Roberto De Zerbi’s message to the fans was brief. Brighton had qualified for Europe for the first time in their history and were completing a lap of honour, but the Italian wasn’t satisfied. “You have been fantastic, but we need another point to play in Europa League because we want to play in Europa League, and not the Conference,” he told the crowd. “See you next year.”
He will see them on Wednesday night when Brighton host the champions Manchester City and, barring enormous swings of goal difference, the Europa League is already guaranteed. But if De Zerbi is to continue his odyssey with the Seagulls next season and continue to demand the highest from his players, then the denizens of Sussex could be forgiven for being excited.
This was a nervy contest, decided by Pascal Gross’s low shot in the 69th minute. For a time Rubén Sellés’s doomed Saints actually imposed themselves effectively on the match, denying Brighton their characteristic flamboyant possession and looking dangerous on the counter. But this game was all about the result and the validation and anticipation it provides. Brighton are going places, but they have also arrived; the long journey from lower league to established Premier League side is complete.
No doubt there will be turmoil ahead – largely during the summer transfer window when half their squad will surely be the subject of enquiries or offers. And as poor Southampton have proved, you are only ever as “established” as your league position allows. But Brighton have the infrastructure, the players and, no doubt, the manager to take on opponents at any level without fear.
That is a lesson that does not seem to need spelling out to Evan Ferguson. The teenage striker scored two accomplished goals, full of sang-froid while many appeared to be on edge. His first was a brutish effort that mugged Lyanco and smashed past Alex McCarthy; his second, a placed finish off an expert Kaoru Mitoma cross. If you squint there is a Shearer-esque quality to his game and already he is tipped for clubs at the very top.
Yet six months ago no one had heard of him, and you could say the same for Julio Enciso or Facundo Buonanotte, who shared Brighton’s right-hand side here. Stretch the period to 12 months and there’s Mitoma or Moisés Caicedo, with even Alexis Mac Allister only faintly on the radar. This squad is stacked with talent who appear able to step instantly on to the most demanding stage in league football. They surely can’t lose them all this summer, and who knows who might be next on the production line.
That Gross should be the man to decide the game was apt, the German playing utility man under De Zerbi but a key figure in the success of the Seagulls in the top flight. He took a flicked-on corner from Pervis Estupiñán (oh yes, another previously anonymous elite talent), controlled it inside the box, cut inside his man and almost rolled the ball beyond a laggardly McCarthy dive. Thus a brief Southampton comeback during which Mohamed Elyounoussi flicked in a James Ward-Prowse corner and Theo Walcott’s goal was ruled out by VAR for a marginal (and perhaps typical) offside, was brought to an end.
Sellés revealed he had had no interaction with his bosses over his future, despite the apparently imminent arrival of Russell Martin as the new head coach at St Mary’s. Sellés has obviously relished his brief time in the Premier League bear pit, a tactician who has enjoyed pitting his wits against more garlanded coaches, including De Zerbi whom he described as “one of the best in the world when you talk about possession”.
Speaking after his tour of the Amex Stadium – “There’s a celebration out there … I don’t know why” – De Zerbi confessed the target within the dressing room had in fact been the Champions League. But his main message was for next season and the need to keep pushing.
“I spoke with Tony Bloom,” De Zerbi said. “He is very happy, he is the first fan of Brighton, but now we have to organise. Now is the crucial moment for the club because we have to keep this level,” he said. “Victory can be dangerous. The history of the Premier League shows that the day before you achieve Europe and the next year you can find yourself in the bottom of the table.
“Tony knows very well my idea. For me it’s an honour to work here and to continue to work here. I have never thought to change team, to go back to Italy or another Premier League club. I want to stay. I don’t know how many years, but it’s an honour, it’s a pleasure to work with these people.”