Our Brighton & Hove Albion FC correspondent Patrick Gleeson looks back at the despair of last season and ahead to the hopes for the new season.
The gut-wrenching feeling in the stomachs of 27,000+ Brighton fans when Wilfried Zaha fired Crystal Palace into the lead in their play-off clash at the Amex in May was enough to put anyone off football for life.
The despair doubled soon after when the same man wrapped the game up in the 88th minute to send the Londoners to Wembley. As Albion heads sunk into their clappers, so did the hopes of a spot in the topflight.
The only real let-up for those on the South coast was that Ian Holloway’s men would come up against a strong Watford side in the final.
But as Albion fans slipped into their borrowed Hornets shirts, Palace did the unthinkable and crept into the Premier League thanks to a late Kevin Phillips penalty.
The following weeks would be messy for the Albion. Gus Poyet, Mauricio Taricco and Charlie Oatway all left the club, as well fan favourites Vicente, David Lopez - both of whom ran out of contract, and Wayne Bridge who would eventually sign for Reading on a free transfer.
Those who had witnessed the season in which Albion finished fourth were left wondering how the elation had plummeted into despair.
However, this soon changed when Tony Bloom recruited former Barcelona player, and youth coach, Oscar Garcia as the new boss. The Spaniard instilled ex-Albion favourite Nathan Jones, Juan Torrijo and Ruben Martinez as his merry bugle of backroom staff and life by the seaside seemed sweet once again.
Ins and outs
Soon after arriving on the coast, Oscar got to work enhancing the players at his disposal. with the first trio of signings plying their trade in defence. Rohan Ince (Chelsea) and Matthew Upson (Stoke) were both snapped up on free transfers to solidify the Albion backline, while 21-year-old Adam Chicksen secured a deal from Mk Dons. The youngster half-plugged the gap that left-backs Marcos Painter and Bridge left gaping when they left the club at the end of last season. David Lopez also re-signed for the club on a one-year deal, much to the delight of those affiliated with the club.
With the departures of Ryan Harley (Swindon), Gary Dicker (released) and Vicente (released), there was a reasonable-sized hole in the middle of Oscar’s team. He duly filled it with Swansea’s former Netherlands U21 international Kemy Agustien, whose two-year deal was announced on Thursday. The 26-year-old played 18 times for the Welsh side in the Premier League last season, completing 67% of his tackles and hitting the target with 50% of his efforts. Jake Forster-Caskey is also likely to feature heavily in the upcoming season, after failing to get a real chance in the first team under Poyet.
An emphasis on getting the ball forward quickly and implementing youth players into the first team squad followed the former Maccabi Tel Aviv manager into the Amex. The tweaks in the approach saw Albion march to four straight wins in the pre season schedule - against Whitehawk, Getafe, Sporting de Gijon and Crawley respectively - before heading into their first Amex tie of the season against La Liga outfit Villarreal.
Many Albion fans, myself included, used the game as a sort of rehabilitation. A haven to flush last season out of the system and start afresh amid a new era for the club. Although the Spaniards returned home with a 3-1 victory in their hand luggage, the soul was cleansed. A 1-1 draw at home to Norwich was to follow, with a spectacular Solly March strike completing the season preparations.
With a few new faces still supposedly to come, combined with the abundance of quality offering themselves from the Development Squad - Jake Forster-Caskey, Solly March, Brennan Dickensen, Courtney Richards, George Barker, Rohan Ince et al - the squad certainly looks like one able to compete for a promotion chase. While the majority of fans will be happy of a repeat performance of last season, with additional goals, there are some dreaming of a place in the top two come May. Me, I’ll be happy with a place in the play-offs.
The excitement surrounding the club is reminiscent of that in the early stages of Poyet’s stint in charge, but this time built on stronger foundations.
The only way is up.