When asked about it shortly after he retired, Eric Cantona said of all the personal and team accolades he won during his career in France and England, the one that meant most to him was winning the PFA Player of the Year Award.
His reasoning was that it’s one thing for a public vote to award him an accolade, or for sports writers to gather in a huddle and determine that best player, but it was receiving an award from his peers that meant most. His fellow professionals, he mused, knew what it took to make it to the top, and the work involved. To be recognised by his peers was the pinnacle of professional pride.
Dale Stephens, en route to Burnley after six years at Brighton, is another player recognised by his peers. And yet it was at his own club where he was mercilessly, relentlessly and misguidedly unappreciated by a sizeable – maybe even the majority – proportion of supporters.
“He only ever goes backwards or sideways” was the constant, and provably mistaken grumble. “He doesn’t add anything to the game…” “He always gives the ball away…”
So little was he appreciated that he never once made it onto the shortlist for Player of the Season at Brighton, and yet twice he made it into the Top 15 for PFA Championship Player of the Season. This includes the season his midfield partner, Beram Kayal won Brighton Player of the Season in 2016. While we as fans voted for the Israeli, Stephens was considered the sixth best player in the division (and Brighton’s best) by fellow professionals. His peers knew and understood.
Not every voice in the Brighton crowd was a dissenting one, of course not. Many could see his worth, and those who didn’t soon realised it when he was dropped or suspended. A Dale Stephens-shaped hole in the middle of midfield is a difficult one to fill. And so back he came, filled the space, and the grumbles would fire up again.
There were those who, when newly-promoted Burnley wanted to take Dale Stephens off our hands for £8m, who’d have driven him up there. I mean, seriously? ‘Surely this bid was too good for Brighton to turn down?’ There were even those who assumed that, because of this bid, Stephens wanted to go. Words fail me.
Wiser and calmer heads prevailed. If Tony Bloom doesn’t want to sell, he won’t sell. Burnley had put £8m on the table. But what is £8m ‘now’ compared to ‘£150m a year’ later? Tony knew that by rejecting the bid, and keeping Stephens, he would vastly increase his chances of achieving the dream of promotion to the Premier League. More importantly, his absence would have severely scuppered it. One thing anyone learns is playing a game of bluff against The Lizard King rarely pays off.
While that £8m looks a pitiful bid now, if anyone wants to debate the merits of £1.5m in 2020, versus £8m in 2016 – I’ll point you to the massive part he played in securing hundreds of millions for the Albion, by being a huge part in a major success on the pitch for the club. His exit in 2016 would almost certainly have been seen as poor a decision as Glenn Murray’s exit in 2011. Yeah, that bad.
And so it proved. Dale Stephens, through both the promotion years (under old promotion rules, Brighton would have been promoted a year earlier), was in the middle of everything good. The formidable midfield partnerships ‘Stephens / Kayal’, ‘Stephens / Sidwell’, and later ‘Stephens / Propper’ were all so much weaker if you’d have taken ‘Stephens’ out of the equation.
He put in some stellar performances in the Premier League too – the most notable being the home win over Arsenal in 2018/19.
He leaves the Brighton midfield in a far better shape than he found it, and that is in no small part to his style of play, his leadership and his tenacity in the stripes. He was, on more than one occasion, also asked to captain the team – a role he fulfilled as though he was born to it. He would have played this role more often – if Bruno and Dunk hadn’t been ahead of him in the queue.
In his place is a younger, more agile, differently-versed midfield – one with guile and speed, as well as that same energy, skill and bite. And it is a midfield which Stephens has done more than his bit to help craft. So much has he raised the bar of understanding what’s required that, in those six years, I’d be inclined to consider him alongside Brian Horton, Danny Wilson and Jimmy Case as our best leader-midfielders ever.
It’s quite right that people should feel a sense of nostalgia for something incredible that happened to our club just three and a half years ago, and that that ‘incredible something’ has all but been dispersed – though thankfully for something better in its place. Knockaert’s loan, then sale to Fulham; Bruno’s retirement; Duffy to Celtic; Murphy and Goldson to Rangers and so on.
But for me, Stephens’ exit is the sad one, albeit probably the right one. It’s not that it’s only March and Dunk left. It’s that, in Dale Stephens, we had one of the best midfielders in one of the best Brighton teams in this time or any other. And I mean that whether going forwards, backwards or sideways. But mostly – upwards.
Thank you for everything Dale. We wish you a tiny amount of success at Burnley.
Oh, and you’re still fucking wrong, Mike Dean…