by Adam Virgo
CAN Brighton overhaul Boro or Burnley to snatch a place in the top two? My heart says yes – but my head says play-offs.
What I know for sure is the Seagulls and manager Chris Hughton haven’t had the credit they deserve for a sensational season.
Maybe it’s because Brighton aren’t a former Premier League club. Maybe it’s because they don’t spend millions on marquee players. Whatever the case, they rarely get the headlines.
People would much rather read about Joey Barton than Dale Stephens, just as they want to hear about Jordan Rhodes or Andre Gray rather than Tomer Hemed – despite the fact Hemed is the form striker in the division.
It’s human nature to gravitate towards big names. Darren Bent did nothing at Brighton, but he probably got more publicity than anyone I’ve ever seen.
But what Chris has achieved since taking over a mess from Sami Hyypia is arguably the story of the Championship season.
Every signing he’s made, bar one or two, have done exceptionally well. He hasn’t spent millions on player,s but he’s wrung every ounce of value out of them.
Look at Connor Goldson. This time last year, the 23-year-old was playing in League Two with Shrewsbury Town. Now, he’s an outstanding Championship defender. Would Hyypia have looked that far down for talent?
Look at Anthony Knockaert, the former Leicester player who was signed from Standard Liege in January. A January signing needs to be someone who can hit the ground running. You need a mix of quality and experience, which is why that window is so tricky. Knockaert was exactly that. He’s brought a different dynamic to the 4-4-2. When you play that formation, I think you need two out-and-out wingers, people who can run, cross the ball and beat a man or come inside. The Frenchman does, and it has galvanised a promotion push that looked to be going awry at Christmas.
The recent run has put Brighton’s goal difference into contention. Once, they were grinding out tight wins. Until the 3-0 victory over Brentford at the start of February, they hadn’t beaten anybody by more than one.
Since then, however, they’ve beaten Fulham 5-0, Bristol City, Leeds and QPR 4-0. In fact, since that bizarre 4-1 loss to Cardiff two months ago, they’ve scored 26 and conceded five. Nobody in the division can match those numbers.
That’s why I’m not ruling out automatic promotion, and it would be great for the neutral if it came down to a final day shoot-out between Boro and Brighton at the Riverside. But, even if my old club do fall short, I’d expect them to go up via the play-offs.
Psychologically, I think dropping into the play-offs would be damaging for Burnley or Middlesbrough. For them, top two would have been the aim in August.
Then, you look at the money they’ve spent, especially Middlesbrough. The £11m signing of Jordan Rhodes broke boundaries in the Championship. It was a statement that said ‘We will do anything to get promoted’.
When your cards are on the table like that, failure is hard to swallow. But Brighton? They would have taken top six at the start of the season. That’s why Hughton and his players deserve so much credit – and a few more headlines.