As we near the end of the 2010/11 season, there is an area of the country that will be happier than most, and it isn’t London or the North West, but somewhere a little less traditional.
Two clubs have dominated their way to promotion this year and both are from the relative footballing backwater of Sussex. In fact both of the more modern East and West Sussex administrations are represented, Brighton & Hove Albion from the East and Crawley Town from the West. This can only be a positive for South Coast football, an area that has been long starved of success. It often amazes me that the South Coast hasn’t produced a bigger force in English football, it is a nice big catchment area, the main clubs all have big potential fanbases, but they so often get close to rubbing shoulders with the big boys, but don’t quite make it. Portsmouth’s relegation last year broke an uninterrupted thirty two years of South Coast representation in the top flight, but barring a few exceptions, neither the red and blue halves of Hampshire pushed on to be silverware manufacturers.
But now the South Coast is on the resurgence it would seem. Portsmouth have beaten a rocky start to cement their place in the Championship, Brighton will be joining them, and both Saints and Bournemouth both potentially could. Add to that the promotion of Crawley Town to the football league for the first time in their history and several money men getting involved with the areas clubs, it can only be a matter of time before we are represented again.
Crawley Town have been an unmitigated success story this season, and they set out their stall early. Having had the debts of the club written off by new owners, the club was even in the position to give manager Steve Evans transfer funds to rebuild the squad. In what is staggering amounts of money to be spending at Blue Square Premier level, the likes of Matt Tubbs and Sergio Torres, players with football league experience (Torres having played in the Championship with Peterbotough United last season) and others cost the club in the region of £500k.
Some non-league fans were critical of Crawley’s spending, but the outlay has paid dividends. Not only have the “Red Devils” stormed their way to the league title, but also put together a money spinning FA Cup run which saw them take the football league scalps of Swindon Town, Derby County and Torquay United before being felled by just one goal at Old Trafford. Such has been the impact of Crawley’s impressive performances as they were propelled into the public eye, that many are predicting the possibility of a second successive promotion for the Broadfield Stadium outfit, and if the financial backing continues who would be surprised?
While Crawley may have been the surprise package in the Blue Square Premier, their East Sussex neighbours Brighton weren’t about to let them steal the show. When Gus Poyet took over the “Seagulls” in November 2009, they were a club in trouble, struggling for results and looking in serious relegation danger, they were a far cry from this season’s win machine. Poyet steadied the ship and they retained their League One status comfortably by nine points. Nobody though was tipping them for anything more than consolidation this season. A good example of this was the scoffing from Swindon Town fans, when Brighton reportedly made a move for their previous season’s play off final captain Gordon Greer. Perhaps Greer could already see what the Swindon fans or anyone else couldn’t, as he chose the Withdean and the Robins went into freefall.
Poyet also re-signed Spaniard Inigo Calderon, fighting off interest from Southampton and brought in experienced keeper Casper Ankergen along with others, as the Brighton ownership also decided to show their Sussex clout. Like Crawley, the results were almost instantaneous, Poyet had created a tight and efficient unit who it soon became clear were not going to be easy to beat.
The style of play Poyet has them playing, is not every bodies cup of tea, but it is certainly effective. Clearly influenced by his South American roots, Brighton established themselves as the League One keep ball masters, a slow and patient build up with Elliott Bennett and Glenn Murray providing the attacking potency. The real key to Brighton’s title win however, is the same as all good champions. Consistency. While, as a Saints fan I am sometimes bemused as our talented pool of players come a cropper against beatable opposition, Brighton are getting results week in, week out, and here lies the key to a somewhat controversial PFA League One team of the year. Five Southampton players and only three from Brighton. Seems wrong, and perhaps it is, but Brighton’s dominant team unit is far more of a threat than five great individuals.
The crazy thing is, that in any other season the “Seagulls” fans could be forgiven for bemoaning bad luck. Brighton have developed a knack for earning then missing penalties, were they not going up, that might have put a serious downer on their year.
With Albion, it is case of double celebration this summer too, as they will start their Championship campaign in a stunning new facility at Falmer, the Withdean has long been holding this potentially big club back, and with their shiny new ground, and season tickets selling fast, it makes you wonder what might be in store for them.
So what we have with these two clubs is two dominant and deserved champions. Yes, it does pain me to say this as a Saints fan, Brighton are doing what perhaps we thought we might have done this year, and for me personally, as not a fan of Gus Poyet it is doubly frustrating. But there comes a time when you have to hold your hands up and say the best team won. Congratulations to both Brighton & Hove Albion and Crawley Town.