Sent Her Forward takes a look at the background to Brighton’s Premier League title success
Two years ago James Marrs took his table-topping Gillingham team to Brighton for a crucial end-of-season game that could have all but sealed the Premier League title.
His talented Gills squeezed home in their penultimate fixture at mid-table Brighton – a team not short of talent themselves but lacking the almost machine-like consistency of their opponents.
But their victory – not without a fright – was followed in their final fixture by a devastating defeat at title rivals Coventry City, meaning they had to rely on Portsmouth, a week later, to deny Coventry the victory that would snatch the Premier League crown from their grasp.
Despite a valiant effort, their south-coast neighbours could not oblige, and while Coventry celebrated their tremendous achievement, Marrs and his shattered players had to come to terms with the agonising emotions of being so close, yet so far from their dream.
It was something that hit them all hard – and something that was no doubt prominent in their minds when Marrs and the bulk of that impressive Gillingham side moved en masse to Brighton that summer.
The pain of that failure became a driving force as the new Brighton head coach skilfully blended the talents of his players with those already at his the Sussex club, determined to go one better in their first season together.
But after an even more thrilling title race, Marrs and co had to settle for second place again as Portsmouth’s greater consistency earned them an admirable league success, only for the glory to be overshadowed in a last-second play-off defeat that denied them a place in this year’s FAW Super League.
It was a watershed moment.
If that first setback had fuelled Brighton’s determination to go one better, the second could surely have broken them.
Instead, they responded as true champions do.
The drive to succeed was even greater; the consistency, both of performance and result, was ratcheted up a notch or two and the clinical efficiency required to kill off sides honed.
A routine 4-0 home victory in their opening game of the 2015-16 season was followed by a creditable draw at Charlton – one of a handful of sides capable of denying them glory for a third successive season.
Whether that were to become a point gained or two points dropped would become evident only at the other end of the gruelling campaign.
On they continued, racking up win after win, clean sheet after clean sheet.
It was not until their sixth fixture – seventh in all competitions – that they conceded their first goal. But even then they ran out 6-1 winners.
And it wasn’t until their 10th that they tasted defeat – a shock reverse at strugglers Queens Park Rangers.
That it should be followed by another the following week, against the dangerous Cardiff City, and then by another two dropped points at West Ham, must have sent a few jitters through the Brighton camp.
But hardened by those previous experiences, Marrs and his team of many talents merely rolled up their sleeves, got down to some hard work on the training ground and refocused.
Since that dodgy October/November, the only blemish in an unbeaten run of nine games has been a 2-2 draw at Coventry United.
The top-class 3G pitch at their Lancing home meant Brighton continued to play when many rivals could not during an awful wet winter, and they made it count with victory after victory (adding the Sussex County Cup for good measure).
This time Marrs and co would not be relying on others. Their fate was in their own hands.
And today they realised the first part of their dream with a 2-1 victory over Tottenham Hotspur to take the Premier League Southern title in their final match of the conventional season.
Brighton have resources that many other Premier League clubs can only dream of, but it is credit to the way that the club are run that every cog in the wheel has played its full part in their success.
Off the pitch, Tracy Doe has overseen an impressive footballing structure and appears to have a fruitful working relationship with Marrs.
The coaching staff have had a massive part to play in enacting Marrs’ playing philosophy and ensuring each player knows her role – and that means Amy Merricks’ development squad, too, which has supplied several players during the gruelling campaign, who have slotted in seamlessly.
Marrs has managed his players well. Now the players who were at the club before he joined know why a massive contingent of Gillingham players followed him to Sussex.
And then there’s the players. They coped with the loss of last season’s top scorer, Fliss Gibbons, to Super League Millwall, sharing the goals around the side, with the conversion of Amy Taylor – who played most of her football at centre-back last season – into a prolific striker a masterstroke.
In goal, Faye Baker has had relatively few saves to make, but that is only one aspect of her game. She works brilliantly with her defenders, and her distribution is outstanding. She was a key reason why Brighton went 500 minutes without conceding a goal early in the season.
In front of her, the defence has been rock-solid, conceding fewer than a goal a game in a league containing some excellent teams with top-notch strikers. Vicky Ashton-Jones and Deanna Cooper, in particular, have been exemplary.
Ahead of them, Brighton have had probably the best midfield in the league, with the likes or Jay Blackie, Kirsty Barton, Sophie Perry, Lucy Somes and Charley Boswell all having outstanding spells.
The return to the club of Lily Agg from Millwall in the closing stages of the season bolstered the midfield even more, ensuring they hardly missed the considerable talents of long-term injury duo Charlotte Owen and Amy Green.
Up front, Kate Natkiel, another player to forsake the Super League for a super club, has just got better as the season wore on, and Taylor’s 16 goals have proved invaluable – as have those of Lisa Fulgence, whose return from long-term injury herself gave Brighton’s season the impetus it required.
But for me, the most crucial contribution has come from Charlotte Gurr, who not only is top-scorer with 24 goals, but has enjoyed an astonishingly consistent season in midfield, showing a touch and awareness – as well as an eye for goal – that deserves a higher stage.
Whether she – and her team-mates – get that opportunity rests on one final challenge – the play-off final against the eventual winners of the Premier League’s Northern division, where a place in the 2017 WSL2 awaits.
Interestingly, although Cardiff City and Coventry United could conceivably still finish second, if Charlton win their final two games, Brighton will have pipped them to the title by the two points Charlton dropped against them in that distant August game.