IAN LADYMAN: If I could buy a season ticket anywhere, it would be Brighton or Brentford. They are clubs with strong identities, playing attractive football with success stories that warm the heart… all done without throwing money around
- Brighton and Brentford have shown how to thrive without huge amounts of cash
- Both sides have built teams who play good football and have strong identities
- As money and ugliness washes through our game, their success warms the heart
This is a column that starts with a disclaimer. I am an admirer of Chris Hughton.
Not only for the job he did in bringing one of our most likeable football clubs, Brighton, up to the Premier League but also for the wider contribution he has made as player and coach over almost 45 years in the game.
Ghana, who he recently agreed to manage, are fortunate to have on their side a man of great wisdom and humility.
But. This is also true. Standing with a group of reporters in a corridor at Wembley in April 2019, I found listening to Hughton talk greatly dispiriting. His Brighton team had just lost an FA Cup semi-final to Manchester City yet he spoke not with disappointment at an opportunity missed but with something closer to satisfaction bordering on relief that his team had escaped with some kind of honour intact.
The game had been poor and Brighton rarely threatened in losing 1-0. Yet Hughton said: ‘I am incredibly proud. We have raised the bar today.’
I went home feeling sad and wondered if that was that for the FA Cup. I wondered if — like the Premier League — it was a competition only a select few clubs could now win. City then beat Watford 6-0 in the final and you can imagine what I made of that.
Robert De Zerbi (left) and Thomas Frank (right) have both been given a chance to impose their intellects on Brighton and Brentford respectively
Cash is king in football but I value teams and managers who show ambition and don’t just settle for survival in the Premier League
But football has a pleasing habit of surprising you. Four years on, Brighton are back in the last four and this time they have designs on winning the cup. Hughton’s work was built on with innovation by Graham Potter before he left for Chelsea. Now it is the Italian Roberto De Zerbi who has Brighton seventh in the league.
Brighton will face Manchester United this time. Potter’s team beat them 4-0 at the Amex Stadium at the end of last season and 2-1 at Old Trafford on day one of this. It’s a different United side now but De Zerbi’s players will not take an inferiority complex into the game and this is the nub of it. This is what makes me feel so optimistic about the state of our game in 2023.
Because this is all about the cleverness of some clubs in managing to punch upwards. It’s about ambition and not settling for survival. And this is all about the quality of the coaching.
The idiots have tried to chase Potter out of Stamford Bridge but over time he will impose his intellect on Chelsea. Just as De Zerbi has at Brighton, just as Thomas Frank has at Brentford and, with the FA Cup in mind, just as Paul Heckingbottom has done at another semi-finalist, Sheffield United from the Championship.
Cash is king in English football. Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp have been able to build teams playing styles of football we have rarely seen before.
But if I was going to buy a season ticket anywhere in the top division, it would be at Brighton or Brentford. Clubs with strong identities, inclusive cultures and superb fit-for-purpose stadiums fielding teams playing attractive attacking football that wins matches and embarrasses people.
If I could buy a season ticket anywhere in the Premier League, it would be Brighton and Brentford – who both play attractive football and have strong identities
The Bees have beaten United and Liverpool this season and drawn at Arsenal – they have a bold style of play and, like Brighton, they have been successful without throwing money around
Frank is fascinating and down to earth. He will coach a top club if he sticks around. He confesses to a wanderlust — an urge to see more of the world with a backpack on — and that may pull him away from football prematurely. But we are lucky to have him.
Brentford have beaten United and Liverpool this season and drawn at Arsenal. Brighton have beaten United, Chelsea and Liverpool twice.
None of this has been achieved by throwing money around. Brighton have lost players, their manager and their football director to what we call bigger clubs. But they have made a virtue of it by reinvesting wisely while spending on the structure of the club which safeguards its future.
Sacking Hughton at the end of that 2019 season felt like shooting Bambi. Hughton told me this year how much it hurt. Equally, he looks at Brighton’s progress and accepts it worked. It was cruel but it proved to be clever too.
Brighton will never win the Premier League. Nor will Brentford. If Heckingbottom drags Sheffield United back up, they will have it all to do to remain there.
One of my favourite memories in football is Leicester triumphing over Chelsea in the 2021 FA Cup final. For all the razzamatazz of football, it is still won and lost on the grass
But as money and the ugliness it brings continues to wash through our game, opportunities to succeed around the edges still exist.
One of my favourite recent memories is of being at Wembley when Leicester beat Chelsea in the 2021 final. About 20,000 fans were there after Covid lockdown and the sun shone as Brendan Rodgers’ team swept the legs from beneath their fancied opponents.
Rodgers is another fine coach, despite his difficulties this season. For all the fanfare and razzamatazz of the modern game, football is still a sport won and lost out on the grass. There remains a way to prosper for those clever enough and brave enough to look.
SHORT-TERM PALACE ARE SO DEPRESSING
When Antonio Conte leaves Tottenham he will become the 10th Premier League sacking of the season. One more and that will be a record. So we really need David Moyes and Brendan Rodgers to hang on.
We know why clubs do it. It’s the money. Back at the start of the Premier League three decades ago, the financial gap between our top two leagues was not as vast. So in the 1992-93 season only two men lost their jobs. In 1995-96 only one. This is not a coincidence.
Nowadays nobody thinks they can afford to get relegated. They can but that’s another conversation.
Meanwhile everybody in the Championship thinks they can’t afford not to get promoted. So there have been 15 sackings there, too.
Crystal Palace have shown a desperate short-terminist mindset by sacking Patrick Vieira (L) for Roy Hodgson (R) – two years after replacing Hodgson with Vieira
The statistics don’t really support the methods. Of the 39 sackings made from March onwards in Premier League history, only seven have led to an improvement in League position.
So sacking managers is not only expensive and painful, it usually does no good at all.
Which brings us to Crystal Palace and Roy Hodgson.
Palace, who are 12th in the League, replaced Hodgson with Patrick Vieira in 2021 because they wanted a different direction. They wanted to play better football with younger and, if possible, homegrown players. They told us they wished to build a different kind of future.
But less than two years on, at the first hint of trouble, Palace have abandoned all that. Vieira is gone and Hodgson, 75, is back. Like a dog chasing its tail, Palace have shown themselves to be as desperately short-termist as everybody else. How depressing that feels.
An email arrived telling me Cristiano Ronaldo had gained 15 million Instagram followers this month. There are now 564 million people who can switch on their phones and look at photographs of him drinking tea or lifting leg weights in the gym.
The email did bring me up short, though, simply because it made me realise I had forgotten about him. Ronaldo only left Manchester United last November and joined Al Nassr of Saudi Arabia on December 30.
He has already scored nine goals, apparently. I haven’t bothered to watch a single one of them. In fact I have not given the 38-year-old a second thought.
Ronaldo thought when he left us that the Premier League’s gaze would follow.
But he was wrong. It didn’t. Gone and indeed forgotten.
Apparently Cristiano Ronaldo has already scored nine goals for Al-Nassr. I hadn’t noticed – I had already forgotten him
GO WITH YOUR GUT, GARETH
Gareth Southgate has appointed Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink to his England set-up because he rates him, likes him and because he is black.
The FA wish to lead the way when it comes to inclusivity and diversity but Southgate is now being criticised by some people for ticking boxes.
On this subject, the England manager will never be able to win, so he may as well go with his gut. Which he has.
WHY OZIL’S RETIREMENT SHOCKED ME
Mesut Ozil announced his retirement on Wednesday and it caught me out. I thought he stopped playing halfway through his final Arsenal contract.
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