Thank you Dale…

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…

Glenn Murray, Glenn Murray – pretty goals are nothing to be scared of

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AT THE BEST OF TIMES, football – and supporting the Albion specifically – can have a habit of spitefully treating you like the first love of your life. Whether it’s been the Casanova, the love-rat, the unrequited two-timer, football knows just when to wrench your heart-strings at the most uncalled-for of times.

On a day when we could finally get to gloat, blow raspberries and stick two fingers up at relegation-threatened Leeds United for ‘stealing their player’, we also say ‘goodbye’ – not for the first time – to our talisman, our striker, our spokesman and our all-round dude, Glenn Murray.

Muzzer, he of the 111 first-team goals (a Brighton & Hove Albion post-war record, and a tantalisingly-close second only to Tommy Cook) in 287 matches, is heading to the Championship to join Watford on a season-long loan.

This will upset many Brighton fans on several levels.

One, we won’t get to see Glenn’s *cough* electrifying pace any longer. We won’t get to see the textbook backing into a lump of a central defender in the (oft-forlorn) hope of winning a free kick. Nor will we see him any longer bellowing out at the wingers when the ball doesn’t come in. Nor, and this is the key, will we see Glenn shows the youngsters how to do it – to be in the right place at the right time.

But, and arguably most importably, we know we almost certainly won’t get the opportunity to offer up the same tear-stained, hearty send-off of gratitude to our fish-foreheaded hero as we afforded El Capitan Bruno last year.

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And that is a pity. Worse… it’s a tragedy.

We first encountered Glenn Murray in 2007. He looked tall, keen and sharp enough to fit the bill of what we needed and, guided by the wily Nicky Forster, he learned every trick – and more – in the art of the centre-forward.

His zeitgeist came in the 2010/11 season when under Gus Poyet, Murray positively shined, scoring some belters in amongst his tally of 22 goals, each one replete with that fish thing on his forehead.

And then… GUS, WHAT WERE YOU THINKING…?

As a result of Poyet’s mad left turn in his thinking, Glenn was persona non grata, and Craig Mackhail-Smith the new boy around town. So, even though he stayed living in the city of Brighton & Hove, Glenn went to play for Crystal Palace, and started scoring. And scoring. And scoring. Even at the Amex, he scored. And he became, to some, a Quisling for our times.

Murray’s return in 2016 was welcome, well-timed and a perfect fit. Had AFC Bournemouth not seen fit to keep Glenn back for no other purpose than spite, Brighton might have been promoted a year earlier. Imagine – Bobby Zamora and Glenn Murray in the same team… Wow.

Thankfully, he picked up where he left off. And in so doing became the first player to score 20 goals in a promotion season twice. And, just as importantly, he won over the insulted, the peeved and the unsures, and became a hero all over again.

Even his lack of pace, his often clumsy first touch or careless lay-off mean little to Brighton fans. Glenn did what we expect our strikers to do – score goals.

Now, three weeks shy of his 37th birthday, it looks as though this season-long loan will bring the curtain down on Murray’s Brighton career.

For my part, at times I found him maddening (see above), at other times I’ve found him to be the saviour of a team needing to pull its weight and looking somewhere – anywhere – for a leader. Point in case was his very last goal for Brighton, scored at the London Stadium, with his equaliser (originally ruled out for handball) against West Ham. He came off the bench, led the line and saved the day.

So THANK YOU Glenn for all your efforts, and everything you achieved for and with us. And but for Gus’ dreadful decision in Summer 2011 (he didn’t get too much wrong – but this decision was a stinker), you might have been Brighton’s all-time leading goalscorer a long time ago. Even so, your place in the Brighton & Hove Albion Parthenon (should it ever get built) is assured, alongside all the other club legends.

See you back here soon…

Just one act left now – for Glenn to fulfil his role as a music presenter on radio. Watch this space…

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