Brighton & Hove Albion’s Championship heartbreak seems a distant memory with England’s Euro 2016 exit a helpful, yet disappointing, distraction throughout the summer months. However, the similarities between the failures are few and far between, as Chris Hughton’s men return for success.
There’s no doubt Albion’s punctured play-off campaign, a third in four seasons, took its toll both physically and mentally in the aftermath of Sheffield Wednesday’s victory in May. This, of course, adding to Albion’s cancelled promotion party at the Riverside Stadium just nine days beforehand, where a magnificent season fell just short in the face of their narrow conquerors.
But now the dust has settled, Albion must reinvest their pain, repeat their magic and capture the prize that agonisingly escaped their grasp.
The Seagulls have spent a week in Tenerife, as part of their pre-season training schedule, and return to action on Saturday July 16th in their first friendly against Crawley Town. Another five warm-up games will test Hughton’s returning squad over the three weeks that follow, including the visit of Lazio, before the Championship season gets underway against Derby County at the Ipro Stadium.
For Albion to challenge again they must retain their solid base and add another layer of quality. Within that addition a goalscorer is essential, despite Albion’s surprising finish as joint-top scorers last season. Albion found their feet in the later stages, especially in the final third, but often cried out for a clinical striker to cash in on chances.
Glenn Murray has been brought in to fill that void, on a season-long loan deal, but if Albion are to go one better this time around, another string must be added to Hughton’s bow as he points the way to promotion.
Bobby Zamora wasn’t offered a new contract at the club and it’s unlikely James Wilson will return, despite his slim chances of playing under Jose Mourinho at Manchester United. The 20-year-old made 25 appearances during his loan spell but struggled to find his feet in a team more than willing to support his progress. Wilson showed flashes of his Premier League pedigree but too often looked uninterested and daunted by the Championship’s physical nature.
With Murray’s arrival, the 12 goals left by the departing strikers shouldn’t be a problem to replace and perhaps build upon. The Bournemouth striker, who left Albion for their arch-rivals Crystal Palace but has now returned, will join Tomer Hemed and Sam Baldock in attack. Hughton will stick with the formula that’s served him so well, the big-man-little-man strike partnership in a 4-4-2, but must find competition for Baldock, who is Albion’s main source of pace up top.
Behind the firing line, the retention of Beram Kayal, Dale Stephens and Lewis Dunk is imperative to Albion’s hopes of reaching the next level, with interest from other clubs posing a threat to the tried and tested spine of Albion’s team. Steve Sidwell, who turned his loan spell into a permanent move, eases the pressure on Albion’s first-choice partnership, offering reliable cover that wasn’t available for much of last season.
Richie Towell will also be in support, on the look out for more opportunities in his first full season at the club. The Irish midfielder, who hit the headlines for his goalscoring prowess for Dundalk, hasn’t been given a fair chance to prove his worth at the Amex, but should feature more in Albion’s rebounding promotion push.
Last season’s dismantled Premier League dream isn’t something the Seagulls will want on playback, but the disappointment will definitely serve its purpose. Albion must deal wisely before getting their chance to set the record straight.
Feature Image: Paul Hazelwood