"When I first arrived there was a definitely a tension that had sunk in,” Melissa Phillips tells Mirror Football. "I guess it was natural to feel that upon being bottom of the league. We had been in the relegation battle, but this was the first time we were last."
It was April 7. Brighton were occupying the sole relegation spot, rock bottom of the WSL. With relegation rivals Leicester and Spurs having found a degree of form after managerial changes, things were looking bleak on the south coast. The time for excuses had ran out, they simply needed points on the board to maintain top flight status.
Only a few months earlier, new manager Phillips had surprisingly left London City Lionesses' promotion chase to become assistant coach at NWSL side Angel City, who are based in LA and co-owned by Hollywood star Natalie Portman. Now she was tasked with keeping Brighton in the top flight. The new Seagulls' boss hadn't even completed the move out of London by the time she was returning to the airport for a flight back.
"I knew I wanted to be back in England at some point, I just didn't imagine it would be so quick," revealed Phillips. "Going out to Angel City was about getting another perspective on the top level and gain experience from other coaches. There are some brilliant women leaders I wanted to learn from.
"I felt I couldn't say no (to Angel City) but if there was any job outside of the top four in the WSL that I always wanted, it was Brighton. From the outside looking in, it seemed a really exciting club. I've got history with this team, my partner worked here years ago when the men's team were in League One."
By the time Phillips arrived, Brighton had already been through three managers this season. Hope Powell started the season, her sixth year in charge, but was told her services were no longer needed after receiving an 8-0 thrashing against Spurs. Interim boss Amy Merricks restored a sense of calm before the WSL winter break, when Jens Scheuer was appointed.
There were high hopes for the former Bayern Munich boss, but a terrible 3-0 defeat in his first game at Leicester City proved a sign of things to come. The German lasted only six games, before Merricks again took the reigns temporarily.
But defeats kept coming and Leicester's revival under Willie Kirk meant desperation was creeping in. Enter Phillips. She couldn't make any signings or additions to the squad, so time working with the players on training pitch would be critical.
"Bottom of the league, was not a point the players had been in much over the season," said Phillips. "I think at that time it really sunk in amongst the players that we had to roll-up our sleeves and really get stuck in as a group.
“We made some tactical changes and looked at where we could press higher up the field and not just sit in and play a low-block. That was the big difference between the Manchester United game in the league (4-0 defeat) and the cup (3-2 loss) We played a 5-4-1 in the league and didn’t get anywhere, so we went 4-4-2 in the cup tie, made some adjustments to let us press centre-backs higher up the field.
"I think that made us far more competitive in every game. But the bigger shift that was made came in our mindset. As a staff we knew we had to bring some optimism and energy into the group. I adjusted the day-to-day processes of how we operate, we didn't set targets for certain games. That is how the mindset shifted from, 'we need to just stay in the league' to - 'we need to thrive in all the remaining fixtures.'"
It wasn't as if Brighton didn't have the ability. Winger Katie Robinson has proven one of the breakout stars of the season and should go to the World Cup with England. Lee Geum-min has shown in flashes why Man City first brought her to England. And new signing Elisabeth Terland and veteran Danielle Carter know where the goal is.
But the defence had leaked goals all season and continued to provide a major problem. Yet the Seagulls' mindset shift was evident early on. Everton were seen off in a five-goal thriller at Broadfield, meaning a double header against London sides Tottenham and West Ham would prove season-defining.
"A big focus ahead of the Spurs game was to value our work with the ball," added Phillips. "We knew they weren't going to high press us, so we had a chance to build our in-possession identity. We felt we had performed so well in the cup game, because there was no (relegation) pressure on that game.
"We wanted to take the pressure off the players, so that they played with freedom on the pitch. We didn't put any more pressure on one result over another. So it wasn't like we felt we had to beat to Tottenham, we just wanted to managed the ball and dominate them.
"In the end we should have got all three points (the game ended 2-2) but considering the result between the two sides the last time the teams met, that was a huge step in the right direction. I wanted to set a high performance culture and felt at that point we were heading towards it."
When Kayleigh Green struck a winner the following week in a tight 1-0 win over the Hammers, Phillips and Brighton were on their way to another year of top flight football. A tight loss at Everton, in a game where they were arguably much the better team proved inconsequential. Reading's defeat at Spurs confirmed they were safe, remarkably,with a game to spare.
You'd be forgiven for thinking Phillips will be ready to enjoy a decent holiday after such a whirlwind season. But as she herself insists, "summer is where you get your business done." Time will be taken to reflect and recharge, but Phillips' burning ambition is to improve the squad and continue the transformation.
As shown with the men's teams remarkable season, Brighton are now known around Europe as an extremely well-run club, with shrewd recruitment at the heart of the operation. Phillips believes if the women's team can tap into that this summer, there is no reason to think they should be fighting relegation again in 12 months' time.
"For next season we want a club best finish," she added. "We have to continue to score goals, but become a lot more solid out of possession. If we can do that we will continue to climb the table. That is the goal, but again I don't put any targets on points or position. The leadership of the board and how interested they are in the women's team has exceeded my expectations, so we have to match that.
"There is so much support, from Paul Barber our CEO, Michelle (Walder) our women's chair, (owner) Tony Bloom as well, I've had loads of interactions with him. That senior leadership is so invested in our team. They know it will be a longer project to get us in the top four, which is where we want to be competing as a club.
"We want to be far more competitive going into next season. We just need to get the recruitment right and get those top quality professionals to help push us along. The facilities we have are unbelievable, I want our players to come back and feel a noticeable shift in professionalism and standards that they will be held to. I think if we can also bring in a bit of quality, they will thrive in that environment.
"But I'm not naive. You can't go from the bottom to the top of the mountain in one step, you have to chip away at it. That is what we will do."
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