Brighton & Hove Albion may have pinched themselves through the first few weeks of their return to the top flight but they will now feel as if they properly belong in this company.
Awkward and established opponents were swept aside here with aplomb, the hosts running riot while Tony Pulis barked his disgust at West Bromwich Albion’s slack display from the sidelines. This was a win for the locals to savour, a victory 34 years in the waiting.
The last team Brighton had beaten in the elite were Coventry City, now of League Two, back in April 1983. They had never defeated the Baggies at this level though, in truth, they must have sensed this was their moment from the early stages, so off-colour were the visitors. It still took time for them to ease into an advantage but once Pascal Gross, one of the more impressive performers as Ingolstadt slipped out of the Bundesliga last term, had found his range, confidence flooded through their play. They will have few afternoons this comfortable over the campaign ahead.
It was their urgency which set them apart, coupled with the class in possession that had seen them cut through most opponents in the Championship. Here was evidence those qualities can be imposed on better opponents. While West Brom huffed and puffed to precious little effect until the game was long gone, Brighton stretched the play with Gross revelling in pockets of space behind Tomer Hemed, and Anthony Knockaert demonstrating he belongs at this level by tormenting Allan Nyom on the wing. No other player could match the 95 chances created by Gross in the Bundesliga last season. He seems a bargain at £3m.
The 26-year-old would have the honour of plundering his club’s first top-flight goal since Gordon Smith netted in a defeat to Norwich over 34 years ago. Shane Duffy had been denied by an assistant’s flag before, in first-half stoppage time, Solly March clipped over a cross which a leaping Nyom could not repel. There was Gross lurking unattended to collect superbly on his right boot, and then risk passing up his opportunity as he cut back inside and three West Brom players converged upon him. Yet the playmaker still spat away a left-footed shot as he slipped, the effort bulging the net inside Ben Foster’s near-post, and Brighton had the reward their pressure deserved.
Gross was not finished yet, collecting from Hemed early in the second period to scuttle a low shot across Foster from the edge of the area and into the corner. “He’s someone who works very hard for the team and, if he can get into areas where he can finish, he has good technique with both feet,” said Chris Hughton. “He was one of our first summer buys, is very knowledgeable about the English game, and has very good English which helped him from day one. He’s a good acquisition.”
There would be further reward before West Brom stirred, Gross pouncing on Craig Dawson’s poor touch to dart down the left with his centre headed home emphatically by a diving Hemed at the near post.
West Brom endure days like this at times, when they appear unable to rouse themselves. Grzegorz Krychowiak was classy enough at their heart, but there was a distinct lack of pizzazz to a team fielding three defensively-minded midfielders. Salomón Rondón departed early with Tony Pulis bemoaning Brighton’s goals either side of the break as “a kick in the goolies”. At least Oliver Burke and Kieran Gibbs injected energy late on, the Scot nodding back for his compatriot James Morrison to volley through Duffy’s attempt to block.
Yet, for all the flurry of half-chances created thereafter with Mathew Ryan denying Morrison a second goal, parity always appeared a pipe dream. “Let’s just say Brighton were better than us,” said Pulis. ”They looked a bit tired and jaded today. The centre-half [Ahmed Hegazi] has played in Uganda and Egypt, the centre-forward [Rondón] in Argentina and Venezuela, and this is different to the other leagues they’ve played in.” West Brom have now won only three of 16 games against newly-promoted opposition under Pulis. He might have seen this coming.
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