Joel Veltman’s strong performance in the 2021-22 campaign gained him a large number of votes for the fans’ player of the season award, although not quite enough to deny Marc Cucurella the trophy. The Dutchman does not have the eye-catching locks of the Catalan defender, nor does he make as many raids down the wing as Tariq Lamptey.
It would be fair to say that the Netherlands defender has flown under the radar as far as the national media are concerned, but his calm efficiency, expert reading of the game and determined defending – witness his epic final-day duel with West Ham’s Michail Antonio in Albion’s 3-1 win - have not gone unnoticed among Albion fans. Most would regard the £900,000 the club paid to Ajax as the footballing bargain of the century.
Here we salute five more relatively unsung Albion heroes appreciated by the fans but whose fame, in most cases, rarely spread beyond Sussex.
Gerry Fell 1974-77, 91 games 20 goals
Fell was, in some ways, a typical Peter Taylor signing. Like Peter Ward at the Albion and Garry Birtles at Nottingham Forest, he was acquired for next to nothing from a non-league club in the East Midlands and gave great value. His blend of athleticism and power as a winger or striker helped transform the team of the mid-1970s from strugglers to promotion contenders.
Born in Newark, Fell was spotted playing for Stamford and signed by Long Eaton United, who also include Birtles among their graduates. Former Long Eaton manager Brian Daykin, Taylor’s assistant, tipped him off and Fell moved south in October 1974. He had to wait for his debut until the following January, but kept his place, scoring five times as the team moved steadily away from the foot of the old third division.
1975-76 was arguably Fell’s best season, alternating between the No.7 and No.10 shirts and making contests with full-backs look like extreme mismatches in 6-0 demolitions of Chester City and Colchester United, scoring twice in each. He remained in favour when Alan Mullery took over from Taylor at the end of the season, his contributions to promotion in 1977 including a strike in a 3-1 win against eventual champions Mansfield Town and the only goal of a jittery late-season 1-0 Goldstone victory over a highly-defensive Port Vale.
He joined Southend United in November 1977 as part of the deal that brought Paul Clark to the Goldstone, and later played for Torquay United and York City. But he was not finished with Sussex football and played for Whitehawk for six years, captaining them to the County League title in 1984.
Footage of his late equaliser off the bench for the Hawks in an FA Cup tie away to Bognor Regis Town exists on YouTube, with a slow-motion version of his distinctive run on view as he jogs back after netting with a powerfully-struck shot following a free kick – his only touch of the afternoon. The first Whitehawk goal in the 2-2 draw was scored by Mark Dunk, whose son Lewis went on to have a fairly decent football career of his own.
Steve Gatting 1981-91, 369 games, 21 goals
Steve Gatting is seldom mentioned among the lists of great Albion defenders, overshadowed by the likes of Steve Foster, Mark Lawrenson and Gary Stevens, He was not even the most famous sportsman in his own family, being the brother of England cricket captain Mike. But for a decade he was a dependable part of the Albion rear-guard.
Strangely, when Mike Bailey signed Gatting from Arsenal for £200,000 in September 1981, he was not even considered a defender. He had been a midfield player for most of his career at Highbury, but when a late injury ruled Stevens out of Gatting’s first match in blue and white, away to Everton, Bailey slotted him in at the back alongside Foster.
Despite a lack of height or experience in the role, he excelled in a 1-1 draw. So impressive was his performance that Stevens could not get back into his favoured central defensive role as Albion spent much of the campaign in the top half of the old First Division, eventually ending up 13th – their highest finish until this year.
When Jimmy Melia took over the following season, he restored Stevens to the centre of defence, with the left-sided Gatting moving to left back. Again, he took to a new position like a duck to water, but Foster’s suspension for the FA Cup Final brought him back into the middle. However, in the replay Melia had Foster available again and right-back Chris Ramsey injured. Controversially he picked Gatting – rather than the right-footed Stevens – at right-back and the 4-0 defeat proved the error of his ways.
Stevens was sold to Tottenham Hotspur and Gatting resumed his role in the centre for the newly-relegated Albion. He was always a seven out of ten or better alongside Foster, Eric Young, Gary O’Reilly, Doug Rougvie, Larry May or Nicky Bissett, returning to left back as Barry Lloyd’s team made the 1991 play-offs. His last game was the 1991 Wembley play-off final defeat by Notts County.
Ashley Barnes 2010-14, 162 games, 47 goals.
Bath-born Barnes is an exception in this group in that he was underrated by Albion fans more than by others. Some recognised his hard-working qualities, but others never believed he was good enough. Fortunately for the player, Burnley manager Sean Dyche was in the former camp, and made Barnes one of the mainstays of his team after taking him to Turf Moor in January 2014.
