What a difference twelve months makes. Although their new stadium at Falmer was already well under way this time last year, optimism surrounding Brighton & Hove Albion this time last year was cautious to say the least. The League One contenders looked tough, and one final year at Withdean, where a lack of atmosphere came as an unwanted free gift with the very design of the ground, made promotion feel like a stretch too far. Skip forward twelve months, and this feels like a club reborn. Promotion felt inevitable very early on, and the team didn’t just win the league title – they won it in style, the best team in the division by a comfortable distance. Manager Gus Poyet has established himself as a real contender for a lengthy and successful career. Falmer is now The American Express Community Stadium and has over 18,000 tickets already sold for the new season in a summer when predictions for season ticket sales elsewhere have fallen somewhere between sluggish and apocalyptic.
Today, though, came the icing on the cake for supporters of the club with the news that the club has signed Craig Mackail-Smith from Peterborough United for a fee of £2.5 million which will likely rise to around £3.25 million with various add-ons. There are several strands to this signing which make it particularly notable. Firstly, there is the calibre of opposition that Brighton saw off in order to secure his signature at the club. Leicester City and West Ham United are understood to have been their key rivals in the pursuit of Mackail-Smith, and that Brighton should have been able to see off clubs of their stature could easily be seen as an indicator of how far the club’s profile has risen over the last year or so.
Brighton might have found themselves in a sticky situation with regards to strikers, this summer. Elliott Bennett moved to Norwich City for an undisclosed fee, whilst Glenn Murray left the club for bitter rivals Crystal Palace at the end of the season after rejecting a new contract from Brighton. A signing of the nature of Mackail-Smith’s will go a long way towards assuaging any concerns that Brighton supporters might have had after the departures of Bennett and Murray. There is no doubting Mackail-Smith’s quality as a striker, and his thirty-five goals last season say much of what we may need to understand about his qualities as a player. Peterborough supporters may have been resigned to his departure since the end of last season, but Mackail-Smith’s own comments on his decision, “They seem to be progressing, they are coming to a fantastic stadium and seem to be a club on the up”, seems to belie what has become increasingly apparent over the last few months or so – that Brighton & Hove Albion is an upwardly mobile club.
The timing of Mackail-Smith’s move may also be significant. One of the defining features of last summer’s recess was that many of the signings that were made by clubs were made very late in the day. That Brighton should spend so much money in the middle of the summer may be an indicator that there is more to come this summer. Chairman Tony Bloom has previously indicated that he is in a hurry to get Brighton up through the divisions, and it hardly seems implausible that he may have looked at Norwich’s achievements last season and arrived at the conclusion that his club could well match them. With the cost of the construction of the stadium coming in the form of interest-free loans (which may well, in the long term, never be paid back and converted into capital instead, although that is a matter for the future), concerns over Brighton’s financial prognosis remain slight.
Of course, any big signing carries a risk of the financial gamble about it. Craig Mackail-Smith may flop at Brighton (any player could flop when they move club, of course) but the critical acclaim that he won at Peterborough last season didn’t come from nowhere and, at twenty-seven years old, he should be at the prime of his playing career. Brighton’s supporters will surely have cause to get very excited indeed about what he may be capable of under the tutelage of Gus Poyet. Moreover, the excitement that supporters of the club are feeling at the moment is proof, as if it were needed, that patience brings its own rewards. Through the hellish last years at The Goldstone Ground, the purgatory of their enforced two year long exile at Priestfield and the unsatisfactory medium term that was the athletics stadium at Withdean – what kept the supporters of the club going through those times was, surely at least in part, the hope of the return of better times; a football club that the city of Brighton could be proud of, filled stands and unbridled optimism being the hallmark of a new season rather than trepidation or outright despair. Considering everything, it’s difficult to argue that those supporters don’t deserve their moment in the sun.
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