By Bradley Stratton (Brighton & Hove Albion fan).
It’s fair to say we’ve had a mix-bag of keepers in recent years at Brighton and Hove Albion.
The Withdean era saw 25 men pull on the gloves for the Seagull’s, varying in quality. For example there was the excellent Ben Roberts, who could have made it to the top flight had injury not forced him into an early retirement, Wayne Henderson, who represented the Republic of Ireland whilst at the club, was unspectacular but solid, and Graeme Smith, who optimised the stereotype of abysmal Scottish goalkeepers, conceding 27 times in nine appearances. And of course the ever present Former Dutch Marine Michel Kuipers, who spent ten years at the club whilst they plied their trade at the athletics stadium that was a temporary home for 12 years.
And Brighton’s return to the Championship at the state of the art Amex Stadium highlighted the need for another change in goal. Casper Ankergren and Peter Brezovan, whilst competent in League One, were regularly found out at the higher level.
They inspired little confidence in fans, and there was no doubt manager Gus Poyet would use the summer window in 2012 to bring in a new man who could galvanise the Albion back line and restore confidence to a defence that had conceded six goals at both West Ham and Liverpool that year.
Enter Tomasz Kuszczak. Having been released from Manchester United, the Polish international was sought by both Albion and Ipswich. Whilst the latter may have been able to offer higher wages for his services, fans were confident he would be playing in Sussex.
Poyet has a way of selling his vision of Project Albion to prospective players. It was this that convinced Craig Mackail-Smith to reject Leicester and West Ham to join Albion, and no doubt Kuszczak was sold on this too.
The Pole’s arrival filled one of the pieces of the jigsaw in the club’s dream of reaching the Premier League. A competent and dependable goalkeeper was sorely lacking from the side in the 2011-12 season in which the club finished tenth, and for 2012-13 that’s certainly what we got.
They say a good keeper can earn a side ten points in a season. Kuszczak has earned that and more.
Early on in the campaign it was clear he was going to have a huge impact on results. A fabulous performance at the New Den in September saw him deny Millwall’s Chris Wood on numerous occasions – including a volley from point blank range in the last few minutes of the game – to keep Albion ahead.
October was the month that made highlighted the differences Kuszczak had brought to the team. With three draws and two defeats there was little for the sides creative players to shout home about, however without Kuszczak’s spectacular goalkeeping it could easily have been a pointless month.
This was a pattern that would be continued throughout the year. Whilst some months and games were defined by goals scored, in others points were earned through the Kuszczak’s solid presence behind the back four.
Of course even the best of keepers are prone to mistakes, and Tomasz was no different.
In the dying minutes at St Andrews in January, it should have had an easy task in catching a looping header from Birmingham’s Nikola Zigic, with Albion 2-1 up.
However the ball slipped through Kuszczak’s hands and into the net, meaning the Seagull’s left the Midlands with just a point.
Fans were quick to forgive him for the error. It was his first and only crucial mistake made in his time at the club, and made up for the error by playing a crucial part in the run-in to the end of the season.
His finest hour came away at leaders Cardiff. With Brighton on the back foot throughout most of the game it was down to Kuszczak to keep them in the game, and he duly delivered with five stupendous saves in the first half, following that up with more crucial stops in the second which saw the Seagulls net twice to gain to end the Bluebirds unbeaten run.
He was a hero on that day, and is universally regarded by fans as one of our most consistent performers in the side.
This was reflected in the end of season awards, where he came second behind Liam Bridcutt in the voting for Player of the Season, an honour he has truly earned.
Whilst the post-play-off hangover – including Poyet’s suspension – still hangs over the club, fans can look back on the season gone and say it was a success. Very few people, fans or otherwise would have expected a top four finish, and it shows the strength in depth that Poyet brought in last summer, and Kuszczak’s signing was a key part of the strengthening process.
Had things worked out differently we might never have signed him. In an interview with the Mirror last October he accused Ferguson and United of pricing out of a move elsewhere whilst still at Old Trafford, with the likes of West Brom, and numerous sides from Turkey and Russia put off by the Red Devil’s asking price.
Therefore I’d like to finish off by thanking Sir Alex Ferguson for the astute piece of business he performed as alluded to in the above paragraph. CSKA Moscow’s loss has most certainly been Brighton and Hove Albion’s gain.
Bradley is a member of North Stand Chat. You can also follow him on twitter HERE.
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