The 1980/81 Albion squad was probably the strongest in the club’s history. At least on paper. With their first season of top flight football behind them, Brighton looked to build on their experience, and were bolstered by Michael Robinson and Gordon Smith, two £400,000 captures. The Robinson-Ward striking partnership appeared to promise an avalanche of goals while Mark Lawrenson and Steve Foster seemed likely to keep things solid at the back.
It certainly didn’t pan out that way, which is perhaps testament to the outstanding contributions that Ray Clarke and Peter Suddaby made to the Brighton side. They both had a profound effect on Albion’s season when they joined mid-way in 1979/80. Their departures certainly coincided with a downturn in Albion fortunes, despite the opening day success, a comfortable 2-0 victory over Wolverhampton Wanderers in the sunshine at the Goldstone in August 1980.
An outstanding article by Dave Spurdens dissects the functioning of the Brighton team at the time:
Last season the First Division induced in Brighton the sort of timorous insecurity common to squatters awaiting removal from their borrowed abode.
No mean appraiser of life’s realities in the big league, Alan Mullery saw clearly that reinforcements would have to be moved up if Brighton was to grow from a rather crotchety tenant to an established mortgagee.
The departures of Ray Clarke, Peter Suddaby and Andy Rollings to pastures new heralded the expected re-jig and after a series of wrangles Mullery forked out a million pounds and came up with Gordon Smith, signed from Rangers, Ray McHale, the generator behind Swindon’s surge, Moshe Gariani, spotted in Israel during a club trip and finally, after much ado, Michael Robinson (below, middle), the Manchester City reject, unloaded by Malcolm Allison in a cut price deal.
Robinson went to the Goldstone Ground hopefully to prove that Allison had been right to buy him in the first place, but hopefully remiss in sending him packing after one short season.
Apart from those four it’s the same Brighton and at the end of the day success will depend on these players being better than those they have replaced, coupled with the experience of more prolonged First Division status.
Mullery’s prognostications that Brighton will cause a few surprises started off with a bang when Wolves, the team many tip to challenge the leaders, were reminded that the supposed no-hopers from the south would certainly not help them in their aspirations and were duly beaten by them 2-0.
The blend looked good. Smith, everybody in Brighton averred, was another Trevor Brooking. McHale’s industry was commendable and Robinson, if nothing else, confirmed that he was unlikely in the next few years to halve his value again. Robinson, whom nobody apart from Malcolm Allison thought a near million-pound player, now has to prove that he is a near half-million player.
The next game was not so auspicious but nevertheless, despite defeat, demonstrated Brighton’s senior status against another of this year’s tips for the great ‘Nick the title off Liverpool’ campaign, Ipswich.
Taken all round in victory and defeat, this new-look Brighton is a tight outfit with a very solid back four, a midfield that is directed by skipper Brian Horton and a front line that once gets to know itself could produce problems for even the best.
Horton (above), a ubiquitous character, has an influence in the three lines slotting into the back whenever Mark Lawrenson takes off for advanced territory, running the midfield and going on occasional forays behind his front three whenever the opportunity presents itself.
In four seasons at Brighton, since he arrived from Port Vale, he has matured into an integrating force with a strong sense of how to exploit time and space. His influence gives Brighton a varied tempo and a less predictable pattern of advance.
Horton (above) plays a complete midfield role and his defensive work is tenacious and very professional.
Unlike his two midfield colleagues, who allow players to steal goalside oblivious of the pressure it puts on the back four players, Horton is an expert tracker and uses his experience to transfer marking responsibilities when he feels he is being pulled too far away from crucial zones.
McHale (above), though he operated well forward, is an industrious player busily looking for possession from the man with the ball, but he is not so aware of the damage those without the ball can do.
Neil McNab falls into the same trap of being less than attentive to those who ghost behind his area of concentration. On the ball, he has the look of threatening competence as he moves forward with control. The final pass is often less incisive than anticipated, and some of his forward probes are too easily read by those who should be troubled by them.
Brighton’s build-up when started by Horton or full-back John Gregory is patient and constructive, but tends to be a fifteen-yard game which is easily closed down by good defenders or by teams that fall off and vacate the midfield space.
With a build-up like this, one waits frustratingly for the breakthrough from the back or the run into space which has been created by the diagonal drift of their build up.
So often play develops from the right to left, dragging opposition players with it and leaving large spaces into which back or midfield players should be running in order to exploit opportunities on the blind side.
Even when they are developing their game around the midfield, and where the opposition is turned minimally, there is still a great need for play to be switched once the options have closed down on one flank or the other.
If there was a major reason, in their second game, why their opponents could sit reasonably comfortably it was this tendency to attack in straight lines.
It has been generally accepted by the Seasiders that (above) Lawrenson’s best role is at the centre of the back four.
Certainly with he and Steve Foster at the heart of the defence there is a solidarity that will stand them in good stead whenever they play.
Brighton’s resources probably dictate this policy, lacking the luxury of being able to use players in their perfect role.
I thought Lawrenson playing in front of the two centre-backs last season was more effective because of the strength of his forward runs, and he didn’t have the worry of leaving gaps at the back.
Foster (above) is playing better than ever alongside Lawrenson, with tireless courage and aggression.
There are those who feel him to be one of the best young centre-backs in the country. Against Ipswich, it was interesting to see him with the two favourite contenders for the spots currently held so securely by Thompson and Watson.
Under far greater pressure, Foster made several early errors – especially when it came to picking up high balls on the edge of the box. But once he settled down, he looked the equal to anybody aspiring to international status.
At full back, Gregory (above) turn in his usually immaculate performance both defensively and creatively when he plays the ball forward, but his energy in getting forward into good space seems seriously curtailed. Whether through disinclination or orders, only the player and his manager can know.
On the other flank, young Gary Williams (above) gives the impression that, unless he tightens up on his jockeying to players who run at him withthe ball, he could be in for a skinning before the season gets much older.
The rest of his game seems to be developing well and the way he linked up with the centre-back in the middle when his partner had been pulled out wide suggests he is learning his craft quickly.
Behind this promising back four Graham Moseley (above) looks quick and agile, enjoying the confidence of those in front of him.
There are times when he could be more positive in his communication but I suspect his diffidence may be prompted by the perpetual dialogue conducted by Foster just in front of him.
The 1980/81 season turned out to be another one of struggle as Brighton’s reshaped side blew hot and cold in the First Division. After the opening day victory over Wolves, it took another six games to record another League victory. Peter Ward left for Nottingham Forest in the middle of a ten match winless spell from late September that saw Brighton vacate the League Cup and marooned at the bottom of Division One by mid-November. Then, a surprise 1-0 win over League leaders Ipswich Town kick-started a brief run of good form. After another slump in the New Year, when Brighton won just twice in fifteen matches, the Seagulls saved themselves with a miraculous spell of four wins in four matches at the end of the season.
This late form showed what Mullery’s most accomplished looking side was capable of. However, it was not without its flaws, as journalist Dave Spurdens capably showed. Although Michael Robinson came good with 22 goals, this did not fully paper over the cracks. When Mike Bailey took over in the summer of 1981, another re-jig of the squad was in the pipeline.