Brighton & Hove Albion under-23s' coach Simon Rusk reflects on an outstanding campaign which saw them finish third and narrowly miss out on the Premier League 2 Division 1 title.
How did you prepare the players for the challenge of playing in Premier League 2 Division 1 for the first time?
After promotion and a really successful end to last season, it was about keeping the momentum going. We knew we were going to have some tough games, and the start of the season was particularly tough, with Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham and Manchester City to play in our first four games. The key was to look forward to it, work as hard as possible, be as organised as we could and obviously maintain a belief that we could go into the games and get something out of them. It was nice to see the fixture list come through – we were up against some of the biggest sides in the world, in terms of youth football. We didn’t want to change too many of our principles; we wanted to be a hard team to beat and very hard-working, and then see where those principles and values took us.
Were there any results in particular that stuck out during the season?
Going to the Emirates and getting a positive result [1-1], showing the character to come back and scoring late, that was a good night for us. At the start of the season we asked the players what they wanted to look like – they wanted to be a hard team to beat and resilient, and obviously that allows their quality to come out into the games. The 5-0 victory over Manchester City was also a great result and the players continued to commit 100 per cent with their values over the course of the season.
How did you cope with the busy fixture schedule?
The different types of competitions we have are brilliant in terms of exposing the players to different challenges. You’ve got the robustness of the Checkatrade Trophy – there’s a physical element in those games that our players don’t experience week in, week out. You’ve then got the Premier League International Cup games against the likes of Benfica and Bayern Munich – they’re very tactical games. You then switch back to your games programme in your own league, so it’s really challenging for the players and us as a group of staff. To go to MK Dons [in the Checkatrade Trophy], get a win and not qualify was obviously disappointing for us. We also had a very good away performance against a strong Peterborough side in the competition and I was really pleased with the performance levels and also the Premier League Cup – we were only ten minutes away from getting a point against Bayern Munich, which would of seen us qualify.
When did you realise the team were in the thick of a title challenge?
It wasn’t one of the targets at the start of the season. It was an incredible season, but securing our status in the division was the first thing we wanted to do. Of course everything is driven towards performing well in the under-23 group and individually improving players, but obviously within that you’ve got to learn to be part of a team, have a target and work towards it. It was one game at a time, until we got to the point with five games to go and we had a chance of winning the league. We gave everything we had to try and win it, but unfortunately just fell short. We had a big transition in the summer and at Christmas with players going out on loan and players leaving, moving on to the next step of their careers, but we managed to maintain the performance levels and still pick up results along the way. When we reflect on it, I think it’s been a brilliant season for us.
And finally, just a word on the under-23 staff…
We have incredibly hard-working staff and I know the players really appreciate all the effort they give. Liam [Rosenior] has transitioned into a coaching career from a playing career, which isn’t an easy thing to do. Shannon [Ruth] has a multitude of different skill sets, he’s a goalkeeping coach but also doubles up as the assistant manager. Another positive for the academy is Sam Hudson going up to the first team and Jack [Pugh] has come up from the under-18s – he’s continued that level of expertise. There’s also Will Abbott and the rest of his strength and conditioning team, and Michaela [Barnett], who is incredibly hard-working and dedicated. I know the players really appreciate the effort that the staff put into their careers.