Why Brighton and Hove Albion provide Eriksson's Leicester with biggest test yet
It’s a no-brainer. A simple glance at the league table clearly tells you why Gus Poyet’s soaring Seagulls will supply Sven-Goran Eriksson with his sternest challenge of the season so far. Yet there’s more to it than that. When Brighton visit the East Midlands tomorrow, it will be a flashpoint in Leicester City’s season – and could well act as a reminder that money, of course, does not guarantee success.
With half a dozen games in the can, Brighton are currently passing their Championship examination with flying colours. Still unbeaten, with just a Kevin Phillips brace denying them a perfect record thus far, the Seagulls are the team to beat. It was easy to predict. Following in the footsteps of previous League One champions Norwich City, Brighton had high expectations – or, to perhaps be more accurate, expectations were thrust upon them the moment they sealed promotion to the second tier.
Norwich enjoyed the season that never died, a campaign which relied on a peppering of last-minute goals but also a number of sweeping victories which confirmed their superiority over all but one of the other teams in the division. And up they went to the Premier League in a blaze of glory on the south coast thanks to Simeon Jackson’s second-half winner at Portsmouth. Soon after, they were joined by Swansea City – a team that achieved promotion in a different way. Like Norwich, they were relatively newly-promoted having played out three seasons in the Championship since an ascent from the lower leagues. But this was a team that improved their league position year-upon-year (8th, 7th, 3rd) rather than barrelling their way straight through two successive promotions.
So we have Brighton, League One champions of 2010/11, showing all the signs of emulating the subsequent second-tier achievements of Swansea (winners in 2007/08) and Norwich (the class of 2009/10). But what of Swansea’s successor and Norwich’s predecessor?
Leicester City nearly rose through two divisions in consecutive years themselves, but the dream fell away towards the very end with play-off semi-final penalty heartache in Cardiff. Much has been written, not least on these pages, about what happened next but the end result effectively provides a context for Saturday’s visit of table-topping Brighton to the King Power Stadium. That moniker is a clue: things have changed enormously at Leicester since the last competitive appearance of Yann Kermorgant.
The Frenchman pitched up at Charlton Athletic this week under the watch of his former Leicester team-mate Chris Powell, a reminder to City fans of the recent past that has been left behind in a hurry. Widespread investiture in the squad over the summer has left it looking almost unrecognisable from the assorted heroes of League One glory and that play-off near-miss.
And so the narrative is clear. With many players having proven themselves in the Championship in Nigel Pearson’s second season with the club, victory for Brighton – and even more so if gained in the same stylish manner to which Seagulls fans have become accustomed over the past thirteen months – may leave Leicester fans wondering just why plenty of that tight-knit squad have been written off by Eriksson.
This scenario comes as Leicester lie 10th in the table. Pretty much what some fans were expecting at this stage, but a position which must haunt Eriksson slightly. A swift climb up the division last winter, augmented by loan signings and bargain buys, seemed to put Leicester in pole position for a play-off place. As close as they got towards the start of spring, however, this never quite materialised and a poor run of results saw the club end the season in 10th. It was a reminder that the Championship is very rarely a stroll, regardless of the amounts that can be spent in an attempt to ensure promotion.
Brighton, of course, may disagree – about the stroll anyway. Poyet has added here and there to a squad which, former Valencia winger Vicente aside, contains few household names – the following side dispatched Bristol City late on at Ashton Gate in their last outing: Ankergren, Greer, Dunk, Calderon, Painter, Noone (LuaLua), Harley (Buckley), Dicker, Bridcutt, Barnes, Mackail-Smith. A side that has grown and developed together and which is currently reaping the rewards – a proven formula for Championship success.
With their status at present, it must be said, comes a certain amount of pressure. Much as the recent past points to promoted teams prospering, it also offers the examples of Newcastle United and Queen’s Park Rangers – both of whom started at the top and stayed there. Whether this also happens for Brighton remains to be seen.
That league table certainly makes for happy reading in a corner of East Sussex, but the signs are there even if the publication of standings was suddenly placed under embargo. While Leicester fans fret about the best way for Eriksson to set up their relatively stellar side and a select few begin to idly wonder what may happen from a financial perspective should promotion not be achieved, Brighton fans have got other, far more important things to worry about (see exhibit A and exhibit B).
The second example above shows, if any further evidence were necessary, just how far Brighton and Hove Albion have come since the bad old days of the Gillingham groundshare and Bill Archer. Tomorrow comes yet another opportunity to lay a marker down on their ascent to a brighter future.