Barnes had failed to establish himself at a series of clubs, mostly in the West Country, before joining the Albion on loan from Plymouth Argyle in 2010. But Gus Poyet saw enough in him to make his signing permanent and he was a key player in the 2010-11 League One Championship side, finishing second-top scorer, with 20 goals, behind Glenn Murray and heading the goal against Dagenham and Redbridge that clinched promotion.
Barnes scored the first goal in the friendly against Tottenham that marked the official opening of the Amex, but he enjoyed mixed fortunes in the Championship. An unlucky dismissal in a match against Burnley and a more controversial one for tripping the referee in a game at Bolton cost him playing time. And he found himself moved to a role on the left, reducing his goalscoring opportunities. Yet he was within inches of glory in the 2013 play-off semi-final second leg against Crystal Palace as he saw a shot tipped onto the crossbar and then a header cleared off the goal-line.
He helped Burnley to two promotions into the Premier League and even to the Europa League, scoring his only goal in Europe against Aberdeen.
Gerry Ryan 1978-86 199 games, 39 goals.
Irishman Ryan was a member of the club’s first top-flight squad and even scored one of the goals on that memorable day in Newcastle when promotion to the old First Division was secured. He seldom attracted the headlines or attention lavished on Peter Ward, Michael Robinson or Jimmy Case, but he was a versatile attacker who arrived at the Goldstone as an out-and-out winger but also appeared as a central striker to great effect. Just ask Liverpool, against whom he scored as the Seagulls knocked the Reds out of the FA Cup in successive seasons. He even played as an emergency right-back in the FA Cup final, coming on as substitute for the injured Chris Ramsey.
His first love was hurling, at which he represented both Dublin and Ireland as a schoolboy. But he took to football quickly and Derby County brought him to England from Bohemians in 1977. Alan Mullery signed him for the Albion a year later, and he was an instant hit against second division defences.
Life in the top division was understandably more challenging and he was often seen in the number 12 shirt. His 56 appearances off the bench were then an Albion record. But he started the 1-0 victory away to European Champions Nottingham Forest that was the turning point in the club’s season, his mis-hit shot as he fell in the City Ground mud creeping past Peter Shilton to seal the three points. And his inspired dribble from his own half to score the fourth goal in the 4-1 win against Manchester City at the Goldstone lives in the memory of everyone who witnessed it.
His playing career was ended by a challenge from Crystal Palace defender Henry Hughton – brother of promotion-winning Albion manager Chris – at Selhurst Park in 1986. But Ryan was not finished with the club, later becoming assistant manager to his former Ireland teammate Liam Brady as well a popular local publican.
Tomer Hemed 2015-19 108 games, 33 goals
A £1m signing from Almeria, Hemed arrived with a reputation as a –run-through-brick-walls centre-forward, but he was also the sort of nerveless taker of penalties that the Albion have so often lacked. Although he never enjoyed the profile of strike partners Bobby Zamora and Glenn Murray, he played a key role in Albion’s promotion to the Premier League in 2017 and helped Chris Hughton’s side establish itself there, but a piece of cruel luck knocked him out of the team at a crucial moment.
An Israel teammate and close friend of midfielder Beram Kayal, he settled in quickly at the Amex and worked well with Sam Baldock and, later, Murray. Arriving on 24 June 2015, Hemed scored his first goal for the Seagulls from the penalty spot late in a 2-1 win at Fulham. His 17 goals that season made him top scorer, and he added 13 more in all competitions in the following campaign as Chris Hughton’s side earned promotion to the Premier League. Among the highlights were a thunderously-struck winner against Cardiff and the last-gasp leveller in a 3-3 draw at Brentford. But there were also key assists for Murray against QPR and Wigan.
When Hughton signed Pascal Gross to play as a No.10 behind a lone striker, most assumed that striker would be Murray but it was Hemed who started the opening Premier League game at home to Manchester City. He contributed a goal and an assist to Albion’s first victory, 3-1 at home to West Bromwich Albion, and he scored the only goal of their second, at home to Newcastle.
But that was where things started to go wrong. The FA gave him a three-match ban for what they saw as a stamp on DeAndre Yedlin, which referee Andre Marriner deemed unworthy of sanction, and during his absence Murray scored twice in a 3-0 win at West Ham.
Although Hemed was offered a contract extension, he started only four more league games and did not score another Albion goal. He went on loan to QPR and then to Charlton on a free transfer. He is now with Western Sydney.