I wasn’t playing too much at Leicester and it was time to go, says Knockaert

Dominic Fifield
The Guardian
<span class="element-image__caption">Brighton &amp; Hove Albion’s Anthony Knockaert celebrates in the stand with team-mates after the win over Wigan as good as confirmed their promotion to the top flight after 34 years.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Dan Istitene/Getty Images</span>
Brighton & Hove Albion’s Anthony Knockaert celebrates in the stand with team-mates after the win over Wigan as good as confirmed their promotion to the top flight after 34 years. Photograph: Dan Istitene/Getty Images

Anthony Knockaert had been bare-chested out in the stand at the Amex Stadium, conducting the mass of delighted blue and white on the pitch below with microphone in hand as he has so much of Brighton & Hove Albion’s attacking play all season. There would be crowd surfing on a packed Southern Rail train service from Falmer to the city centre, and more celebrations in The Lanes before the night was out. Yet in between there was a moment for more sombre reflection.

The white T-shirt the Championship’s player of the year had put on back in the tunnel, just before his team-mates emptied a barrel of iced water over Chris Hughton, told its own story. It sported a photograph of Patrick Knockaert with his son and the message: “To Daddy. We did it for you. RIP.” The Frenchman said: “I’m thinking a lot about my dad. He’s been amazing in my life, the main man, and I wish he was here today with me to see all this and celebrate. But that is life. Every day I work so hard for him and if things go right for me, it’s because he gives me the power to fight. Because of what happened I have an even bigger desire to work hard and show he was believing in me. I do it all for him.”

Patrick passed away in his son’s arms in November after a lengthy illness. He was 63. His death came only seven years after Anthony’s older brother, Steve, a talented footballer in his own right, had died in his sleep after a heart attack. It had been Knockaert Sr who made the difficult telephone call to Anthony, then 17 and fresh from his first senior game for Guingamp, to tell him of the family’s sudden and unexpected loss. That, if anything, had served to strengthen the bond with his father, meaning the tragic events towards the end of last year had left the Brighton player bereft. It had been the support of his team-mates which carried him through.

Steve Sidwell dedicated a goal scored at Bristol City to his grieving team-mate, with Hughton subsequently cancelling training to travel to Leers, on the outskirts of Lille, so he and members of the squad could attend the funeral. It is as if a very personal tragedy became another source of motivation for the collective thereafter. “I’ve told my team-mates: ‘If I was playing for any other club in the world, I don’t think they would have done that for me,’” Knockaert said. “Them coming all the way from England to France to come to my dad’s funeral was something I’ll never forget, and I still don’t know even now how to thank them.

“Now, for me, they are not just team-mates but friends for ever. I owe this football club a lot. That’s why I give every single bit of my life on the pitch and they deserve it because this club is something special.”

Knockaert’s first thought after achieving promotion to the top flight with Leicester City in 2014 had been of his brother and wanting to “make him happy”. This time round, with family in the stand as almost 30,000 Brighton supporters celebrated with gusto, his dedications were for his absent father.

He has merited his return to the elite. Knockaert had spent three eventful years at Leicester, carrying away the club’s young player of the year award in his first season but infamously seeing a last-minute penalty saved by Manuel Almunia, as well as his follow-up, against Watford in the play-off semi-finals with the home side duly sprinting upfield to score and book their own place at Wembley. He had recovered his poise to play a part in a successful promotion campaign under Nigel Pearson the following year, only to be denied an opportunity to make his mark at the higher level. There were only nine Premier League appearances in 2014-15, with three starts and no game-time at all after mid-January.

He watched his team-mates stage their remarkable escape from the drop from afar as frustration at non-involvement mounted. A player whose exclusion had reduced him to tears in meetings with Pearson ended up rejecting a four-year contract to stay at the King Power Stadium, with Knockaert instead moving to Standard Liège under the Bosman ruling. “He’d been a player we’d followed for a while and he wasn’t settled in Liège and clearly wanted to come back to England,” said the Brighton owner, Tony Bloom, who would pay in the region of £2m to secure the playmaker midway through last season. “We knew how brilliantly he’d done at Leicester and over the last 18 months it’s been a pleasure watching him. He scores goals, creates goals and has that x-factor.”

Knockaert said: “I am never going to regret the choices I made because I wasn’t playing too much in the Premier League with Leicester and it was time for me to go somewhere else and try something else. I always believed in my quality and, when I had the chance to come to this club, I knew the ambition they had. It was an easy decision to take and now it looks like a perfect decision.”

Last year proved a near miss but offered an opportunity to showcase his talent. Brighton resisted bids over the summer, not least from Newcastle United, and the 25-year-old has proved integral to this team’s approach this season. There have been 15 goals and a string of assists, at set pieces and open play, courtesy of that delicious left-footed delivery. An improved contract and a proper opportunity in the Premier League surely await.

“We need to enjoy this and we’ll see what happens next year but I don’t think it’s the moment to talk about the Premier League now,” he said. “We are one win away from the title, which would be amazing because everyone in England was expecting Newcastle to be champions this season. We have a long time before that. We will prepare as much as we can to stay up because it’s their first time for this club to go into the Premier League, and I’m over the moon for all the people involved because they deserve it a lot. For me it’s a family club. If there is one club that deserves it over the last two years it was Brighton.”

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