England international Wayne Bridge learned his poker skills at Brighton

In fun debates over people’s all time top Albion XI, few would argue the left back spot would belong to Wayne Bridge.

The former England international played 37 games for the Seagulls in the 2012-13 season and showed he was different class to players who’d previously filled that position.

Gus Poyet gave him the chance to play when Manchester City could no longer find a starting place for him, even though they were reportedly paying him £90,000 a week.

It was another former Brighton manager who takes the credit for discovering Bridge and setting him on the path to stardom. That was Micky Adams, a decent left back himself, who in 1994 spotted Bridge playing for Oliver’s Battery, a small parish near Winchester, and recommended him to Adams’ old club, Southampton.

Born in Southampton on 5 August 1980, Bridge came through the famed academy at Saints where former Albion right back Stewart Henderson was one of the coaches producing a conveyor belt of stars, including Chris Baird, Gareth Bale, Theo Walcott and Adam Lallana.

Bridge made his reserve team debut for Saints in August 1997, turned professional five months later, and made his first team debut on the opening day of the 1998-99 season. Dave Jones, the manager at the time, converted him from a winger into a full back and, two seasons later, he was Southampton’s player of the year.

Remarkably he played 113 consecutive games between March 2000 and January 2003, and at the end of that season played for Saints in the FA Cup Final at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, which they lost to Arsenal.

Just as an aside, I went to that game with my old friend @andrewsetten hobnobbing it in the VIP area with the FA bigwigs and various star players of yesteryear. One abiding memory was seeing that old warhorse of a former England centre half, ex-Saints stopper Dave Watson, queuing up with other lesser lights, including me, to get Trevor Brooking’s autograph for his son!

Four years later, Bridge did collect a winners’ medal as part of the Chelsea side who beat Manchester United 1-0 in the first Cup Final back at the rebuilt Wembley Stadium, and a League Cup winners’ medal in a 2-1 win over Arsenal.

Bridge had joined Chelsea for £7million at the end of 2003. In Chelsea’s Premier League-winning 2005-06 season, Spaniard Asier del Horno was the first choice left back and Bridge was loaned out to Fulham.

When Chelsea brought in Ashley Cole for the 2006-07 season, he was understandably first choice but Bridge got his chance to get games under his belt when Cole was injured.

His Stamford Bridge career came to an end after six years, largely to do with off-field matters luridly reported at the time, allegedly involving his former girlfriend and Chelsea captain John Terry.

On the pitch, it was more to do with Cole being the established first team choice at left back.

Although generally also considered as a deputy for Cole at international level, Bridge nevertheless earned 36 caps for his country.

Sven-Göran Eriksson gave him his first cap against the Netherlands in February 2002 and he was part of the set-up on and off for seven years, announcing his retirement following the allegations involving the then England captain Terry.

It was Mark Hughes who took Bridge to Manchester City in 2009 for a reported £12m fee but, only a year later, with Roberto Mancini having taken over in the manager’s chair, he preferred Aleksandar Kolorov or Gael Clichy at left back, and Bridge was once again on the fringes.

He went to West Ham for half a season, playing 18 games for them in 2011, and the following season had a similar length spell at Sunderland.

Then, to the delight of Brighton manager Gus Poyet and the Brighton faithful, somehow or another a deal was worked out to bring Bridge to Brighton for the 2012-13 season.

At the time, Poyet told the club website: “It’s difficult to say how happy I am because it’s not easy to get top-class players.

“I’m absolutely delighted to have Wayne with us. He’s been one of the top three left-backs in this country for many years.

“There were a lot of things that had to come together to make it happen. Firstly, David Platt has been great at Manchester City, and then Wayne and his agent have helped a lot too.

“It was not an easy one to secure, but this is what we want at this club. He’s a quality player with lots of international experience.”

During his season with Brighton he made his 400th club career appearance. It came in the 2-2 draw away to Birmingham in January 2013 and he celebrated with a great cross for David López to volley past on-loan goalkeeper Jack Butland to put the Seagulls 2-1 up.

After Bridge returned to the side following an absence with a calf injury, and kept Palace widemen Wilfried Zaha and Yannick Bolasie quiet in the Albion’s 3-0 home win, Poyet was in typically ebullient form when he told the Argus: “Sometimes I need people to stop me, calm down, relax and look back three years ago at where we were, the kind of football we were playing, the players who were at this football club and that are here now.

“If, three-and-a-half years ago you had said to me Wayne Bridge was going to be playing for Brighton I’d have said, ‘yeah funny’, but he is.”

It’s recent enough history for everyone to remember the painful play-off finish to that season, ending too Poyet’s time as manager. Nevertheless, Bridge told The Independent on 19 May 2013: “Brighton have been great to me. I just want to say a big thank you to the chairman and the fans. Gus has revitalised my love for football after I was in the wilderness at Manchester City.

“He got me to focus and enjoy my football. He is a top-class manager both tactically and on the man-management side, one of the best I have worked with. I hope he and Brighton can get their problems sorted.”

Although it was reported Brighton wanted to sign him permanently for the 2013-14 season, I have it on good authority they knowingly “dodged a bullet” because there were doubts about his fitness and, so it proved, because when he went to Reading instead he managed only 12 games in the whole of the season before deciding to retire.

One of the more leisurely pursuits Bridge has taken up since retiring is playing poker, and it was interesting to read that his thirst for it was developed while at Brighton – but not from the chairman!

In April this year, he spoke to PokerStars about the card school operated on the players’ coach and in hotels during away games.

Bridge said that his toughest opponent was David López because he was hard to read and spoke Spanish, “so you never knew what he was saying”. The biggest fish in the game was Adam El-Abd because “you always knew when he had a good hand”.

In retirement, of course, Bridge has not exactly drifted into obscurity, bearing in mind he married The Saturdays singer, Frankie Sandford, and in 2016 was a contestant in I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here.

In an article published on squawka.com earlier this month, Bridge told Planet Football: “Even I pinch myself at the career I had and the money you can earn, but I almost find it embarrassing to talk about.”

main Bridge in 03 CF prog w Beattie

Main picture, from the 2003 FA Cup Final programme, shows a young Bridge with teammate James Beattie; and (below) online images of him variously in Chelsea, Manchester City, Sunderland and England colours; an Argus shot of him in Albion’s stripes, and a Guardian headline on his retirement.

 

 

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