Graham Potter v Steve Bruce: Managers with virtually identical records facing very different futures

In his own words, Graham Potter is not naive enough to believe that the entire Brighton fanbase is fully supportive of his approach on the south coast. But you get a decent idea of these things, even without supporters at the stadium, and the sense from inside and outside the club is that the community has faith in the long-term project.

“It is hard for me to say I have got an understanding of the fan reaction, because we don’t see the supporters so that is really difficult,” says Potter. “But judging by the small sample of people I meet in the streets and bump into, they are very, very supportive.”

It has become cliche to say “trust the process” but it applies to Brighton better than any other team in the league. The long-term strategy is the source of hope and the reason for the fans to believe in the project being led by Potter, owner Tony Bloom, chief executive Paul Barber and technical director Dan Ashworth. Results have not been at the level Brighton want or expect, but the overall trajectory and philosophy of the club? That is something to buy into.

Which brings us to Newcastle United, Brighton’s opponents on Saturday. If Brighton’s mantra is “trust the process” then, in the eyes of many of Newcastle’s supporters, theirs might be: “what’s the process?”

Both sides were promoted together in 2017 but they have since taken markedly different routes forward. At Newcastle there is a detested owner, an unpopular manager and a feeling that the club is just trying to survive each week rather than looking any further down the line.

It all makes for quite the contrast with Brighton’s approach on the south coast, and yet the league table shows the difference between the two sides to be just one point. Newcastle will overtake Brighton with a win on Saturday, climbing towards safety as Brighton slide further into trouble. Brighton have the plan and the progressive philosophy, but they do not have many points to show for it. The project is there, but will it actually work?

“When you are in my position you have to understand that the results are always the most important thing,” says Potter. “But I also think you have to try to understand how you are going to get your results short-term, medium-term and long-term.

“How can you grow and develop the club? There are no rights or wrongs in that. Some clubs loan six or seven players, or bring players in from the academy, or pay big transfer fees. Everybody has their own things they can do.

“For us, this is our path and this is the path we are on. Then you have to try to make it work, and that is where the challenge is. You try to make it work in the hardest league in world football and there is no style that can guarantee you anything. There is just how well you do, how committed you are and how much you want to stick together and fight for it.”

It is a widely accepted fact that Brighton are a better team than their league position suggests, even if such a statement can rile those who insist the table does not lie. Forward-thinking clubs with a deeper grip on analytics and data have long been saying that the league table does indeed lie, although that argument will be harder to make if Brighton are relegated.

Compared to Steve Bruce’s side, Brighton enjoy more possession, play more passes, shoot more often, concede fewer shots and let in fewer goals. But their goal tally of 29 this season is just one more than Newcastle. Potter’s side have 29 goals and 29 points, while Newcastle have 28 goals and 28 points.

The fact that it feels so different for the two sets of fans, then, speaks perhaps to the wider changes in football. The gap between the biggest teams and the rest shows no sign of being closed, and the average number of points needed to win the league in the last three years was 99.

Brighton and Newcastle fans cannot realistically dream of challenging near the top end of the table, so what is there to aim for? Increasingly it is about the journey, rather than the destination, and the sense that the club is building something to believe in. Brighton and Newcastle are so close in the table, but they are so far apart when it comes to that “process”.

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