The Weekend Match: Brighton & Hove Albion 1-3 Burnley
The arrival of an email towards the end of last week was a hint. Brighton & Hove Albion don’t usually send out emails a couple of days before a Premier League match advising that some tickets are still available, but they did for yesterday evening’s match against Burnley. The reasons for this seem pretty clear. The weather on the south coast has been fairly atrocious in patches over the last few weeks, and a mix of sleet and rain was forecast for this particular match. On top of this, Burnley, for all their merits, aren’t exactly the biggest draw in the division. Those who only attend a handful of Albion matches per season, we might surmise, would be unlikely to circle this fixture as one to watch unless, of course, the availability of tickets is amongst the highest of their priorities in the first place.
But there’s been something else going on surrounding the Seagulls of late, a hint of sullenness in the air. Albion haven’t won in the league since a one-nil win against Everton on the twenty-ninth of December, a run of six matches during which they’ve accumulated just two points, and even that Everton win was something of an outlier, coming as it did after three losses and a draw in the four matches prior to that. The FA Cup has provided some respite from this with wins against Bournemouth in the Third Round and West Bromwich Albion in the Fourth, but there’s a growing sense that pre-Christmas optimism that the team was not far short of safe from the threat of relegation may have been somewhat premature.
Burnley, meanwhile, have taken more or less the opposite trajectory to Brighton so far this year. They lost to Everton on Boxing Day but have gone six games unbeaten since then, with three wins and three draws, one of which saw them come within a whisker of becoming the first team to beat Manchester United under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer since the beginning of his reign of terror. It feels entirely plausible that their bad start to the season was due to their relatively limited resources being unable to cope with both the Premier League and the Europa League, although this doesn’t necessarily explain why their bad form continued until the end of December when their European adventure came to an end at the hands of Olympiacos at the end of August.
So, it was a bitterly cold evening in East Sussex with an out-of-shape home team, a pitch that collected water with every shower, and two of the three teams that’d had the lowest number of shots on target all season. It didn’t feel a great deal like the glitz and glamour of the Premier League, but that’s not entirely bad thing. The American Express Community Stadium may well be a superb and thoroughly modern stadium, but there also remains something charmingly homely about Brighton & Hove Albion home matches. One can only wonder, for example, what the global television audience which has decided to tune into this match makes of the teams taking the pitch to the military parpings of “Good Old Sussex By The Sea”, still less what they might think when the same tune pops up as the teams take the pitch for the start of the second half.
On an evening that might well have chilled the blood of Brighton supporters in more than one respect, though, there was soomething inherently contradictory going on. The final result of the match ultimately came to pivot on a passage of play that lasted no more than thirty or forty seconds, with sixteen minutes left to play. Brighton were already two goals down by this time, and at one end of the pitch the Burnley player Jeff Kendrick allowed the ball to bounce up off his chest and seemed to control it with his arm before clearing. It seemed inexplicable that referee Stuart Attwell and his assistant didn’t see what looked like a clear penalty kick, but Attwell waved away the protests as Burnley broke to the other end of the pitch, where Ashley Barnes was brought down by the Brighton goalkeeper Mat Ryan. Chris Wood, who’d already scored Burnley’s first two goals, put the ball wide of the open goal, but Attwell then called play back to give Burnley the penalty kick, which was converted by Barnes.
It was a pretty terrible decision, of that there is no question, and the post-match complaints of the Brighton manager Chris Hughton that a successful penalty award for Brighton, reducing the score to two-one with a quarter of an hour left to play and Burnley looking as though they may have been about to start wilting, would have made for a very different set of closing stages to what actually happened. Brighton did pull a goal baack a couple of minutes later through Shane Duffy which briefly raised hopes that the closing minutes of the match wouldn’t be a procession for Burnley, but the damage to Brighton’s day was already done with the non-award of the penalty kick. And indeed, Burnley closed out the match with the minimum of fuss.
To focus on this one particular incident, is to only tell a part of the story of the evening. It’s not that Brighton played particularly badly or that Burnley played particularly well, and as we all know the margins that separate victory from defeat can be extremely narrow. The Burnley goalkeeper Tom Heaton had an excellent evening, the conditions were not particularly amenable to matters going according to any particular plan, and Brighton also had other shouts for a penalty kick that were waved away by the referee on top of that which proved to be the fatal to their chances of rescuing anything from the match.
However, to say that they were anywhere near outplaying Burnley would be a stretch, and when we are considering who deserves what from a football match, it is important to take into account the fact that there are two teams on the pitch at any given time. Brighton can feel hard done by over the couple of decisions that didn’t go their way, but this doesn’t alter tha fact that Burnley were, in honesty, the better team over the course of the ninety minutes. Pulling a goal back from the penalty spot with sixteen minutes left to play would definitely have improved their chances of getting back into the game and and scoring a second goal, but it wouldn’t have guaranteed this happening by any stretch of the imagination.
Brighton & Hove Albion have dropped to fifteenth place in the Premier League table, but they’re now just three points above the relegation places, and with the transfer window having closed a week and a half ago it’s difficult to see exactly where any significant improvement is going to come from at the moment. It might be argued that they’re a little fortunate, in that Fulham and Huddersfield Town are so far off the pace at the very bottom of the table – and showing few signs of being capable of turning things around either – that there is effectively only one relegation place left that is truly up for grabs at the bottom of the table. It is, for Brighton supporters, something to cling onto as they drift towards a full blown relegation scrap.
Furthermore, recent results have come from matches that should have been considered winnable. Conceding four goals and throwing away a two goal lead at Fulham is, put simply, not something that a club in Brighton’s position can be affording to do at the moment. Losing comfortably at home to a Burnley side that started the game in the bottom three isn’t, either. That Burnley side is now level on points with Brighton. Cardiff City have started winning matches, including that one or two that few expected them to. Even the perpetually in turmoil Newcastle United have, since the turn of the year, shown occasional signs of life and of an inner determination to cling onto their Premier League place.
Next weekend, Brighton & Hove Albion take on Derby County in the Fifth Round of the FA Cup. There are two persepctives that one can take on this. One is to consider that Brighton’s only half-decent performances of 2019 so far have come in this competition. When faced with tricky matches away at Bournemouth and at home against West Bromwich Albion this month they have found a little mettle from somewhere, and a win would put them ninety minutes from a trip to Wembley Stadium for a semi-final match. Perhaps a psychological lift would do the players good. On the other hand, though, the only other time that Brighton & Hove Albion were relegated from the top flight coincided with the club reaching the FA Cup final for the first – and to date only – time in its history. To do so again will likely be considered a distraction by some, when more than £100m is riding on the club remaining in the Premier League come the end of the season.
One thing, however, is for certain. If Brighton & Hove Albion continue to play the way in which they did last night, I can expect a lot more emails from the club over the remainder of the course of this season, at least.