One player who can count himself unfortunate not to feature in the latter-stage shake-up of Albion’s World Cup of Goals is striker Craig Mackail-Smith.
Arriving from Peterborough United ahead of the club’s first season at the Amex Stadium, ‘Macca’ netted 24 goals in his four-year stay – yet it was an outstanding brace at Burnley in September 2012 for which he is most fondly remembered.
His early opener was impressive enough, a first-time effort from the edge of the box that flew past Clarets keeper Lee Grant, yet his all-important second, a stunning overhead kick, drew applause from all four corners of Turf Moor and made national headlines.
“There wasn’t long left, maybe ten minutes or so, when Bruno’s whipped a ball into the box from a short corner,” he recalls. “It wasn’t the best of crosses as it was drifting away from me, so trying the overhead kick was the only option. The connection felt really sweet and I knew it was heading in the right direction.
“As I’ve glanced round, the ball’s already in the back of the net. I hadn’t scored a goal like that in my career. I’d tried it in training and done it as a kid, but to do it in a game made it the best goal I scored for the club and up there with the top three in my career.
“I remember we were frustrated at letting Burnley back into the game because we’d controlled it up to that point and had other chances to extend our lead. To score gave us that bit of breathing space [at 2-1] but then Gordon [Greer] scored late on and we knew then we’d wrapped the game up. We all came off the pitch absolutely buzzing.”
Macca was, inevitably, the centre of attention among the press corps after the game with the general consensus his opening goal was another worthy contender for Goal of the Day in the Championship.
“Yeah, that wasn’t a bad goal either,” he smiles of his 18th minute opener. “It started with a quick free-kick on the halfway line from Gary Dicker. The ball was then swung in from the left by Liam Bridcutt, I think, and GG has got the knock-down.
“I’ve picked up the ball on the edge of the ‘D’, had one touch and then put my foot through it. I got a sweet connection and as I’ve caught it early, I think it surprised the keeper. It was a lovely feeling to see it hit the back of the net. I’d scored twice against Barnsley the previous week at the Amex, so the confidence was up. I was on a bit of a roll.”
Indeed, those back-to-back doubles were followed by goals in the wins against Sheffield Wednesday and Watford, making it six goals from four successive games. A 2-1 win at Millwall in the next fixture gave Albion a two-point cushion at the top of the table but the success came as no surprise to Mackail-Smith.
“We had brought in more quality that summer, the likes of Bruno, Wayne Bridge, Dean Hammond, David Lopez, Andrea Orlandi, Matty Upson and Leo Ulloa,” he points out. “We had a really good team, a really good squad and in all honesty we were very disappointed to miss out on automatic promotion come the end of the season. We felt we had the players to do it and players who would have gone on to help us in the Premier League.
“We had a bit of a wobble around Christmas and ended the season four points off second place, but we still felt confident heading into the play-offs as our form at that time was really good.”
Albion ended their league campaign with three successive wins, against Blackpool, Leeds and Wolves, so confidence was high ahead of the double-header against Crystal Palace. The rest, as they say, is history and it came as a double blow for Macca, who had already been ruled out of action with a serious Achilles injury that would cost him 13 months of his career.
A Sliding Doors moment for Mackail-Smith, maybe, who would make fleeting appearances towards the end of the following campaign and score just one more Championship goal before his departure to Luton Town in the summer of 2015. Conversely, his strike partner at Burnley – Ashley Barnes – has famously gone on to play for the Lancashire club and shine in the Premier League.
“That’s the fragility of football, it’s all about fine margins,” Macca adds. “Your career path can change with one bad injury, but you take it on the chin and move on. It would have been a dream for me to play Premier League football with Brighton, given where I’d come from [Craig started in non-league] but it wasn’t meant to be.
“I’m over the moon for Ash though. I always enjoyed playing alongside him and it was a sad day when he left us for Burnley. I think he is a player who is well suited to the way they play. He’s hard-working, he puts himself about a bit, he can hold the ball up and he has an eye for a goal. He’s got his head down since he’s been there, he’s continued to work hard and he’s taken his chance.”
Today, Craig hopes to see out the season with League Two strugglers Stevenage, having also spent time with Wycombe, but he still keeps one eye on the Albion.
“I’m proud to have played for Brighton and I look back on my time there with fond memories. I’ll share a text with Bruno from time to time and [former kit man] Ken Barnard drops me a line if I’ve scored.
“But you know what it’s like with football – you move on, you start over again with a new set of team-mates and staff, and obviously there’s a different squad of players at Brighton now. I’m not the best at keeping in contact, I have to admit, but I always look out for the club’s results and will continue to do so.”