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There’s something melancholic about an English seaside town in winter. Whether it’s the shuttered shop fronts rusted by the salty air, the sickly green waves crashing against the vacant shoreline, or the wind buffeting rows of empty beach huts, there’s often a sense of stoicism, a need for hibernation and a yearning for better times.
However, for the residents of Brighton and Hove on England’s south coast, this year will be different. Those familiar doldrums will be shaken off as the city and its football club prepare for the team’s first European campaign in its 122-year history — a result of an incredible sixth-placed finish in the Premier League last season that handed them a spot in the UEFA Europa League.
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It has been a long time coming, as Brighton fans have had to endure heartache over the years: From relegation from the top flight in 1983, the same year they lost an FA Cup final to Manchester United, to almost being relegated to the Football Conference and liquidated in 1997, to repeated failure in the Championship playoffs — they lost three times between 2012-2016, before finally achieving promotion to the Premier League in 2016-17.
Now things are different. Amid worldwide acclaim for their transfer business and tactical style under exciting head coach Roberto De Zerbi, Brighton’s rise to playing in Europe is quite a story.
The city relies on the summer “holiday season,” when its population swells as thousands of Londoners — or DFLs (“Down From London”) as the locals call them — take the roughly 50-mile trip to the seaside. On Thursday, it will welcome fans of Greece’s AEK Athens for the first group-stage game, before supporters from the Netherlands’ Ajax Amsterdam and France’s Marseille make the journey in October and December.
Brighton have always maintained a strong community ethos — CEO Paul Barber personally sent a letter of thanks to the 41 devotees who travelled to every home and away fixture in their first season in the Premier League — so as soon as the Europa League draw was made in Monaco earlier this month, supporters began organising flights and hotel rooms, determined to make the most of the opportunity to attend matches in Europe for the first time.
“It’s a tough group but I’m really happy with it,” Brighton local Kim Strudwick tells ESPN. “You want to play teams that you know and it’s going to be amazing to watch Athens and Marseille. We’ve booked flights for Amsterdam as well. It’s going to be a great experience. I want to make sure I live it and say I’ve been.”
Brighton’s existence threatened
Seeing De Zerbi and his team take on European heavyweights is a fitting reward for the fans who have stuck by the club through thick and thin — most notably when it came within 28 minutes of relegation from the Football League in 1997.
Financially crippled from years of mismanagement, the club was left homeless and even came close to liquidation, with the board selling the Goldstone Ground to pay off debts. Seemingly doomed to the drop — it was 13 points adrift at the bottom of Division Three at one stage — the club rallied and faced what was effectively a one-match playoff against Hereford United in the final game of the season to determine who would be relegated to the Conference. In the end, a 62nd-minute equaliser from forward Robbie Reinelt secured the point Brighton needed to survive and keep the debt collectors at arm’s length.
“It was just one knockback after another at that time,” Kim’s father, and fellow Brighton fan, Steve Strudwick remembers. “You thought that Brighton could go out of existence. It would have been that way. Especially if we got relegated from the Football League. We were that close to being a semi-professional club.”
Knight in shining armour; Brighton Bloom
Four months later, on Sept. 2, 1997, local businessperson and dedicated supporter, Dick Knight — the man behind the infamous “Wonderbra” advertisement — led a consortium that took full control of Brighton from previous owner Greg Stanley and chairman Bill Archer for just £100.
The club, though, was still without a permanent home and, after two years sharing a ground at Gillingham’s Priestfield Stadium, relocated to the Withdean — an athletics stadium that had once been the site of the local zoo. It was there that the supporters, who watched on from rickety temporary stands, saw the first signs of the team’s growth as the Seagulls won back-to-back promotions after the turn of the Millenium.
“Seeing us play at Gillingham for a couple of years when we were towards the bottom of the old Tier Four … We were awful then,” Steve says. “We had to go 70-odd miles or so to get there every other Saturday. It was miserable and more often than not we’d lose anyway! I remember getting soaked at the Withdean on many occasions. The stand we sat in was in the open so there was no protection. You were also a long way from the pitch because of the running track.”
Brighton’s nomadism was brought to an end in 2009 with the takeover by local entrepreneur and sports betting magnate, Tony Bloom. Fresh investment was badly needed to push through plans for a new stadium in Falmer, on the edge of the South Downs National Park, and he has put in over £400 million of his own money. Those “Bloom or bust” years even spawned the charity single ‘We Want Falmer’ that raised awareness of the fans’ wish for a new home — it reached No. 17 in the UK singles charts. But with his takeover completed in 2009 and £93m finally secured for their first permanent home in 14 years — the American Express Community Stadium — Brighton’s new owner and chairman set about creating the modern-day incarnation of the football club.
“He [Bloom] is just a hero, he’s the man,” season-ticket holder Steven Meachin says. “I would say behind Dick Knight he’s the most important person in Brighton’s history, or at least the last 50 years or so. If we didn’t have Tony Bloom then we wouldn’t be going to Marseille next month, that’s for sure.”
