After a failed rebuild on the South Coast, what’s next for Brighton?

After the tumult of the 2022/23 campaign that saw them coached by no fewer than four managers , Brighton and Hove Albion were left languishing just outside the relegation places in the Barclays Women’s Super League.

Their apparent saviour, Mel Phillips, took charge of the team for the final few games of the season and proclaimed her intention to take the team to the top four of the WSL – but by Spring 2024, she too was abruptly sacked, with Brighton again near the bottom of the table and the club’s patience apparently exhausted.

They’ve since managed a 9th-place finish under interim boss Mikey Harris, but recent results have made it all too clear that the project Phillips was denied the chance to complete will require far more patience from the club.

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Early ambitions

When Mel Phillips took the reins at Brighton in April 2023, the club was on the brink of relegation – her management gained them the points needed to buy some time in the WSL, but she went far beyond that.

After she’d stabilised the foundations at the club, it quickly became obvious she wanted to go further and build something far greater. The American was blunt about her intentions to make Brighton a top four club, but her first priority was improving week-to-week performances on the pitch. Perhaps it was that mix of pragmatism and ambition that sparked a bustling transfer window on the South Coast, bringing in eleven new signings – including Champions League runner-up Pauline Bremer alongside a former Manchester United and Chelsea defender, Maria Thorisdottir. 

Having taken over at a time when all she could do was secure survival, Phillips was now looking to push her new-look squad to far greater heights – and there were glimmers of the quality in the squad starting to shine through. The Seagulls held last year’s title challengers Manchester United to a draw at home in November, and just a week later pulled off one of the season’s biggest upsets with a narrow 0-1 victory over Manchester City in a game Gareth Taylor’s side will no doubt have thought about countless times in the tight title race that followed.

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However, there was little consistency – strong performances against those sides were sandwiched between losses to Chelsea and Arsenal. Despite the obvious talent in the team, the stability wasn’t yet there – but Phillips had always been open about the length of time her planned rebuild would take, and the club appeared to be on the same page.

It came as a massive shock, most of all to Phillips, when she was relieved of her duties. The announcement came mere hours after she held a pre-match press conference, and was apparently a surprise to almost everyone across the team and media. The club said that results had not matched their expectations following heavy investment over the summer – and so, just like that, the reins were snatched from Phillips after only ten months, and handed to interim boss Mikey Harris. 

Scraping by

Phillips’ departure sent shockwaves through the WSL and introduced the unknown quantity of Harris, who arrived from Brighton’s men’s academy charged with saving the Seagulls from relegation again. He was plunged into the deep end with a trip to Manchester United in the league, where his side lost 2-0 but put in a respectable performance.

Fans would have been pleased that the team, many of whom had only played for Brighton under Phillips, avoided a total collapse and still showed bursts of their quality.

After a disappointing loss to Aston Villa in the Conti Cup, the mood was then lifted again by thumping wins over Wolverhampton Wanderers in the FA Cup and Bristol City in the WSL – those promising results were interspersed with frustrating defeats and draws, but the pressure was largely off after their 3-7 defeat of the later-relegated Robins.

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Their campaign ended with another difficult blow in the form of a 5-0 defeat to Arsenal and though they were recorded 19 points to relegated Bristol’s six, they were only 4 ahead of 11th-placed West Ham. Once again, a turbulent season finished back at the drawing board.

Next steps

In some ways, Brighton’s situation now feels similar to where they were a year ago: despite a few top-level results, it’s clear that some heavy lifting is needed to consistently perform at the heady heights that its higher-ups insist is the goal.

Ironically, the personnel situation has almost reversed from the beginning of last summer. Previously, there was a respected manager under whose direction a world-class squad could be built, whereas now there’s a team of born winners under a coach taking on his first top-flight team.

That’s no disrespect to Mikey Harris: he’s won the admiration of many fans for steadying the ship, as Mel Phillips did last year, and the team has inched slightly up the table under his guidance. But can he take the past the brick wall they seem to keep hitting – that they are failing to hit the standards they’re so clearly capable of?

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It’s a question Brighton’s executives will need to ponder. As usual, there is not as much fluidity in the women’s managerial market as there is in the men’s, so they will need to act quickly at any potential opportunities to hire a permanent boss – but then again, a key criticism of their handling of the women’s setup is the apparent short-sightedness in decision making (as evidenced by their managerial turnover).

To prevent key players – like young Lioness Katie Robinson, who is out of contract this summer – from moving on to pastures new, Brighton will need to move that they have a real plan (and the patience to stick it out) to give their world-class players the management they deserve. 

The balance between ambition and pragmatism is one the club’s hierarchy have failed to strike so far, but must they find it – and fast – if they’re to realise the potential of their stellar squad.

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