Brighton & Hove Albion's progress in 2018 has been astounding - Scott McCarthy

Cast your mind back to the 20th day of 2018. The post-Christmas diet that involved eating one leaf of lettuce a day was still intact. That newly purchased gym membership card hadn't been discarded down the back of the sofa. You might have even made it 20 days into Dry January.

Action from Brightons match with Chelsea on Sunday. Picture by PW Sporting Photography
Action from Brightons match with Chelsea on Sunday. Picture by PW Sporting Photography

If you had, then it was probably at that point Dry January ended. For on January 20th 2018, Chelsea came to Sussex and destroyed Brighton and Hove Albion 4-0. It was enough to convince even the strongest willed dryathlete to pay £5 for a warm pint of Fosters on the concourses of the Amex afterwards.

Antonio Conte’s Blues weren’t playing particularly well at the time, with the seeds being planted for what would turn out to be a pretty acrimonious departure for the Italian in the summer. Yet they tore the Albion apart on that Saturday lunchtime, led by an irresistible display by Eden Hazard.

Sign up to our Brighton and Hove Albion FC newsletter

Two up inside of six minutes, Brighton huffed and puffed but in terms of quality, they couldn’t lay a glove on the Blues. It was a footballing lesson. There wasn’t so much a gulf in class between the two sides as a distance greater than that between the Sun and Saturn.

Now cast your mind back to Sunday. You might have had a large doner meat and chips that evening, promising to get back on the diet once 2019 is here. Who needs to go to a gym for a workout when you can perform bicep curls lifting a pint to your lips? And as for going a month without alcohol? Please!

Many of us won’t have made any progress over the course of 2018. I know I haven’t. The same can’t be said of the Albion. On December 16th 2018, Chelsea were again the visitors to the Amex, this time with Maurizio Sarri at the helm and this time they were in genuine title contention rather than simply battling to scrape into the top five. They’d just beaten Pep Guardiola’s all-conquering Manchester City with the same line-up that took to the field at the Amex.

Eleven months on from January’s humbling experience, it was a different story. A better Chelsea side than that which we’d faced last time were lucky to head back to Stamford Bridge with all three points, and they knew it.

They were hanging on desperately at the end as evidenced by Kepa Arrizabalaga being booked for time wasting and Marcos Alonso resorting to a cynical last man pull back on Solly March to prevent the winger having a clear run at goal.

From being destroyed by Chelsea to them having to rely on dirty tricks and foul play to hang onto a 2-1 win inside of a year. The progress Brighton have made over 2018 is astounding. That’s what made some of the negative comments afterwards all the more surprising.

Here we were having just gone toe-to-toe with one of the finest teams in England, possibly Europe, and we’d matched them without actually playing anywhere near as well as we could.

If the Albion had given the sort of disciplined display they normally do, if Dale Stephens hadn’t had a pass completion percentage lower than my chances of marrying Jennifer Lawrence, if Lewis Dunk’s injury-time header dropped an inch the other way or if Alonso hadn’t produced a textbook Greco-Roman wrestling move to halt March’s run on goal, we could quite easily have got a result off Chelsea. Chelsea!

The Albion were never going to come straight into the Premier League and start tearing up trees. It wouldn’t be the Tony Bloom way, nor the Chris Hughton way. It’s evolution, not revolution and at times it might be frustrating, but the progress the club is making is clear.

You just need to remember January 20th to see it.