In the isolation of a modernistic suburban training complex, the working squad of 23 or so youth players under Brighton and Hove Albion Under 23s manager Simon Rusk’s supervision share many similarities with their counterparts in the country’s leading Professional Development League level, the Premier League 2. For one, work-life balance is at the best level it ever has been for a young footballer. With press coverage mostly restricted to in-club PR, supporters unlikely to ever step foot on work premises, and round-the-clock access to extra-curricular support available, the escape from a sport ruled by lawyers and marketing experts is much appreciated. It is, at the very least, a far cry from the time players ruled the game; when local-lad status married with silverware made you an icon of the 20th century.
The legacy surrounding the Busby Babes, and the 1960s World Cup winners of East London, re-emerged in the era of Britpop and the Young British Artists under uneasy forms, through the mass media. A case mirrored on the pitch, the Spice Boys’ cream-white Emporio Armani 1996 FA Cup Final suits were ridiculed by comparison to a David Beckham-fronted Class of ’92, with whom the origin of modern player agency is often credited.
Far from being unsaleable to the tabloids and general public, players in the miasma occupied by under-23 football today are sheltered for a reason. Whether that results in playing the majority of their football at low-capacity out grounds – the Premier League 2 boasts the glamour of Dagenham & Redbridge’s Chigwell Construction Stadium, the Lancashire FA’s Leyland County Ground and Stevenage’s Lamex – or receiving loans to comparable working structures in Ireland or English non-league, the worst-case scenario of individual stardom is importantly managed. Before first-team promotion, Marcus Rashford only made eight appearances at this level; Phil Foden nine; Trent Alexander-Arnold 14. Chelsea’s Callum Hudson-Odoi and Ethan Ampadu have been selected for just one Premier League 2 game each since September; Arsenal’s Ainsley Maitland-Niles one all season. Their celebrity is unmanageable after the initial step up, and standards are still too pedestrian, despite the FA’s Elite Player Performance Plan reforms in 2016, to cater for such early bloomers.
Brighton’s approach is again different. Rather than raise players with expectations the club cannot themselves fulfil – Sussex’s verdant scenery bearing few big names, other than perhaps Gareth Barry, besides – the Seagulls have formed a squad of multiple nationalities and brogues, shelling out on a line-up of unheralded prodigies approved by a hyper-efficient scouting network. The most recent transfer deadline day was more noticeable for the arrivals of Slovenian striker Jan Mlakar and Romanian defensive midfielder Tudor Băluță, loaned back to Maribor and Viitorul Constanța respectively, than much else on the south coast.
The one constant has been Rusk, the 37-year-old who only first arrived in Sussex with then-non-league Crawley Town in 2009. Once a midfielder who spent the majority of his playing career at League Two level, with six years at Steve Evans’ Boston United, Rusk himself benefited only partially out of academy tutelage; his hometown club Peterborough United releasing him, aged 19, without a first-team appearance. His own encounter of the transience at this level mean his players are under no false pretences of the potential brakes on their own careers.
But Rusk has not let history hold him back – his side are storming the PL2 this season. Three seasons since their under-21 side finished 11th, of 12, in the Professional Development League Division 2, the Seagulls saw play-off promotion last term, and now only trail David Unsworth’s Everton in a division containing five senior Premier League-winning clubs. Their last four matches, hosting Arsenal and Tottenham, and travelling to Liverpool and Manchester City, have delivered eight points, ensuring that with five matches of their season remaining, they are unlikely to be dislodged by any side from the big six. They have battled players with experience in European competitions, League Cup fodder and also FA Cup fixtures, those well-versed in the demands of youth-grade football, and have repeatedly come out on top.
Rusk’s arrival in Brighton in March 2012 certainly coincided with a period perceived as a salinisation of the club’s development squads. After promoting Lewis Dunk, Solly March and Jake Forster-Caskey, the club’s hierarchy were correct to demand even more, but after hauling their way back from the brink of exiting the Football League in 1998, had to reconfigure at the Championship; an unpredictable stage of mountaineering for even the most dogged of scramblers. Gradually, the embowelling process began, and the fat from League One promotion, and ambitious initial spending, was cut.
Sami Hyypiä’s unexpected appointment, although clearly in the image of predecessors Gus Poyet and Óscar García as talented players and cult stars, quickly proved to be at the sacrifice of any internal youth progression. The 2014/15 season, the Finn’s only in charge, was a breakout term for Dunk and March, but after the loss of senior teammates, the responsibility could have broken them; only Chris Hughton’s mid-season arrival steered them away from the drop. The season was also Forster-Caskey’s last significant one at the club.
