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Brighton & Hove Albion v Newcastle United - Premier League

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“The Model” - Brighton fanzine gives insight into how a well-run football club operates

Brighton are a shining example of how a well-run club operates, and with Sunderland hoping to follow in their footsteps we thought we should pick the brains of a fan who has seen his club develop in front of his eyes...

Photo by David Horton - CameraSport via Getty Images

Let’s go right back to where it all started. Where do you see the formation of this version of Brighton, and what sort of place were the club in back then?

When Brighton first won promotion to the Premier League in 2017, the transfer strategy in the first two seasons was more about buying experienced players from abroad who other Premier League clubs might overlook to try and help keep the Albion up initially.

There was mixed success here; Pascal Gross for £3 million is now considered one of the best bargain buys in Brighton history. Alireza Jahanbakhsh for £17 million and Jurgen Locadia for £15 million, less so.

Having survived for two seasons, the strategy changed. Chris Hughton was sacked, Graham Potter came in and introduced a more progressive brand of football. It was at that point the Albion began signing younger players with potential.

The thinking was pretty clear - Brighton cannot compete financially with the bigger clubs in the Premier League. But what the club can do is use the algorithms and data analysis which made Tony Bloom a very rich man through professional gambling and apply them to identifying individuals from around the world whose numbers indicate they could one day become players all those bigger clubs want to sign.

How quickly did you see ‘the model’ established? Who were the key players behind the scenes, and how did they enforce their message?

Getting Dan Ashworth in as technical director from the FA was crucial. He oversaw the England DNA project which transformed our national team from a laughing stock into one capable of challenging and winning trophies at every level. With Brighton, he did a similar job. It sounds so simple, but the Under 18s through to the Under 23s through to the first team all started playing the same way.

Ashworth also helped establish the club’s loan pathway. Most of the Albion’s best young talents go to League Two for a year, then League One, then the Championship before coming into the first team. Ben White for example went from Newport County to Peterborough to Leeds to the senior squad. A year later and he was sold to Arsenal for £50 million.

Newcastle fans were cock-a-hoop at Ashworth accepting the Saudi blood money on offer at St James’ Park, thinking he was the man who identified and signed all the talent. But it was Bloom and his algorithms responsible for that.

What Ashworth did was put in place structures. None of that has changed since he left, which is why most people at Brighton were quite relaxed about his departure.

Brighton & Hove Albion v Newcastle United - Premier League Photo by Alex Broadway/Getty Images

Brighton are now a shining example to all clubs of how to operate in an increasingly competitive market. How did your club manage to forge their own path when it came to philosophy and recruitment?

I think the most crucial thing is that players know if they sign for Brighton, it is a stepping stone to bigger things. Fans of most clubs would balk at accepting that. The Albion though wear it as a badge of honour.

A wonderkid in South America could go direct to Manchester United or Chelsea, but chances are they will be lost in the shuffle and their career never takes off as it should.

Come to Brighton though and they get first team opportunities. They can grow and improve. And then in two or three years time, the Albion will facilitate that dream move to Chelsea or United - providing the buying club meets Bloom’s valuation.

Evan Ferguson said recently that he had a choice of Liverpool and Brighton. He chose Brighton because he knew it would be better for his career. Had he gone to Anfield, what are the chances he would be scoring Premier League hat-tricks past Newcastle at the age of 18?

Lots of Sunderland supporters use Brighton as an example of what our club should aspire to become, but I imagine the road to where you are now wasn’t without its bumps in the road...

It needs a lot of patience. Potter oversaw 14 home games in a row without a win, a club record eclipsing even what the Albion side who finished 91st of 92 in the Football League achieved in 1997-98. He also has the dubious honour of worst ever start to a top flight season to his name following two wins in 18 to kick off 2020-21.

Brighton lost six games in a row as recently as March 2022 and did not score a goal at the Amex for three months between January and April 2022. At almost any other club in the country, fans would have been going berserk and the chairman would have got an itchy finger.

