While he turns out for Huddersfield Town these days, Tommy Elphick’s name is inextricably linked with the Albion and Bournemouth, having skippered both sides – the latter from League One to the Premier League.
The amiable Brightonian came through the system with the Seagulls, making his debut against Reading in December 2005, yet 2007/08 became his breakthrough as Dean Wilkins’ young outfit finished a very respectable seventh in League One.
Missing out on the play-offs by seven points, the side still picked up a number of encouraging victories along the way but it was a 3-2 win against his future employers, on New Year’s Day at Withdean, which remains vivid in Elphick’s memory banks.
“This match stands out for several reasons,” says the centre-back, who made 44 appearances in all competitions that season. “I’d just returned from a hernia injury, in fact it was my first game back. I was about 20 at the time and had played quite a lot of football the year before in the youth team, the reserves and had started to travel away with the first team.
“I’d then broken into the team and it probably all just caught up with me. We’d also lost a few players around that time; loanee George Callaghan had just gone back to Ipswich and there was a bit of a hoo-ha around Bas Savage because he was running out of contract.
“But we had a real good thing going on that year. Obviously Dean Wilkins had stepped up from coaching the youth team to become manager. A lot of us had come through the system with him – the likes of myself, Adam [El-Abd], Dean Hammond, who was captaining the side, Jake Robinson, Dean Cox, Tommy Fraser was playing a bit as well.
“We had a really good team spirit and were going into the New Year with half a chance of getting into the play-offs, so it was a big result for us. ‘Revs’ [Alex Revell] scored his hat-trick that day. We went 1-0 up, then 1-1, 2-1 up, back to 2-2, and then Revs popped up with the winner.
“We always seemed to have good games back then, us and Bournemouth. Both teams wanted to play the right way. There always seemed to be something at stake as well, whether it be promotion or trying to stay up.
The journeys of both sides since have been well documented, with Tommy helping the Albion to the League One title in 2010/11 before injury halted his progress, then playing a key role in guiding the Cherries into the top flight.
He now takes great pride in seeing both clubs going head-to-head in the Premier League and sometimes has to pinch himself at the strides made in a relatively short space of time.
“It’s just remarkable what’s happened at Brighton, moving into the Amex and getting into the Premier League. And Bournemouth have done absolutely brilliant,” he states. “You look at the infrastructure of what Eddie Howe has had to work with and the players he’s managed to attract there. Brighton went about it a different way, putting the infrastructure in place first, but the way they are is very much a Premier League set-up.”
Elphick can now look back on over 400 career appearances in a 15-year professional career that has also taken in Aston Villa, likewise loans at Hull City and Reading, but he’ll always be indebted to the Albion for the education he received in his formative years.
“I was really blessed the coaches I had at Brighton,” he recalls. “Ian Chapman was our manager from 14 to 16 and taught us some great lessons; Vic Bragg was a great coach and he set really high standards. But the two main driving forces for me were Martin Hinshelwood and Dean Wilkins.
“What they did for Brighton’s youth set-up on such a tight budget was just remarkable. They got so many players through to the first team. Those were the lads that kept the club going when we were in such dire financial straits – lads that were making over 100 appearances before they reached the age of 23, 24, which is unheard of these days. Dean was so forward-thinking and modern in his approach, we all followed him when he got the first-team job. It was gutting for us when he lost his job [at the end of that season].”
Elphick’s own association with the Seagulls came to an end in August 2012 in frustrating circumstances. An Achilles injury ruled him out of the club’s debut season at the Amex and with his chances of first-team football limited upon his return, he headed down the coast, albeit a heavy heart.
“I suffered a bad injury on the final day of the promotion season,” he recalls. “It was a nothing game at Notts County and we already had the league wrapped up. It was a devastating injury as I was the first player to be signed into the new stadium and it never happened for me.
“It was gutting to see the players walking out at the Amex while I was on crutches and although I could have stayed at the club when I got fit again, I knew my football would be limited, so it was best for both parties that I moved on.
“It was a hard decision to make as Brighton was my club but in hindsight it proved to be the correct decision. I’ll always have regret not running out at the Amex in blue and white, but I did get to play there for Bournemouth which was a bit of a surreal experience because a lot of my family and friends were there supporting the Albion!
“It will always be a club close to my heart though and of course I always look out for their results. It’s been an amazing journey for the club and to say I played a small part in that, it really means a lot to me.”