• Charge of the Slade Brigade

    As Ashley Barnes poked the ball home and the Withdean faithful rose to celebrate the Albion’s fifth goal of an incredible New Year’s Day victory over Leyton Orient, a bald man in a cap looked on, frustrated, forgotten, but determined to put things right…

    Russell Slade had been appointed Orient manager in April 2010, and, despite having successfully negated the relegation threat during his first campaign in charge at the O’s, after this particular away day mauling, Slade’s men found themselves just two points above the relegation zone in League 1. Orient were struggling, whilst Brighton seemed certain to gain promotion under the remarkable management of Gustavo Poyet, just in time for the opening of their stunning new stadium at Falmer. And, sure enough, as Roger East’s full time whistle brought the Albion’s extraordinary fixture against Dagenham and Redbridge in early April to a close, confirming the Seagulls’ ascension to the Championship, Russell Slade’s brief tenure as Brighton and Hove Albion manager in 2009 seemed the most distant of memories. It still does.

    And yet, it shouldn’t. After all, without Slade, the Albion would almost certainly have dropped to the basement division of professional English football, and hence would most likely have failed to attract Poyet, who has arguably become the most important cog in the wheel that is Brighton and Hove Albion Football Club.

    Micky Adam’s hugely frustrating second spell in charge at Brighton finally ended in late February 2009. The Albion had sunk into the relegation zone in League 1, and whichever way you looked at it, despite an incredible Carling Cup penalty shoot-out win over Manchester City in September, results had been “very disappointing”, as Dick Knight put it in his statement after the termination of Adams’ contract. Fans were resigning themselves to relegation even at this stage, and despite a surprise win at Millwall in the first game after Adam’s departure, under the temporary charge of Dean White and Bob Booker, things were really looking bleak. So it was not with open arms and warm smiles that Albion fans greeted Russell Slade’s appointment – more with nods in his direction coupled with mild trepidation. After all, he’d had only limited success at Scarborough, Grimsby and Yeovil and was certainly not the household name that some supporters had expected to take up the reins. And yet, Slade seemed to work. His fist-pumping salute towards the away fans at Brisbane Road before his first game in charge against Leyton Orient was to become a symbol of his own defiance in the face of relegation, despite the fact that he had only fourteen league games to keep the club afloat. The manager’s willpower paid off in his third game at the helm, a remarkable five-nil win at home to Slade’s old club Yeovil. Dean Cox scored twice in that victory, and Slade’s ability to motivate players such as ‘Coxy’ would prove crucial. Slade would go on to sign Cox for Leyton Orient, his current club, highlighting the positive relationship the two had, and the fact that Cox seemingly sees the O’s boss as a man who can consistently get the best out of him, as he most certainly did at the Withdean. And yet, despite what was an undoubtedly morale-boosting win, the Albion went on to lose three of their next four games convincingly, finding themselves a staggering eight points adrift of safety with just seven matches to play. At this stage relegation seemed a certainty. A ‘dead cert’.

    The hairless hero acknowledges fans before his first game in charge at the Albion
    But it wasn’t. The sight of Slade patrolling the touchline, home and away, like an army sergeant, barking orders at the players, instilled a confidence amongst players and fans alike that carried the team over the line in the race to survive. He seemed to represent the very definition of the phrase ‘bitter determination’. Crucial narrow victories at Colchester and Bristol Rovers, not to mention an impressive Withdean win against Oldham, set up a final showdown at home to Stockport, with the Seagulls needing a positive result to secure League 1 football for the 2009/10 season. The rest, of course, is history as Nicky Forster’s tap-in confirmed the Albion’s safety.

    On paper, of course, the season had been a very poor one for Brighton. Yet, Slade’s influence at the end of that campaign was more than just a simple thwarting of the perils associated with relegation. His remarkable ability to seemingly turn players such as Gary Hart, Lloyd Owusu and Andrew Whing into world-beaters for that brief fourteen game spell – none of whom have since performed to the high standards that they did under Slade at the Albion – enabled him to keep the Seagulls afloat. There is no doubt that had Slade failed, and Brighton been relegated, Gus Poyet would have overlooked the club during his year-long search for an available managerial position that suited him. Admittedly, Paulo Di Canio is a young inexperienced manager, similar to Poyet in 2009, and he did take a League 2 jobs some weeks ago at Swindon – but Poyet had already cut his managerial teeth as assistant manager and first team coach at Leeds United and Tottenham Hotspur respectively before Bloom came calling, experience that Di Canio does not have. Ask yourself where the club would be now if Poyet had not taken the job twenty months ago. It’s hard, almost impossible, to imagine the Albion being promoted as League 1 champions earlier this year, without the exuberant management of the Uruguayan. Hence, with hindsight, Slade’s impact at Brighton should be viewed as an essential part of the club’s development, in that it enabled the club to progress itself with Poyet’s appointment and ultimately reach the Championship, with the club in a particularly healthy state nowadays, under the stewardship of the most generous of chairmen, Tony Bloom.

    Who can forget also, that Slade secured the signatures of Gary Dicker, Andrew Crofts, Alan Navarro and Elliott Bennett, all of whom would go on to enjoy varying degrees of success at the Seagulls. Both Crofts and Bennett particularly excelled at the Withdean, and would both, somewhat peculiarly, be transferred to Norwich, now a Premier League club. Norwich spent close to two million pounds on Crofts and Bennett, massively improving the Seagulls’ bank balance, in no small part due to the foresight of Russell Slade, who saw serious potential in both players. Brighton fans will hope that this summer the fee the club received for Bennett will enable Poyet to enhance the squad, and build a team capable of success in the Championship – the Albion have already signed Williams Hoskins and Buckley, from Bristol Rovers and Watford respectively.

    The other side of the argument says that Slade was a failure at the Albion – after all, he was sacked after a disappointing start to the 2009/10 season. And, yes, in the long run, things didn’t work out for him on the South Coast. But his success in steering Leyton Orient to an excellent seventh place finish last season in the third tier, confirmed his abilities as a manager, as he ran Poyet relatively close in last term’s League 1 manager of the year stakes.

    And so, as the Seagulls start life at their new home in August, and, who knows, one day set foot in the promised land that is the Barclays Premier League, spare a thought for the bald man in the cap, who played a short, but tremendously important role in Brighton and Hove Albion’s recent history.
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