The din of delight which went up at the final whistle here, as joyful supporters spilled out from all sides on to the turf, was cathartic. Brighton & Hove Albion can finally consign all those nightmarish memories of uncertainty to history. They can forget the seasons of homelessness after the shameful sale of the Goldstone Ground, years of soul‑destroying 70-mile commutes to home games in Gillingham, and even draw a line under the regular, crippling disappointment of play-off defeat. A tortuous journey from the brink of oblivion back into the elite is complete.
Tony Bloom watched the delighted thrall at the end from the front row of the directors’ box, twirling his blue and white scarf while the crowd chorused his name, before being coaxed down to the lower tier to join his players in the press box. There, even a figure usually too shy to speak publicly was persuaded to take the microphone, bellowing something along the lines of “We’re on our way to the Premier League” before emotion overtook him and he stepped aside for the players to conduct the throng with more raucous chants of. Bloom was busy shaking hands with home fans in the stand when the latest chant of “We are going up” raised the roof.
The chairman’s eight-year ownership has seen him pour in the region of £250m into his beloved Brighton, building a sparkling new arena and a state of the art training centre at nearby Lancing en route. Brighton have come a long way since their days at the Withdean. They are a club long since ready for elevation, and one eager to make their mark. “Go back 20 years and we were homeless, a club going nowhere, and here we are today on the way to the Premier League,” the chairman offered. “I’ve been a passionate Brighton supporter for 40 years. When I took over and committed to building the stadium and the training ground, I did it because I love this club. So, to be here with almost 30,000 fans... it’s all our dreams come true. Amazing.”
This was a triumph for Bloom’s patience, together with that of Brighton’s chief executive, Paul Barber, and even their charismatic former chairman Dick Knight, who had sustained them after the division and rancour of Bill Archer’s destructive spell as major shareholder. They have not graced the top flight since 1983, the year they lost an FA Cup final replay against Manchester United. Wigan Athletic, the team they beat here – elevation was actually only confirmed by Jacob Butterfield’s equaliser for Derby against Huddersfield a few hours later – were in the third tier that year. These clubs are now returning from whence they came.
There were cheers for each player who took the microphone from the press box after the final whistle, the team rejoicing as much in news of Newcastle’s defeat at Ipswich, which leaves them one win from the title. The manager, Chris Hughton, had actually beaten a hasty retreat. “I saw about 5,000 people running towards me,” he said with a chuckle, before admitting he had been uncomfortable celebrating until he knew for sure his team had gone up. “The best thing we’ve got now is another challenge. One thing I wouldn’t want or accept is to go through these next three games a shadow of ourselves. We’ve got an opportunity now to win the title, and that’s what the players will remember. It’s a great achievement to get promotion, but an even greater one to win the Championship. So we’re one win away. That’s a consequence of what we’ve done.”
His own role has been pivotal. Hughton has always suggested this achievement would eclipse his promotion as manager of Newcastle at the start of the decade, and with good reason. He had inherited a team that felt spent, almost broken, at the tail end of 2014 after Sami Hyypia’s brief but disastrous spell in charge, and restored them calmly and clinically into contenders. A tally of 89 points was not enough to take them up automatically last term, and his ability to rally a group who then capitulated in the play-off semi-finals for the third time in four seasons is a measure of the manager’s pedigree. Newcastle, Aston Villa and Norwich boasted budgets well beyond this club’s means in a second tier crammed with ambition. Yet Albion have still cut through all comers with gusto.
The team Hughton shaped have been the most consistent performers in the division, a delicious blend of youthful energy and canny older heads. Anthony Knockaert’s left foot provides the incision, the Frenchman’s prowess at set-pieces and trickery in possession showcased almost at will here while Wigan heaved to contain their hosts’ exuberance. It was his skill which bamboozled David Perkins and Stephen Warnock near the touchline after the hour, Knockaert eventually squaring for Solly March who rammed in his side’s second goal to lance any lingering tension for good.
March, secured from nearby Lewes, and Lewis Dunk, a youth-team graduate, will relish the bigger stages on which they will strut next term. The latter left the pitch clad only in his underwear, his clothing claimed as trophies by gleeful fans. The likes of Dale Stephens, David Stockdale, Oliver Norwood and Jamie Murphy will feel they boast the quality to hold their own, while the contribution of the veterans should not be underestimated. Steve Sidwell, absent here, has been a calming influence all year, while it was hard to fathom how Bruno Saltor, bursting up and down the flank all afternoon, could possibly be 36.
Then there was Glenn Murray. It had been the forward, initially brought in on loan from Bournemouth but now a fully fledged Brighton player again, who had prised a stubborn Wigan side apart here from Tomer Hemed’s lay-off, thumping his shot beyond Jakob Haugaard and into the far corner, to swell his goal tally for the campaign to 22. The 33-year-old had been on crutches the last time he was promoted to the top flight, with Crystal Palace, after rupturing his cruciate knee ligament in a play-offs against Albion back in 2013. His contribution, in weight of experience as well as goals, has been colossal. He is a player who feels he has a point still to prove at the higher level.
The substitute Nick Powell’s header five minutes from time, planted into the corner from Jamie Hanson’s cross, briefly offered Wigan hope of unlikely reward, but they had been outclassed throughout. There is no reason to suppose Brighton will be out of their depth next term, for all that Bloom has indicated the huge influx of money associated with elevation will only be spent sensibly. “You have to run the club in the right way,” added Bloom. “Many local owners have put money in and it hasn’t worked out well for them. So it is important that, outside the 90 minutes of games, I make rational and unemotional decisions.”
Lists have already been drawn up for potential new recruits at Brighton, players who will fit in with the style and swagger established by Hughton over the last few years. Theirs will be the Bournemouth and Burnley approach, but it has not done either of those clubs any harm. Brighton, a club who have faced up to liquidation and prevailed, can relish a very different kind of challenge ahead.