Poyet's Brighton look rock solid
At the Withdean Stadium.
Brighton and Hove Albion have not played in the top flight of English football since 1983 but the Seagulls look in excellent shape to make a long-term push for the Premier League.
The suggestion might seem like a knee-jerk reaction to their great start to the current season but the club appear to have all the necessary ingredients for success.
They are eight points clear at the top of the League One table, possess an excellent young manager on a long-term contract in 42-year-old Gus Poyet and will end 14 years of nomadic existence when they move into their new 22,500-capacity stadium at Falmer next season. And with no other Football League club in Sussex, they also have a large catchment area.
Poyet was appointed manager of Brighton on 10 November 2009. Photo: Getty Images
Tuesday marked the final league game of Poyet's first year in charge and the impact he has made on the Seagulls squad was clear to see.
Brighton defeated Exeter 3-0, wearing down their opponents with a high-tempo brand of passing football that was as easy on the eye as it was dangerously effective.
Poyet likes to play with a back four but full-backs Marcos Painter and Inigo Calderon spent more time attacking than defending, which allowed Elliott Bennett to drift inside from right midfield without his side losing their shape. The Seagulls were content to pass the ball around in deep areas until space opened up in front of them but when it did they struck with speed of thought and execution.
Tuesday's result means that Brighton have scored 12 unanswered goals in their last four fixtures to open daylight at the top of the table.
"Since I came here with assistant manager Mauricio Taricco, we have worked really hard to get to the point where we are now, to prove that our way works," said Poyet, who took the helm of a club in the lower reaches of the table when he replaced Russell Slade last year.
"We need to prove that for 46 games - and that is more difficult - but the important thing is that we believe in this way."
Not everyone is completely happy. Some frustrated fans called for Albion to "launch it" during the 1-1 home draw with Bournemouth in early October. Poyet showed a steely resolve by suggesting after the match that if supporters wanted a change of style when their club are top of the league then they will need to find a new manager.
But, generally speaking, his first 12 months at the helm have been met with widespread approval. I canvassed the opinion of fans in a 606 thread and thought a comment from nathanjonesleftsock was particularly telling. He said: "On the way back from the 3-0 win at Peterborough on Saturday my dad claimed this is the best Albion side he has ever seen football-wise in 40-odd years of following the club."
Poyet, who was previously assistant manager to Dennis Wise at Swindon and Leeds as well as to Juande Ramos at Tottenham, has attempted to enforce the same style of play at every level of the club.
"The four-year contract signed in the summer has given me the chance to look at the situation in a different way," added Poyet, who initially arrived on an 18-month deal.
"I can plan for the future. It is not like I only care about the first team - I care about everything. We are Brighton and we have got an identity about the way we play."
He has introduced a development squad to bridge the gap between the youth team and the first team. Training sessions with the senior squad are short - generally between 75 and 90 minutes - but extremely intense. The former Chelsea and Spurs midfielder has also remodelled the scouting network and brought in a full-time video analyst.
Reflecting on his first year in charge, Poyet said: "The key for me is that the players now understand and make decisions influenced by the way we want to play. They are convinced now it is the right way for us."
Poyet, nicknamed Radio at Real Zaragoza because he never stopped talking, is an extremely likeable man, with an engaging and charismatic personality. Online subscriptions to the Seagulls' post-match video interviews have apparently gone through the roof since he took over, while I thought that it was to his huge credit that he took time out to chat at length to some media students after Tuesday's fixture.
Yet it would be a mistake to think that he is a soft touch, possibly lacking the ruthless streak necessary to succeed in management. Despite watching his team play Exeter off the park, he said that his players needed to be more clinical in front of goal.
And he showed that he will not be undermined when a contract dispute developed with striker Nicky Forster last season. The 37-year-old frontman went public with his frustration and was swiftly dropped. He finished the season on loan to Charlton.
Poyet never won a league title during his playing career but said it would be "perfection" if the Seagulls did so this season so that Falmer would host Championship football when it opened for the 2011-12 campaign.
Construction at Falmer is at an advanced stage. Photo: Brighton & Hove Albion
Earlier on Tuesday, I had a look at the new ground. It brought to mind a cross between the Reebok Stadium at Bolton and a smaller version of Wembley minus the arch.
The design might not be staggeringly original - falling roughly in line with plenty of modern English grounds - but it was nonetheless impressive, framed by the rolling hills of the South Downs. And to supporters of Brighton, who have been without a permanent home since the Goldstone Ground was sold in 1997, it must seem like the most beautiful building in the world.
The ground, which will be called the Amex Stadium, will hold an initial 22,500, with the potential to add another tier to the East Stand. The club have already sold almost 2,500 corporate seats and are hopeful that season tickets will triple from their current figure of 5,000.
The contrast with their home at the Withdean Stadium, an athletics venue where Brighton have played since 1999, could not be more stark. Most of the stands at the Withdean are temporary; all are separated from the pitch by a running track, while the away end is a good 50 metres behind a goal. Leaving for Falmer will be like moving from darkness into light.
The £93m construction cost has been funded almost entirely by chairman Tony Bloom, a lifelong fan of Albion. His grandfather, Harry, was the club's vice-chairman who played a key role in bringing Brian Clough and Peter Taylor to the Seagulls back in 1973.
Bloom is perhaps best known as a poker player nicknamed the Lizard after one opponent suggested he was so cool under pressure that he must have alligator blood. But he is a hard-headed businessman with a big property portfolio, although he says his investment in the south-coast outfit was made with his heart rather than his head. For Brighton fans, his decision must rate as a huge slice of good fortune.
In addition to his funding of the stadium, it was his decision to appoint Poyet. It was arguably a gamble at the time but it is starting to look like a very shrewd move.
I am told that some Brighton fans have started to wonder how long they can keep Poyet before he is snapped up by a bigger club. But he still has much to prove and on Tuesday was talking about a long-term commitment to his current employer.
"A manager like Jose Mourinho might be trying to win league titles in many different countries," said Poyet. "But for most managers, when everything is working well at a club then the dream is to remain there for many, many years. Why not?"
After years of short-term planning and scrambling for survival, it finally seems as though the Seagulls are ready to take off.