The remarkable rise of Brighton: Impressing Pep, superb signings, and an FA Cup semifinal
Apr 21, 2023
Tom HamiltonSenior Writer
- • Joined ESPN in 2011
• Covered two Olympics, a pair of Rugby World Cups and two British & Irish Lions tours
• Previously rugby editor, and became senior writer in 2018
BRIGHTON, England — An hour or so after the open training session has finished, with the rain pouring and seagulls swirling around the blue and white seats, a few of the Brighton & Hove Albion players are still signing autographs. There are a couple of hundred fans left from the 4,000 or so who have flocked to the AMEX Stadium — Brighton’s home ground — to watch their team practice. It’s the Easter break and the lower tier of the west stand is packed with families of all ages.
These are common sights and sounds for a Premier League club with European aims. But for Brighton it’s still a little unusual, especially for those who remember when the club was homeless and close to non-league obscurity 26 years ago.
World Cup winner Alexis Mac Allister sits out the session but starts signing autographs 30 minutes before training finishes. “The session today will be about possession,” says the stadium announcer. Manager Roberto De Zerbi stands like a coiled spring, itching to get involved, passing on small observations here and there as the players play 11 vs. 9. The fans cheer every pass; Mac Allister occasionally looks over from the sidelines as he signs jersey after jersey.
“I feel the appreciation of the people,” Mac Allister later tells ESPN. “Representing Brighton at the World Cup and being a champion representing this club meant a lot because of what the club means to me.”
Brighton were only promoted to the top flight in 2017, but as part of their plan of year-on-year steady progression, their story is all down to the plan formulated back in 2009 when Tony Bloom succeeded Dick Knight as the club’s owner. With De Zerbi at the helm, the seventh-placed side in the Premier League are preparing to take the next step into Europe. But first it’s the FA Cup semifinal against Manchester United (Sunday, 11 a.m. ET, stream live on ESPN , U.S. only).
After a marathon of autographs, Mac Allister is sitting in one of the rooms in the AMEX looking down on the pitch. Club captain Lewis Dunk is still down there having his photo taken, signing shirts with a few remaining patient supporters. Photos on the walls around the 24-year-old midfielder are reminders of Brighton’s storied past and glorious present.
“Everyone feels at home here,” Mac Allister says.
Brighton’s rise has been remarkable. In 1997 they were on the verge of falling out of the Football League, needing a result against Hereford to stay in the professional pyramid. Under the stewardship of Dick Knight — now the club’s life president — things stabilised, and in 2009, entrepreneur and betting magnate Tony Bloom came along with funding secured for Brighton’s new stadium and purchased 75% of the club. Bloom appointed Paul Barber as CEO in 2012, and from there the modern-day incarnation of Brighton was born.
When Barber came along, they were in League One, but rose to the top tier of English football over the next five years, working off a strategy of outthinking their competitors through clever recruitment, giving opportunity to youngsters, finding value in acquisitions and always having robust plans for when richer clubs invariably come looking for players.
So for every player like club captain Dunk, who’s been there since their League One days, you have players like Argentina midfielder Mac Allister and Japan superstar Kaoru Mitoma who were signed for small transfer fees via their remarkable scouting network. Blend in the academy hopefuls breaking through — like the much-admired striker Evan Ferguson — some experienced heads like Danny Welbeck and Jason Steele, and you have modern-day Brighton.
“I think it’s an amazing group and everyone tries to help each other and that’s so important,” Mac Allister tells ESPN. “We’ve got five or so South Americans here and maybe I’m the one helping them speak English or translate. Everyone helps each other and that’s why we’re a fantastic group and where we are.”
Mac Allister’s journey wasn’t straightforward, but his elevation is attuned to Brighton’s DNA. He was signed in 2019 for a transfer fee of just £7 million from Argentinos Juniors. “Alexis’s story summarises this club,” technical director David Weir told the Sunday Times in March. Weir was sent to Argentina to watch Mac Allister and they did the deal. They loaned Mac Allister back to his old club, and then to Boca Juniors.
