Brighton face Manchester United at Wembley on Sunday with the prize of a first FA Cup final for 40 years on offer to cap the Seagulls’ meteoric rise from the bottom of the English football pyramid to one of its most respected clubs.
The fact that Roberto De Zerbi’s men are the bookies favourites to beat the Red Devils is testament to how Brighton have become the model to follow for those clubs who do not possess the resources of the Premier League’s traditional powers.
Albion sit seventh in the English top flight, above Liverpool and Chelsea, despite losing their manager earlier in the season and consistently having their best players poached by the Premier League elite.
Graham Potter was chewed up and spat out by Chelsea within seven months after Brighton pocketed £21.5 million ($27 million) in compensation for the Englishman’s departure in September.
Over £100 million of playing talent has also departed this season as Marc Cucurella made the move to Chelsea, Tottenham snapped up Yves Bissouma and Arsenal came calling for Leandro Trossard in January.
Yet, there is no sign of the Brighton train coming off the tracks as De Zerbi has built on the foundations Potter left and produced one of the most exciting sides to watch in Europe.
“The best team at making the build-up in the world is Brighton,” said Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola last week.
The final finish is sometimes still lacking with a failure to take their chances looking like it will cost Brighton a crack at Champions League football for the first time.
Yet, a 2-1 win at Chelsea last week illustrated how they have outthought rivals with much deeper pockets.
Paraguayan teenager Julio Enciso scored a stunning winner at Stamford Bridge to announce himself as Brighton’s latest South American bargain, following in the footsteps of Argentine World Cup winner Alexis Mac Allister and Ecuadorian midfielder Moises Caicedo, who was subject of a £70 million bid from Arsenal in January.
Brighton’s scouting network spans the globe. Japanese winger Kaoru Mitoma, who has scored 10 goals this season, was playing in his homeland prior to a £2.5 million move from Kawasaki Frontale two years ago.
Closer to home, talented Irish international Evan Ferguson turned down Liverpool in favour of a move to the Amex given the clearer pathway into the first team.
De Zerbi coup
The shrewdest business of all, though, might have been swooping for De Zerbi once Potter jumped ship.
The highly-rated Italian had risen to prominence in three years at Sassuolo, but was out of work after a short spell at Ukrainian giants Shakhtar Donetsk was cut short due to Russia’s invasion.
“Roberto deserves this (recognition),” said Mac Allister.
“Since he came here, we build up from the back and we work on it almost the whole week, so it is nice that a coach like Pep Guardiola said it. At the same time, we know and we think, we can do it even better.”
In Brighton’s only previous FA Cup final in 1983 they also faced United who eventually won 4-0 in a replay.
That same year relegation from the top flight sparked a spiral down the divisions that nearly led to the club falling out the football league in the late 90s and going out of business.
But their fortunes changed once professional gambler Tony Bloom bought his boyhood club in 2009.
They finally made it to the Premier League in 2017.
After four years of doing just enough to stay in the division, a ninth-placed finish last season was their best ever in the top flight.
Now they are aiming even higher with European football and a first major trophy no longer a dream, but a realistic aim.
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