Rise to the Premier League
In many ways, Bloom is the embodiment of the city of his birth, continually finding appeal in the niche and the under-appreciated. It’s an ethos he has ingrained into the club.
Brighton found success under Uruguay legend Gus Poyet to gain promotion to the Championship in 2010-11 and, after a few years of playoff heartache, eventually sealed their place back in the top flight for the first time in 34 years under Chris Hughton in 2016-17. Since then, the club’s player recruitment department, and their ability to see potential in traditionally overlooked and undervalued regions of the world, has set them apart from their competitors.
“They seem to be spotting gems in random leagues all over the place,” Brighton fan Ryan Newington says. “The way I sort of imagine it to be is like Football Manager [the video game], with some very intelligent data scientists going through various South American second divisions and seeing what they look like.”
It’s a process that has produced Premier League stars such as Mali’s Yves Bissouma [£30m, to Tottenham], Argentina’s Alexis Mac Allister [£35m, to Liverpool], Ecuador’s Moisés Caicedo [£100m, to Chelsea] and, most recently, the Republic of Ireland’s 18-year-old striker Evan Ferguson. But the accepted hierarchy of modern football means that for clubs like Brighton, it’s not just finding the right players; it’s about replacing them when the richer teams inevitably take them away. It’s something they seem to do better than any other club, but do the fans still get nervous whenever one of their heroes is moved on for a huge profit?
“I trust the board and I think lots of other Brighton fans feel that way,” Newington continues. “Yes, we’ll recruit players and yes, we’ll move them on for a profit and that is part of the system, but I feel like the money is reinvested well. Over the past two or three seasons it feels like the recruitment has got even better. You can’t be anything but happy with it.
“I have immense trust in the club’s leaders, Tony Bloom and Paul Barber. I suppose it’s because they’ve just made right decision after right decision after right decision for 10 years. Tony Bloom is a lifelong Brighton fan, he’s invested a lot of his own money. It’s all purely out of love.”
As a former professional gambler, Brighton’s owner is understandably secretive about how he consistency beats the odds, and the inner workings of his sports betting and analytics company, Starlizard, are shrouded in mystery.
Bloom’s secrecy extends to his football team. If you drive down the busy Old Shoreham Road into Worthing you’d be forgiven for overlooking the fact that Brighton’s training ground is nestled just out of view, hidden in the residential area to your left. There are remarkably few signs that mark its presence.
The results, however, are clear to see – the club have scored more goals than anyone else in the Premier League so far this season (15) after registering a £74m net profit from the summer transfer window and have even signed Lionel Messi’s one-time heir at Barcelona, Ansu Fati, on a season-long loan.
“When you compare where we are now to those days [at Gillingham and the Withdean] I do think it gives you genuine pride,” Newington adds. “With where we are now and the success of qualifying for the Europa League you’re like: ‘oh my God, we’re actually good!'”
Will Ansu Fati find success at Brighton?
Alejandro Moreno breaks down what he expects from Ansu Fati while he is on loan at Brighton.
De Zerbi leads European charge
Supporters, though, are keen to stress that they’re not getting too ahead of themselves as the club makes its first foray into Europe this week.
“I think from the fans’ point of view there’ll be no pressure at all,” Meachin says. “I think everyone expects us to get through the group, but worst-case scenario, finish third, and get in the [Europa] Conference League. Brighton fans don’t expect a lot. Most fans are kind of just kind of happy with going on the ride at the moment.”
The lack of ruthlessness that saw Brighton suffer so badly when faced with the intensity of Championship playoff games was a feature that De Zerbi quickly rectified after taking over from Graham Potter [who joined Chelsea] in September last year.
Potter was derided for the way in which his team consistently underperformed against their Expected Goals (xG) — in three games towards the end of February 2021, the team had a total xG of 7.79 but scored only once. Under De Zerbi this season, Brighton have scored 15 goals from an xG of 12.16. But the Italian hasn’t just improved his team in front of goal, many Brighton fans feel as though his influence on the club has been underappreciated from the outside.
“De Zerbi has changed more than what people give him credit for,” Meachin claims. “He is a different level but I can’t see him staying around for more than another year or two [because a bigger team will hire him]. I mean Potter did well, but I think De Zerbi is just a clear step up.”
“A lot of people don’t realise what it was like up until the March of the season before he [Potter] went. There were still a lot of question marks with the fanbase. We lost at home to Wolves in December of 2021 and a lot of people were saying ‘he’s got to go, we’re not progressing.’ It wasn’t until that March when we won at Tottenham that it started to properly come together.”
Even Bloom has admitted to being surprised by De Zerbi’s influence.
“I didn’t quite realise the impact he would have when he came in,” Bloom told BBC Radio Sussex Sport. “He has been hugely influential for so many players. He is so good at improving them. The quality of the play and the risk taking at the right times to create opportunities for the players to create chances and his tactical abilities are superb.”
Brighton have come such a long way in a short space of time. When they kick off against AEK Athens on Thursday night, you can guarantee that everyone associated with the club will take a moment to contemplate just how much they’ve achieved. Twenty-six years after Reinelt’s goal kept Brighton alive, they’re heading off to Europe in search of the good life.