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“He didn’t hit the ground running [at Brighton]. There was a settling-in period that took time,” Weir said. “There was talk of him potentially going on loan again, then slowly but surely he got into the team, played in different positions and became an important player. His journey is symptomatic of our club in all the different facets.”
Mac Allister made his breakthrough just before COVID-19 stopped the world, but having his mother in Brighton for those two months while football went into hiatus helped him settle into the area. Three years on and he’s a World Cup champion and one of the best midfielders in the Premier League, but ask him where the credit lies and he puts it at Brighton’s door.
“Since I came here I felt the support of everyone at the club,” he says. “I always try to give my best, and I’m very happy here. This club gave me the opportunity to play in the Premier League, the best league in the world. Everybody knows how much I love this club.”
Before Mac Allister spoke to ESPN, he was presented with a bespoke Adidas boot to commemorate his World Cup triumph created by artist Jordan Dawson. It’s gold and marked with the Argentine flag. His face lights up. Later on, away from the cameras, he’s still looking at the boots, smiling and taking photos to send home.
Surprising World Cup winner Mac Allister with custom boots
Argentina’s World Cup winner Alexis Mac Allister gets a pair of custom designed boots from ESPN and designer Jordan Dawson.
Those World Cup memories stay with him, like the scenes back in his hometown, La Pampa, where 20,000 fans waited to welcome him at the airport after winning the trophy. But he also holds close the welcome he received at Brighton. When Mac Allister arrived back at the club for his first day post-World Cup, he was greeted by his teammates in the training ground reception. There was a dummy World Cup for him to lift, and a confetti cannon to shower him in blue, white and gold ticker tape.
“I always think about winning trophies,” he says. “And now at the club, everybody is thinking like that. In part that’s down to Roberto, then we’ve got fantastic leaders like Lewis Dunk, [midfielder Adam] Lallana, [goalkeeper Jason Steele], they are experienced players who help the young players to keep developing, to keep growing, and they are a huge part of the team.”
Midway through Mac Allister’s interview, someone knocks on the door. Mitoma had misplaced his phone.
Mitoma, 25, has emerged as one of the league’s most clinical wingers this term, with 10 goals in 31 games, hovering on the left of Brighton’s attack and then creating havoc by using his remarkable turn of pace and quick feet to beat defenders. His ruthless nature on the field is balanced by his shyness off it. Ask him about his stardom in Japan and he looks a little bashful, but talk about where he can improve his game and he uncrosses his arms and talks in a very focused, matter-of-fact way.
“I’m still trying to adapt to the physicality of the Premier League,” Mitoma tells ESPN. “Sure, goals are coming little by little, but I have to grow more and more. I have to become a threat to any opponent, more than ever. I have to improve my ability to do that.”
Football journeys aren’t linear, but Mitoma has benefited from Brighton’s careful management. He was signed in 2021 from Kawasaki Frontale for a bargain £2.5m and sent on a season-long loan to Belgium side Royale Union Saint-Gilloise last term, a team also owned by Bloom. It wasn’t a market Brighton were used to operating in, but they saw his potential and he has prospered under De Zerbi.
Just after the training session finished on the field earlier, De Zerbi pulled Mitoma aside for a quick word. De Zerbi revealed the contents of the conversation to a group of schoolchildren who had visited the club for the day to ask their own questions of the manager. One asked about Mitoma and De Zerbi, smiling to Barber alongside him, said he told the player that they have more work to do to improve him this season and next. It was De Zerbi saying: give us one more season before one of your many admirers picks you up.
“The sea is near my house, so I can watch the sea every day. It relaxes me,” Mitoma says. “I didn’t think I’d be able to start this many games so quickly. Thanks to my teammates, I have played many games and got some goals and assists. I’m playing quite well because Brighton’s football suits me well.”
