Throughout Brighton’s first season back in the Championship, I have always been quick to pour cold water on any talk of the club playing Premier League football next season. Every time any talk of the play-offs was muted, I was quick to talk about consolidation in the second tier, and dismissed fans saying it was possible as people who clearly didn’t understand just how tough the Championship is.
Not anymore though. Just one defeat in 16 since the turn of the year has fired Albion into the top six, and left me munching on humble pie. The side that Gus Poyet has assembled is now one of the very best in the division, and has a play-off place in their hands if they can keep this form up.
A huge amount of credit has to be given to Poyet for the work he has done. The Uruguayan, who was rightly awarded the Football League’s Outstanding Managerial Achievement Award last month, has been justified in every signing he has made this season – Billy Paynter aside – and has brought huge strength in depth to the squad at a time of the year when legs will inevitably be getting tired.
That strength in depth is now so strong that over £4m of talent wasn’t even in the 16 for the recent game at Nottingham Forest, a game Poyet’s side led until Joel Lynch’s 94th minute equaliser. As soon as a player becomes unavailable through injury or suspension, there is another waiting to step in. At this stage of the season that is invaluable.
However, it is only fair and right to exercise an element of caution before we start singing ’We are Premier League’ (wow, I got all the way to paragraph five before turning negative again!) With three of the top four still to play, there is no doubting that the run-in is extremely difficult. I anticipate Brighton will need at least five points from the games with Reading, West Ham and Birmingham to hold onto a top six berth.
The ability to hold onto one of those sought after spots could also depend on the form of Craig Mackail-Smith. After becoming turning down attention from bigger clubs to become Albion’s record transfer signing last summer, it has to be said that his season is becoming something of a disappointment.
There is no doubting his work rate – he will chase after defenders all day long – but in front of goal it just doesn’t seem to be happening. Nine goals in 39 league appearances isn’t exactly what the Amex faithful was expecting when Poyet spent £2.5m on the Scottish international, but if he can find his shooting boots soon and fire us into the Premier League, no-one down here will care one bit.
Replacing Mackail-Smith in attack during the last few games has been Wolves loanee Sam Vokes, another shrewd Poyet signing. The 22-year-old has done a brilliant job at holding the ball up for others over the last few games, and has chipped in with a few vital goals himself, but I can’t help but feel the team would benefit even more if Mackail-Smith was on the pitch to run onto his flick-ons.
The two had a rare chance to play together during the closing stages of Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Middlesbrough, and showed the makings of a very promising partnership. A few assists from Vokes could do wonders for Mackail-Smith’s confidence, and secure that all important top six finish at the same time.
Unfortunately though, I’ve just tempted fate by checking what dates the play-off fixtures will take place on. Fellow Brighton fans, if we miss out, the fault lies solely at my door!
Written by Liam Dawes – We Are Going Up’s Brighton and Hove Albion Blogger