Not Bloom though and not Albion fans. The wait for it to all come together was worth it.

As a fanbase, what were the biggest challenges you had to overcome when it came to the continuous development of the club?

There was a lot of scepticism initially. Why were Brighton spending £8.5 million on a 21-year-old from Argentina who sounds like an extra in Home Alone and who cannot get a work permit when the club are in a relegation battle? Alexis Mac Allister did not turn out too bad in the end.

Selling White was a big moment as it vindicated the approach. The money Arsenal paid for him was reinvested in Marc Cucurella, and the £62 million for him was reinvested in Pervis Estupinan. And so the wheel keeps turning.

Brighton & Hove Albion v Manchester United - Premier League Photo by Manchester United/Manchester United via Getty Images

Sunderland are just 2.5 years into the leadership of our current regime, and this past summer was the first time we saw popular, experienced players go out of the door for decent fees. How did your fans handle seeing popular players leave the club? Is this something that people are now just used to?

Bloom has answered this one better than anyone else can. Interest in your players and being able to sell them means you are doing something right. It is better to see popular players move on than have nobody want to sign anyone from you.

Again, it goes back to accepting the Albion’s place in the football hierarchy. Players like Mac Allister, Caicedo and White performed well enough in a Brighton shirt so that Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal want to pay big money for them.

Nobody growing up in Argentina or Ecuador dreams of playing for Brighton. They want to play for the European Super League Elite Six and win trophies. The Albion take advantage of their desire to do so and help them get there.

You can either be bitter when a player moves on or wish them well and take pride in the part the club has played in helping them on their way.

Mac Allister for example arrived a 21-year-old speaking no English having waited a year for a work permit. He left three-and-a-half years later a World Cup winner and one of the finest all round midfielders in the Premier League. Watching a player’s journey play out in front of you is a treat.

What do you think it is that Brighton are getting right that other clubs at the top table don’t seem to have grasped just yet?

Brilliant question. Because as much as we have talked about recruitment, the aspect often overlooked is that the environment at a football club is arguably more important.

Brighton have created a place where teenagers from around the world are looked after and can develop free from pressure. The atmosphere around the club is first class and that is why players excel at the Albion in a way they do not elsewhere.

You only have to look at the pillaging of our club by Chelsea to see that. Cucurella and Graham Potter were brilliant for Brighton but as soon as they left, they became laughing stocks. Caicedo is not pulling up any trees yet and it would be a surprise to see Robert Sanchez do well at Stamford Bridge. In contrast, Billy Gilmour struggled with Chelsea but now looks every bit the heir to Caicedo in the Albion midfield.

As Roberto De Zerbi said when the Caicedo to Chelsea saga was rumbling on: “Other clubs can buy our players. but they cannot buy our soul and spirit.” It is a quote which perfectly sums up the Albion right now.

There are lots of similarities between Brighton and the way Sunderland are now trying to work, and because we’re really still in the infancy of this ‘plan’ some fans really struggle with staying patient. What would you say to anyone reading this about how to remain calm during tough moments in transfer windows, or periods of transition?

I think it is a little different trying to do it in the Premier League compared to the Championship. Brighton only had to survive every year whilst the plan bore fruit; Sunderland face the total chaos that is that division, where literally anyone can be relegated whilst at the same time fighting promotion.

Ultimately, it comes down to having the utmost faith in the owner. Bloom has bankrolled Brighton from League One to Europa League. From what I can tell, Sunderland now have people in charge who want to do right by the club and appear to have half a brain. That is in stark contrast to a lot of English football.

It doesn’t happen overnight and there will be speedbumps in the road but results like beating Southampton 5-0 with so many young players shining are what you hold onto when the inevitable slumps come.

For Brighton, it was very small steps before it all came together. If Sunderland are on the same journey as the Albion, then it is worth the wait. Those 14 home games without a win have proven to be a worthy price to pay to see Brighton take on Ajax, Marseille and AEK Athens next month.

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