When both Mac Allister and Mitoma are asked how and why they’ve kicked on this season despite the huge turnover of players on and off the field, they all come back with one answer: “It’s down to Roberto,” Mac Allister says.
On the wall of the AMEX offices is a slogan laid out in lights. It reads: “To be a top-10 club in the Premier League and a top-four club in the WSL.” But back in October, the first part of the plan threatened to go off track. Barber’s phone rang with Todd Boehly’s number flashing up. The new Chelsea owner wanted Potter to replace Thomas Tuchel. A compensation package was sorted to the tune of nearly £21m and Potter left Brighton for Chelsea with five of his backroom staff.
Such an exodus could scuttle a team’s season, but the Seagulls had a plan — just like when they lost first-team players over the past two seasons to Premier League rivals: Dan Burn (Newcastle United), Ben White (Arsenal), Marc Cucurella (Chelsea), Neal Maupay (Everton), Yves Bissouma (Tottenham Hotspur) and Leandro Trossard (Arsenal).
“I think Graham leaving was a blow for us as a team because we were in a good spot,” Mac Allister says. “We felt it as a team when he left.”
At any one time in Barber’s office, there’s a list of 25 key positions on and off the field at Brighton. Their recruitment strategy is combined between a mix of their scouting network — which includes position-based experts alongside regional spotters — and data generated from their analysts and Bloom’s company Starlizard. In Barber’s words, Brighton have found their point of difference by looking in places that other teams of their stature might miss.
“Mitoma is a good example of where a club of our size and budget, we have to fish in ponds others may not look into or may not head to first because there are better-stocked ponds, or at least in their minds better stocked,” Barber said on the “Football Friendlies” podcast. “In our minds we think we can find better quality in ponds others aren’t prepared to fish in, and that’s what we do time and time again.”
When Potter moved on, Italian coach De Zerbi was their ideal candidate to replace him. De Zerbi was available, having left Shakhtar Donetsk in July 2022 due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. His first five matches were underwhelming, but there was no panic.
“We need to give credit to the front office, because they went out and got De Zerbi, which allowed us to make another leap in quality and mindset,” Mac Allister says.
Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola is a big fan and said back in March: “We’ve an Italian coach in the Premier League — De Zerbi. He’s changing many things in English football, he’s producing wonderful football,” For the players themselves, they put their improvement under De Zerbi down to two factors: his ability to motivate them, and his tactical tweaks.
First, the man-management side of things. To date, De Zerbi has picked up two red cards and four yellows himself since joining Brighton, but he won’t censor his personality on the touchline.
“One part of my characteristic and character is passion,” De Zerbi said after the Tottenham match, where he received his second red card of the season. “I can’t lose this passion. No, I don’t like to get red card. I don’t know. I can stay more relaxed? I don’t know.”
Mac Allister says: “He’s always trying to install in us a mentality to go out and dominate each game and win. He does it with a lot of passion. He’s a great manager, we’re all filled with confidence.”
That’s not to say De Zerbi doesn’t surprise his players. Mac Allister recalls how at half-time against Grimsby in their FA Cup quarterfinal, despite leading and dominating the match, the manager was furious.
“He wants us to attack; score goals,” Mac Allister says. “We were winning 1-0 but he said we had to win 5-0 or 6-0 as he saw that we were not attacking as we had to do. He loves us to attack and score goals.”
A brief look at the stats, and you can see the improvements made under De Zerbi. Comparing Brighton since he took charge with their 2021-22 season under Potter, the club are operating at a higher rate of Expected Goals (xG) (2.01 vs. 1.41), are having more shots on target per match (6.32 vs. 4.06 — the most in the Premier League), and are completing the second-most passes in the league per 90 (514 vs. 405.) They’ve also tightened things up at the back and opponents are having fewer shots per match under De Zerbi (7 vs. 8.27), while Brighton are having more of the ball (62% vs. 55%) and making more successful through balls (0.96 vs. 0.61.) Across the board, it’s improvement.
