On the face of it, the 2008/09 season, with a 16th place finish in League One, appears to be a pretty nondescript one. However, scratch below the surface and you will find an altogether different story.
A 3-2 home defeat to Swindon Town on 11th April left Albion facing the real prospect of relegation to the basement division, with the Seagulls having won just two of 11 league games.
A month earlier Russell Slade had been appointed manager until the end of the season, following the departure of Micky Adams, and with the side lying in 22nd place. Having finished seventh the previous season, El-Abd feels a change in personnel that summer could have contributed to the slide down the table.
“Dean Wilkins had already brought through a number of youth-team players into the side, and we’d done really well, just missing out on the play-offs, but then the club made a change and brought Micky back,” recalls the former trainee.
“Don’t get me wrong, Micky is a club legend and an excellent manager but it was a different type of squad to the one which he’d had in his first spell. Those big characters were no longer about and while this team was maybe better technically it wasn’t as good at digging and fighting, the style Mick got success with. Saying that a manager can only do so much...”
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While Manchester City were beaten in the League Cup, creating shock headlines, Adams’ tenure didn’t last long and he departed in late January after a Football League Trophy defeat to Luton Town. Slade arrived following a spell at fellow strugglers Yeovil and there was more than a degree scepticism among the fans, with the Swindon defeat the sixth of nine games in charge.
“Russell was different; he was big on transitions, on the distances between the midfield and the defence, a clever guy,” Adam reveals. “We’d also go for a warm-up at 2.20 and then at 2.40 we’d come in and he’d only start going through the set pieces then. The lads would question why we’d get warmed up and then have to sit down for 15 minutes, but that was his way and it worked.”
That Withdean defeat to the Robins proved to be a seminal moment; a 1-0 win at Colchester, thanks to a goal from new-boy Lloyd Owusu – the first of six goals in a seven-game purple patch for the striker – lifted the side off the canvas, while further wins against Oldham [3-1] and Bristol Rovers [1-2] gave Albion a puncher’s chance of staying up.
A hard-fought 2-2 draw at Huddersfield extended the unbeaten run while a 1-0 win against Stockport County on the final day, thanks to a solitary Nicky Forster strike, confirmed the Seagulls’ status. Thirteen points from a possible 15 completed the great escape and the scenes will long live in the memory of every Albion fan present at Withdean.
“It was an amazing day. Everyone was full of nerves beforehand but Fozzie [Forster] followed up a Gary Dicker shot and that was enough. The scenes at Withdean were fantastic and I remember the night out afterwards; we celebrated in Hove and Russell turned up too. It was a great night.”
In hindsight, Slade played a huge part in shaping the modern history of the Seagulls; if Albion had gone down to League Two, how long would it have taken to come back? Tony Bloom took over during the summer, Gus Poyet was appointed that November and the rest is history. El-Abd maintained his place to experience the good times that followed but is mindful of Slade’s impact that spring.
“It was a sliding doors moment for the club. It was massive,” he states. “Gus wouldn’t have come in if we’d been in League Two and how long would it have taken to get back up with the stadium on the horizon? We should never underestimate what Russell did.”
As Albion have continued their journey to the Premier League, El-Abd, aged 35, is heading towards the end of his playing career having spent the current season at Stevenage. Whether he continues playing once the coronavirus pandemic comes to an end remains to be seen, but having passed his A Licence last year, a coaching career is a distinct possibility.
“I coach Whitehawk’s under-18s every now and then, and when I come off the training pitch I get such a buzz so coaching is definitely the route I want to go down.
“I love football and I’m analysing games all the time on TV. To be able to put sessions on for players on a Monday and Tuesday and see that come to fruition at the weekend would give me a bigger buzz than I’ve had as a player.
“I’ve also done a PFA course in business management, marketing and media, and I’m also doing a personal trainer course, which are all good strings to the bow, but coaching is where I want to be.
“I’d love that to be back at Brighton one day in the academy, that’s my dream. It’s my hometown club and a club that will always mean so much to me."