They were not among anybody’s pre-season favourites, but after eight games of the season and having already played a lot of the big boys Brighton and Hove Albion are sitting pretty atop the Championship table with twenty points and a goal difference of plus six, three points ahead of nearest challengers Middlesbrough.
It was not a situation many imagined they would be in. Last season they were in a relegation battle for much of the season but managed to pull clear at the last, finishing two places above the drop zone under ex-Norwich and Newcastle United manager Chris Hughton.
After their 1-0 win against Hull City last weekend Hughton told the BBC that “we wanted to be in a position where we could at least challenge to go up. That is still the case. We’ve made a tremendous start and I could not have envisaged it. At the moment the margins are going our way. Just now we have fit players and good options, and we have continued the momentum following the international break”
Brighton are still unbeaten this campaign (they drew 0-0 at Wolves on Saturday) having won five of their last seven games. Key to that impressive run has been the influence of two Israelis. The first of those, Beram Kayal arrived from Celtic in January. After spending five years at Celtic Park he fell out of favour under Ronny Deila and chose to make the move to Brighton.
The Seagulls got themselves a bargain. Having featured in the Champions League regularly under Neil Lennon - including that fateful win against Barcelona - he has shown in his time on the South Coast that he is a step above many of his Championship opponents. Only costing a small amount Kayal has been a shrewd signing, one of many under Hughton. It’s a somewhat surprising development in the ex-Spurs man’s career with his time at Norwich being littered with poor signings. Not so here.
Fellow Israeli Tomer Hemed signed in the summer after four years in Spain, where he featured in both the top and second flight with mixed results. Last season saw him net eight times for relegated Almeria and it was enough for Brighton to swoop and sign him for an undisclosed fee. Built in the traditional burly style of a big English striker Hemed has been a revelation in the Championship, having already scored five times this season.
Not all the pressure has been on Hemed to get the goals though. Sam Baldock has performed consistently since signing from Bristol City last summer and his pace offers something different to the Brighton attack. Local hero Bobby Zamora also returned on a free transfer in the summer and his commitment to the cause is clear given he turned down a move to a Champions League club to return to the Seagulls. Though he has only featured twice so far this season his experience will be invaluable - he’s won promotion from the Championship before and is the ideal player to guide the promising youngsters at the club.
Midfielders Rohan Ince, Elvis Manu and Solly March are three of those youngsters. Ince and Manu in particular have really kicked on this season, making several appearances from the substitute’s bench.
Key to Brighton’s success though has been a blend of youth and experience. Dale Stephens has played a key role alongside Kayal in the centre of the park and the two have struck up an instant understanding. When one goes, one stays.
Captain Gordon Greer has continued his fine form from last season’s run in. A rock at the back he and youngster Lewis Dunk have struck up a fine understanding, aided and abetted by Cameroonian left back Gaetang Bong. The 27-year old arrived from Wigan after their relegation last season and has proven to be a shrewd signing. Solid in defence but also posing a threat going forward he is another with Champions League experience, having featured in the competition with Olympiakos.
The good start isn’t all down to the new signings though. Midfielder Kazenga Lua Lua (brother of Lomana) continues to be a fan favourite, not least because of his spectacular celebration. A consistent scorer since signing back in 2011 he has added more to his game under Hughton, looking far more comfortable on the ball. He’s already equalled last season’s tally of goals as well.
So impressive has Brighton’s start been that Hughton and Lua Lua were awarded Manager and Player of the month for September. A switch to a traditional 4-4-2 has done wonders for both. Brighton now play with a verve and swagger that allows Lua Lua to thrive.
Hughton agrees: “We’ve changed a few things from last year where we’ve looked to play two up front which we felt would give us more opportunities to score goals and the ball into that final third. Kaz thoroughly deserves his award, he’s had a wonderful start. He has excelled in his game where he has got on the ball and provided an end product.”
Keep providing that end product and who knows where Brighton will end up at the end of the season? Hughton’s got out of this division before, who’s to say he won’t again?Click here to stay up to date with AtTheMatch