It is the speed with which Brighton move the ball up the field that is eye-catching, as Guardiola pointed out. “The best team in the world in making the build-up, the best team, is Brighton,” he said in April. “There’s no team better that makes the process to bring the goalkeeper, the ball, to the last quarter.”
Mitoma highlights that as one key area for their improvement under De Zerbi.
“Our build-up from the back is very accurate,” he says. “We can be a threat from right, left and both sides. I think the forward players are suitable to the system. They can be in the build-up but then put pressure on the front. Brighton’s football matches the quality of players.”
“We have more space up front to exploit,” Mac Allister adds. “We spoke a few weeks ago about being ruthless and I think we are doing it. Ferguson comes in; he scores. Welbeck, Solly March and Kaoru are all in a good moment. We have very good players, but 100% the style of Roberto helps us to have more chances, and then it’s about confidence. The difference has been Roberto. He brought a strong mentality to keep growing, to keep pushing and I think we are in another place now. When I came here we were fighting against relegation and now we are thinking about Champions League or Europa League spots. I am really happy to be here and part of this journey.”
Mitoma wants you to forget his university project on dribbling
Brighton’s Kaoru Mitoma says his evolution into a star winger in the Premier League has nothing to do with his university project.
Brighton’s broad diaspora of nationalities has resulted in global fan interest. Take Ecuador: Brighton have three Ecuador international first-team players: star midfielder Moises Caicedo, defender Pervis Estupinan and winger Jeremy Sarmiento. During the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, the yellow and blue Ecuador colours in the stands were interspersed with the odd blue and white stripes of Brighton’s home shirt. Mitoma’s elevation has also seen a spike in interest in Japan, to the extent Brighton have launched their own Japanese-language Twitter account, which has already accrued 38,000 followers in a month.
“Many Japanese fans come here to support us, and I really appreciate that,” Mitoma says.
But the Brighton story carries further than supporters, as bigger clubs are trying to emulate their scouting model and look to pick off their star players. Brighton only let players leave the club on their own terms, as the example of Caicedo shows. The 21-year-old publicaly pushed for a £70m move to Arsenal in January, but it wasn’t the right time for Brighton, so he stayed and signed a new contract until 2027.
Mac Allister was also frequently linked with moves to Arsenal or Liverpool during the January transfer window, but he’s in no rush. He signed a new contract in October until 2025 (with the option of another year) and loves the place.
“I’m very happy at the club, I try not to think about the future,” he says. “I know some people talk about it, and that’s normal after winning a World Cup. It was a big topic during the January transfer market, but I’m as good as can be. I focus on playing, practising every day and improving. We’ll see in the summer. If an offer comes through that could be good for the club and for me, we’ll sit and talk. If not, I’ll continue to be very happy at this club.”
As a CEO, Barber has become accustomed to his phone ringing.
“When others come in and bid for our best players, we’re disappointed as we want to keep our best players, but we’re confident we will find other players who can replace them, who are as good or better,” he said on the “Football Friendlies” podcast. “Our job is to make sure the conveyor belt keeps rolling. We won’t get everything right, there will be players who don’t work out — we’ve had some in the past, and we’ll have some in the future, and we’re not foolproof and we’re not perfect, but it’s an important part of our model.”
There’s still work to do this season. Brighton have nine more Premier League games left to secure a spot in Europe and an FA Cup semifinal against Manchester United on Sunday where they hope to reach their first final since 1983. But they’re optimistic and dreaming of silverware.
“They [United] always have great teams, great players, but we’ve prepared well for the match and we are going to leave it all out there to win,” Mac Allister says. “We believe in ourselves and I believe in my teammates.
“We’re still here, and we’re going to keep building new ground, battling match by match. We need to focus on the FA Cup because if we want to make history for this club, to win a trophy, that’s our shot.”
Another summer of upheaval might happen, with more envious eyes cast their way, but the Brighton machine won’t stop. If anything, they plan to go up a gear.
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.