Hughton’s stewardship has embraced the collaborative role of leading playing figures, namely Bruno and Glenn Murray, in a way that Hyppiä, Garcia and Poyet’s never could. As the surviving epithets of times that in footballing terms can appear ancient history, the authority of the Seagulls’ Catalonian and Cumbrian elder statesmen is being bestowed to Dunk, March and, in the fast-paced recruitment environment the club faces, anyone who even recalls Championship football.
It is imperative to the Premier League survival of clubs like Brighton that their squad is marked primarily by humility; still feeling that privilege to not only play in England’s top tier, but to represent the club etched into their identity. This is a resource the two clubs already doomed to relegation have in desperately short supply. Whether it keeps Cardiff City, with surely one of the least inspiring playing squads to have ever graced this elite level, up over Ralph Hasenhüttl’s tactically innovative Southampton – for whom James Ward-Prowse is the most obvious leader, currently performing excellently – is a subplot yet to play out, but the stability that, contrary to popular belief, does exist at Watford and Bournemouth has undoubtedly aided them this term.
Progressively, the sophistication of Brighton’s set-up has been a prime beneficiary of the Premier League brand’s local pulling power. Trips to South America have led to the club procuring Football Manager regen-worthy names Billy Arce and Alexis Mac Allister, and only a small handful of players, such as Billingshurst’s James Tilley and Horsham’s Will Collar, make up the academy’s Sussex contingent anymore. But this nucleus has risen to the challenge, and has sustained their run under Rusk while others are loaned out; a balancing act which holds in it, for any top-flight academy, the making, or breaking, of fledgling careers. Clubs will invest in these young men efficiently, to tailor their footballing education as best as possible, and many would be tempted to shelter them somewhat more. Unfortunately, both parties understand the reality; if things don’t work out, you may find your new employers, and be safely re-accommodated, albeit at the cost of a multi-division slide, and unintended salary constraints.
For many, of course, this means buying a ticket to a false economy. Whether or not any credit can be given to the revision of under-21 grades – reasonably deemed outdated and unsuited to the Jesse Lingards of the world – for an explosion of English youth, its replacement has had more of an effect on club structures, as opposed to individual development. While the FA obviously aspired to the cultural benefits of this – patience is now heeded by CEOs once happy to cut an entire group of trainees, considered spoiled goods aged 22 – they, in eternal optimism, overlooked the fact they were merely kicking the can for others to resolve.
Brighton, and others, have successfully manipulated the new laws. This season, Norwegian midfielders Henrik Bjørdal and Mathias Normann, both 22 years of age, were sold to Zulte Waregem and FC Rostov respectively, each without a first-team appearance to his name. Normann had only played 13 games in Rusk’s under-23s, with one assist to show, yet has found his feet at Russia’s seventh biggest club. It could be considered gerrymandering on the Seagulls’ part. Or it could be considered gaining a competitive advantage in an area where they are otherwise outclassed. It depends hugely on how funds are reinvested, and whether opportunities are blocked for genuine local talent. Neither count seems to stack against Tony Bloom and co. in this case, so should we just consider it fair?
Elsewhere, these practices are not so keenly tolerated. Jadon Sancho, Brahim Díaz and Rabbi Matondo’s departures from Manchester City expose a developmental environment rotten at its core. It is no wonder Pep Guardiola obligingly blooded youth in League Cup ties at Leicester City and Burton Albion, and has groomed Phil Foden as the standalone pinnacle of the production line. Few can refute the reasoning of Mukhtar Ali, Jérémie Boga and Harvey St Clair, who have opted to try their luck with Vitesse Arnhem, Sassuolo and Venezia, rather than on the Chelsea loan carousel. Despite being credited with the more notable pro-youth policies amongst the big six, Arsenal’s abundance of talent has resulted in a total haemorrhage of those considered future first-teamers; Marcus McGuane, Chris Willock, Kaylen Hinds, Stephy Mavididi and Arsène Wenger-era signings Jeff Reine-Adélaïde and Ismaël Bennacer finding better hospitality on the continent.
In the shadow of English U17 and U20 World Cup victories, this exodus was predictable. Parallels have been drawn to how the icons of ’66, and the Class of ’92, were also empowered by silverware, but it is insufficient to say the susceptibility of young men to big promises will ruin English academies. The ambiguity of the relationship between the FA, uncertain in an age where it is no longer the single national authority, and Premier League, the mutated spawn of imperialistic Western culture, has repeated this case, to a point where, in the end, those who make a living from the game have to handle these responsibilities themselves. For now at least, and with little of the fate of future world-beaters resting on their shoulders, there are few managing this uncertainty better than Brighton.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!