Which of Brighton's players will step up?
Back in February we put aside the potential for a promotion-defying points deduction to consider which of Neil Warnock’s charges might be ready to face Lamps and Stevie G next season. Now, with our League One hats on, we’ve replicated the original post in order to assess Brighton’s third-tier winning squad along the same lines. Cooked up in a living room around the corner from Brighton’s Fiveways, this is our evaluation of where things stand with the Albion as they embark on a glorious return to the Championship. The first XI is based on the side that started Saturday’s curtain call at the Withdean.
Goalkeeper: Peter Brezovan
Used as a back-up to the thinning Casper Ankergren, who’s been strong. Brezovan has looked patchy in the FA Cup games that he’s played, but Ankergren has been generally reliable notwithstanding a woeful performance against Rochdale early on. Ankergren is prone to the odd punching error, but his propensity for time-wasting will serve Albion well in the second flight where 1-0 away wins are like catnip to supporters of newly promoted clubs. Another younger ‘keeper will perhaps be needed to replace Brezovan (Scott Flinders anyone?), but ‘Flappergren’ has the first-team spot covered for the moment.
Verdict: To be replaced
Right back: Iñigo Calderón
What a find. Fantastic defensively, quick, and dangerous going forward. Originally unattached, Calderón was brought in on a free transfer by Gus Poyet and went on to replace former Player of the Season Andrew Whing. Was on the verge of joining Southampton at the beginning of 2010-11, but changed his mind at the final hour to join Brighton permanently. How Brighton fans will be glad he did; despite a few unforced errors in recent games, Calderón is now a vital cog in Poyet’s machine, and is also the second captain behind Gordon Greer.
Left back: Marcos Painter
Again, fantastic. Perhaps one of the Seagulls’ lesser known players, but is equally strong on the break and puts in some crucial tackles. One weakness is his inability to deal with crosses at the back post, which has led to a few conceded goals, but he’s popular with the fans and all being well Painter should start the season’s opener in August at the AMEX (after Eastbourne meet Albion Reserves in the Sussex Senior Cup, the new stadium’s first game).
Centre back: Gordon Greer
On paper, Greer has lived up to the hype that surrounded his transfer from Swindon at the start of the season. Indeed, along with Calderón and Elliott Bennet, the Big Footer made the PFA League One Team of the Year, partnering Southampton’s José Fonte at centre half. Yet fans are still not won over, and some wonder whether his aggressive approach really suits this team. Gobby to a fault, Greer was overlooked when supporters recently voted on their Player of the Season, Seagulls fans instead preferring fellow centre-back Adam El-Abd.
Centre back: Tommy Elphick
Spent most of the season as reserve centre half to Greer and El Abd. Poyet feels as though Elphick, a Youth Team graduate, is prone to making mistakes, and demoted him to third choice after giving him a run in the first few games of the season while Greer was suspended. Pushed closely by Lewis Dunk, a local youngster, who recently agreed an extended contract with the club.
Verdict: To be replaced
Right Midfield: Elliott Bennett
Often considered to be a right winger, but plays at the head of a midfield diamond, floating in and around the front two in a similar role to that of Ashley Young at Villa. In possession of a strong and accurate right-footed shot. Very popular with the fans after getting his head down following Albion’s decision to reject an offer from Norwich in January. Whether the Canaries deem Bennett to be ready for the Premier League is anyone’s guess, but the Telford man should be able to take the Championship in his stride.
Left Midfield: Craig Noone
Has drited in and out of games, and the squad, since his arrival from Plymouth, where he was treated like a demi-god. Great with the ball at his feet, and a good option to have on the bench when a game needs to be turned or stretched. Likely to be a squad player next season, and his position in the team could be at risk if Kazenga LuaLua returns on loan, which isn’t out of the question.
Verdict: To be replaced
Centre Midfield: Liam Bridcutt
Defensive midfielder, who runs like Forrest. The surprise package this season after signing upon his release from Chelsea. Bridcutt could be an excellent player in the Championship given his ability to screen and pass the ball from the defence. His head doesn’t drop if things aren’t going his way, and this one is just going to get better and better.
Centre Midfield: Gary Dicker
Recently signed a new two-year contract along with Bridcutt, but Dicker is the weaker of the two. Can be horribly inconsistent, and is prone to losing possession cheaply, but on his day he can control the midfield and he’s got a great touch. Plays a more attacking role, offering ammunition for the strikers through his incisive passing.
Striker: Ashley Barnes
Playing for his second League club following his transfer from Plymouth, Barnes has scored 19 goals ahead of this season’s finale at Notts County. Not an unimpressive haul for a player who’s still only 21 years old, but the truth is that Barnes has missed an awful lot of chances and will need to greatly improve his conversion rate if he’s to achieve anything another than a basic wage in 2011-12. Was accused of having a bad attitude when with the Pilgrims, but has fitted in nicely at the Withdean, and has stirred up very little trouble, preferring instead to focus on what he is good at; namely getting into good positions around the six-yard box.
Striker: Chris Wood
On loan from WBA. Has scored a number of goals, but has also fluffed more than his fair share. Wood is one of those strikers that doesn’t conform to any particularly stereotype; he’s no one-on-one poacher and, likewise, he’s hardly a target man – he has an unerring ability to let the ball bounce off him and the it seems that the shape of his head is not dissimilar to a 50p piece. Wood is a young international, but he needs experience and Albion could probably sign a better forward
Verdict: To be replaced
Of those who either came off the bench or were missing in action on Saturday, Adam El-Abd would be the standout player. At the beginning of the season El-Abd, the brother of Toulon flanker Joe, was just another Youth Team graduate that has struggled to convince in blue and white, but the Anglo-Egyptian has progressed magnificently under Poyet and no longer simply utilises across the pitch. Expect him to line up alongside Greer.
If Brighton can keep him, then Glenn Murray is another who will be assured of a place in the side come August if he’s fit and ready. A number of clubs including Palace and Millwall are swarming for the Cumbrian, who’s out of contract next month, so it may be that money dictates the decision. The levels of interest will have come as no surprise to Albion fans, however, given that Murray’s had an extraordinary season. Earning comparisons with Dimitar Berbatov, the ball just seems to stick to him and he’s proven to be a great outlet and assist-maker.
Poyet will be loathed to lose Murray, but the Montevidean has an excess of midfielders and may therefore look to wheel and deal in the central positions. Matt Sparrow, who’s been regularly forced out by injury and suspension, might find himself looking for a new house after failing to maintain the kind of form that he started in. Likewise, the contractless Radostin Kishishev will be a stranger to Brighton unless Poyet sees the value of keeping him on for experience’s sake. Francisco Sandaza, Jamie Smith, Michael Poke, Chris Holroyd, Alan Navarro, Agustín Battipiedi and Cristian Baz are all likely to follow Gary Hart out of the door as Poyet looks to freshen things up as the club moves up to Falmer.
In their stead, Poyet is likely to make half a dozen signings to supplement a lean-looking squad, and if his record to date is anything to go by then clubs in Leagues One and Two in possession of affordable rough cuts who are able to assimilate into Brighton’s slick style should be on alert. Of course, there’s the constant threat of other clubs swooping for the man with the plan himself, but the new stadium should keep Poyet in Sussex for some time yet. Perhaps he’ll land at West Ham or some such club in a year or two’s time, but for now things are just starting to get tasty.