Through the winding cobbled alleys. Past the idyllic Victorian curvature, of the pier front, whose grace and charisma reach out beyond the water’s edge. Lewis Dunk sets himself. Rising and crashing, stretching and diverting, the coursing symmetry of boot hitting ball and wave hitting wood. So simple, so swift and yet its impression so unmistakable.
“It’s like those sticks of rocks. Bite one all the way down, you’ll still read Brighton. That’s human nature.”
And that could be the very thing to guide this fanciful seaside city to Premier League safety. Brighton’s very own rock at the heart of the defence.
Dunk’s rather elaborately described diversion could prove to be as symbolic as the sentence suggests. With the game finely poised at 0-0, and the clock ticking over into added time, the ball broke to Ruben Loftus-Cheek inside the area. The Chelsea loanee opened up his foot and slammed the ball towards the bottom corner. Only for Dunk, positioned metres away from the goal line, to sweep it away from danger.
The chorus of groans emanating from the Fulham bench was quickly countenanced by a collective sigh from those in blue. Both sides were keenly aware of the stakes. Had Dunk not been there to clear the ball, Fulham would likely have moved to within two points of Brighton, whilst still holding a game in hand. As things stand, however, The Seagulls have a momentary respite.
“They came in by train from Victoria every five minutes, rocked down Queen’s Road…stepped off in bewildered multitudes.”
The journey from London to Brighton is just under an hour and is a path well-travelled. Trains packed to the rafters with the smoky stench of the capital. A deluge of half-pissed passengers piling into the bars and beaches of Brighton. The weekend is for football. And as the sun breaks on to the backs of the masses a surge of optimism wafts its way across the seafront.
Perhaps the most anticipated away day in the English footballing calendar. Chelsea, Charlton, and Crystal Palace have all made their way down to the coast over the years. Across three divisions, Brighton have welcomed clubs from the capital. Change in this time is inevitable, but one constant remains and that’s Dunk.
The 29-year-old has been with Brighton his whole career. An 11-year stay that’s seen him nurtured from adolescence through to adulthood. His journey is seemingly interwoven with the city of his birth. Football is forged not only in formations but in something far stronger and immeasurable. Feeling.
Dunk’s relationship with Brighton is intrinsic and binds the fabric of the club together. His relationship with London is perhaps less obvious. But when it comes to crossing that white line, Dunk’s greatest contributions this season have come at the expense of the capital’s clubs.
The clearance, the clean sheet and the consolation of Wednesday’s draw with Fulham. Bested only by the cathartic celebrations of Dunk’s hooked finish East of the Thames, as Brighton took the lead against a West Ham side chasing Europe. In a game, they’d ultimately draw, it was Dunk who had once again played a decisive role in Brighton’s relegation dogfight.
Situated on the outskirts of Brighton’s city centre is the greyhound track. It’s a sport where concentration, conformity and a lust for the chase are of paramount importance. The trainer and the trainee’s relationship are symbiotic. The rules and patterns of play are simple but must be adhered to. Eradicate distractions and streamline the target. Sound familiar?
Much like the romanticists of the game, Dunk has bought into Graham Potter’s vision. He has become the reliable stalwart of Brighton’s often misfiring squad, as he has done under every manager. The likes of Pascal Groß and Tariq Lamptey have shone at points during Brighton’s three-year stint in the topflight. But ultimately Dunk, the captain, has steered the Seasiders to safety on every occasion.
Potter has recruited well defensively, and the additions of Dan Burn and Adam Webster have shouldered the burden. Whilst Ben White, who will likely spark the interest of England’s top clubs in the summer, is a ready-made replacement for Dunk. But for all their talent, they lack the one thing that keeps Dunk central to Potter’s plans. Experience of navigating a relegation battle.
Last season, Brighton finished comfortably clear of the drop, with a seven-point margin between them and 18th-placed Bournemouth. The season prior, however, the Seagulls were within just two points of Cardiff. Both White and Webster had yet to experience Premier League football, whilst Burn spent the season on loan at Championship Wigan Athletic. The only survivor from that season was Dunk.
Potter is certainly trying to build his side in the image of something more progressive than has gone before. But where Dunk may slowly be transitioned out of the side in the future, Potter is acutely aware of the value he holds presently. The former Swansea boss knows that his career up to now has been blighted by the prioritisation of romanticism over results. And appreciates that if he wants to survive beyond this season, he needs to make use of Dunk’s leadership, determination and experience.
By: Sam Tabuteau
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / John Sibley – PA Images