourteen fewer than the previous season with Leonardo Ulloa who was brought to the club in January 2013 the only player to manage double figures. He consistently scored goals, with record signing Craig Mckhail-Smith unable to find the net on a regular basis. The highlight of the league campaign being a league double over eventual Championship winners Leicester City by an overall score of 7-2 showed no sign of Albion’s inability to find the net consistently. Albion were the only team in the top half of the table not to score over 60 goals.
Once again in the play-offs as Albion were matched against the favourites Derby County (who finished in third place and thirteen points ahead of the Albion scoring twenty-nine more goals in the process) the Seagulls faultered. Again Albion went into the game attempting to play Derby at their game and not Albion’s. It was hard to watch as a usually measured and conservative Albion side attempted to outgun Derby who demolished them 6-2 on aggregate. There was an attempt to out score Derby but a lack of real belief they could do it. This exposed the brittle nature of the sides confidence. This mentality has become ingrained in subsequent seasons.
The 2014/2015 season was an anomaly in terms of Albion’s recent Championship exploits but again highlighted some reoccurring problems. A poor start to the season saw Albion in the relegation zone under the stewardship of Sami Hyypiä. Hyypiä was replaced by Chris Hughton in late December as the former Norwich boss eventually ensured the Albion avoided relegation. Again it was a lack of goals which really hurt the Albion with centre-back Lewis Dunk being the clubs top scorer in all competition with just seven goals. Albion’s inability to consistently find the net was saved by their improved back line. Chris Hughton had at last implemented a strong sense of organisation and discipline into the team. An overall forgetful campaign for the Albion with the promise of better things to come under Hughton.
The 2015/2016 saw a more disciplined Albion side come within just four points of the title itself. The side lead the Championship for large parts of the season and even matched Burnley (the champions) in the goal scoring charts with seventy-two apiece. Albion, Burnley and Brentford in fact finished as the joint top scoring teams in the championship. On the face of it the goal scoring problem had been solved but when investigating the full picture it was found Albion mustered just nine goals in twelve games against the Championship’s top 6 during the league and play offs. This rate of less than a goal scored a game (0.75) in comparison to champions Burnley who managed thirteen in ten at a rate of 1.3 goals per game simply wasn’t good enough in terms of goal scoring output against the leagues best teams and defences.
The final two games of the main season and the play offs once again confirmed Albion’s brittle mentality in the big games. A struggling Derby County came to the Amex on the penultimate day of the season with Albion knowing a win would mean Middlesbrough would have to beat them on the final day of the season to deny Albion automatic promotion. Albion stuttered against Derby and froze going a goal down, with James Wilson (a loan signing from Manchester United) salvaging a relatively worthless point. A week later the Seagulls went up North in search of the win needed to gain automatic promotion. The Albion started poorly, going a goal down inside twenty minutes courtesy of ‘Boro’s Uruguayan forward Cristhian Stuani but were revitalised by Dale Stephen’s header early in the second half. Albion looked lively after the goal but were once again caught up in the occasion as Stephens the goal scorer lost his head giving referee Mike Dean a decision to make following a rash lunge at the dangerous Gaston Ramirez. Stephen’s red card just four minutes after his goal was controversial and perhaps unjust but the influential midfielder should never have given the referee a decision to make so soon after getting back into the game.
The play-offs were the same old story with regards to the Albion’s fate. Bullied and outfought in the first leg at Hillsborough in a game they never really got going, they again failed to overturn a first leg deficit at the Amex as the Seagulls failed to unlock Sheffield Wednesday’s packed defence. It never really looked like Albion had the fire power to overcome Wednesday.
The 2015/2016 season had many a positive. A solid defensive season and a record points and position haul saw obvious progress from the Albion’s point of view. Tomer Hemed was also a huge positive with the summer signing from Almeria netting seventeen championship goals. A tally Albion will hope he can improve upon next season. Beram Kayal who has now been at the club for eighteen months will also be crucial in the Seagulls ensuring promotion, it’s imperative the Albion retain their 2015/2016 player of the season if they’re to have a shot at mixing it with the Premier League big boys come September 2017.
So what must the Albion do?
Tomer Hemed may well be the genuine goal scorer the Albion need, fans will be drooling over the prospect of him linking up with Glenn Murray who the Albion resigned from Crystal Palace this week. If these two can form a partnership, with both being genuine goal scorers capable of twenty league goals apiece then this may well be the season the Seagulls fly into the Premier League. The Albion will be expecting to build upon their solid defensive campaign and be tight again next term conceding few goals over the course of the season whilst hoping the individual abilities of their new strike partnership can score enough goals to fire Albion to promotion.
It’s the mentality that may well be harder to adjust as you can’t simply sign a new mentality. Last term despite a brilliant league campaign, Albion managed just one win in twelve games against the Championship’s top six across the league and play-offs. It was a common consensus amongst supporters that despite the Seagulls high standing in the Championship they didn’t really feel as if they belonged there. For their fortunes to change this season surely there must be more of a belief that Albion belong amongst the big boys and a chance at upsetting the Premier League’s elite.
If Albion are to succeed next season this belief must be instilled and they must also manage those big games better. With the way the Albion are likely to set up in a compact 4-4-2 with the two magic men up front in Hemed and Murray the Albion should continue to be tight in these games and competitive and perhaps with more belief may win more of these important clashes. Trips to likely promotion rivals Derby and Newcastle in the first five of the season should soon tell us if this Albion side believe they can compete with the Championship’s best.