Brighton owner Tony Bloom’s achievement of taking the club from League One strugglers to Premier League survivors is symbolised by tomorrow’s game against Manchester United at the Amex — but the fixture also underlines just how difficult it is to set long-term goals once you start to feel at home in the top flight.
Brighton’s rise from sitting bottom of the entire Football League in 1997 to securing a second year of Premier League football by beating United in the final home game of last season — with a goal from Pascal Gross who was found in the German second division for just €3.5m — is the stuff of fairytales.
The story takes in a long list of heroes, not least lifelong fan Dick Knight who took hold of the club 21 years ago and saved it from the abyss at its very lowest point.
But Bloom, an Albion fan born in the city, has transformed Brighton since taking over in 2009, pumping hundreds of millions into a new stadium, a new training ground, and a long list of record signings.
For now, the 48-year-old, who rarely gives interviews, is able to bask in the glory of that success and look back on the triumphs of the last two seasons; but facing United again puts into perspective both what has been achieved — and what lies ahead.
The victory over United last season ranks very, very high in my time here,” he said. “I think the emotion after the Wigan game the previous season when we actually got promoted beats it because of all the excitement of getting to the Premier League.
“But in terms of the match itself, the Wigan game wasn’t so good — we were far from our best that day. Against United we played very well and deservedly beat them. I know they were going through a difficult time at that point but we deserved the win.
We weren’t definitely safe before the game either — with away games against Man City and Liverpool to play. A win guaranteed staying up and it goes down as one of the great games for us.
Playing Jose Mourinho’s side again raises some difficult questions, however.
Having beaten them once, where do you set the ambition this time?
“Well probably, possibly, we can’t complain about the timing of this particular game,” said Bloom, a reference to the fact not all United’s World Cup stars are fully match-fit.
“But whatever team they put out it’s going to be tremendously difficult. The good thing is we now know we can beat these teams, particularly at home. I’m hoping we get some points away against the big six as well this season.”
Those are the kind of small targets Brighton need to set for now. A stadium holding 33,000 and a large catchment area means they are capable of growing, but setting a five-year plan for a team in the bottom half of the Premier League is not easy.
Defining success is uncomplicated when you need to win promotion or stay up; but how do you set targets when both of those have been achieved? And how do you plan for a 20-team league in which the top six places are realistically out of reach?
Burnley set the bar for smaller clubs last season by finishing seventh and earning a place in the Europa League and Brighton, quietly, have similar ambitions.
Bloom said: “Hats off to Burnley, they had a magnificent season last year. They may find it tougher this season with the Europa League, that’s a really tough step — but they finished the ‘best of the rest’. They won their league, the league of 14, and it’s possible for any of us to do that.
“What Leicester did before that was a miracle — but what Burnley did was not a miracle. It was a lot of hard work from a well organised side with lots of 1-0 wins. And good luck to them. But our feet are very much on the ground. It’s a tougher league now.
We’ve got Wolves and Fulham coming up who were two excellent sides last season in the Championship and are both spending a lot of money. Three teams go down each season so we can’t think too far. The first aim is 17th and after that anything is a bonus.
“I think we can do better than last season’s 15th but the key is staying in this league — because it’s not easy to get back.”
If Brighton continue to progress then Bloom’s investment will be crucial (no-one seems to know the size of his fortune but it’s rumoured to be measured in billions rather than millions).
He’d like to see Brighton still in the Premier League in 2023 and regularly competing to win cup competitions each season.
For now, however, the glory of another victory over a big club and another year of survival is the bottom line; everything else is extra — even if Bloom has a history of delivering rather more.