Sami Hyypia says: “I’m the kind of guy who likes challenges.” Which is just as well. Winning tackles and heading duels in a distinguished playing career was one thing, but next Saturday the former Liverpool and Finland defender faces a different kind of test in his first competitive match as manager of Brighton & Hove Albion, at home to Sheffield Wednesday in the Championship.
The Seagulls have reached the play-off semi-finals in the past two seasons, losing under Gus Poyet in 2013 and Oscar Garcia last season, and Hyypia is under no illusions that even matching the top-six finishes of his Latin predecessors will be an uphill task.
Brighton are unquestionably “Premier League ready”, a phrase coined by Paul Barber, their chief executive, off the pitch. Their newly opened £30 million training ground also houses an academy which was recently awarded Category One status, and the Amex Stadium has hosted the highest average gates in the Championship for the past two seasons.
But both Poyet and Garcia hinted at dissatisfaction with the playing budget, and Financial Fair Play rules and the absence of Premier League parachute payments restrict what Hyypia can do to strengthen a squad hit by the departures of player-of-the-season Matthew Upson and top scorer Leo Ulloa.
Reinvesting some of the initial £8m received for Ulloa, including replacing his goals, is a priority for Hyypia. “We are not ready,” he admitted. “I’m expecting that we’ll still bring two, three or four players in and the process of signing players is a bit of a new thing for me, because [in his first job at Bayer Leverkusen] in Germany I had little to say about these things, I wasn’t a lot involved. I didn’t realise what kind of process it is and everyone wants to put the prices as high as possible.
“I know now that it’s not gonna happen in a day or two. We are competing with clubs that have maybe more assets than we have. I know now about Financial Fair Play and these things. That makes it harder.”
Offers have been tabled for striker Sam Baldock from Bristol City and midfielder Adam Clayton from Huddersfield Town. Meanwhile, despite a new formation aimed at speeding up the laborious transition from defence to attack under Oscar, his team were exposed as very much a work in progress in a 3-1 friendly defeat by Southampton last week.
“We saw how difficult it is to play against a team that switches play very quickly. That was actually the plan that we should play,” Hyypia said. “The positive is that our players saw how difficult it is to defend.”
Not that the players need much convincing. Aaron Hughes, signed on a free transfer from Queens Park Rangers to replace Upson, says Hyypia is “very relaxed, communicates very well, which is a huge thing”. He added: “He’s very confident, very sure of himself, knows what he wants and demands quality in training sessions and expects it every day.”
The Northern Ireland defender detects the influence of his former manager at Fulham, Roy Hodgson, who also managed Hyypia with Finland, in his “meticulous” approach. “Roy was brilliant at that. Sometimes it was repetitive, and we were doing the same things, but you saw the success we had at Fulham and I see some of the same things here, making sure everything is done properly day in, day out.”
Some testimonial for a 40-year-old manager in only his second job. His first was at Leverkusen, where he arrived as a player in 2009 after a trophy-laden decade at Anfield. He was offered the manager’s chair at the end of the 2011-12 season despite lacking coaching qualifications.
The gamble paid off as Leverkusen qualified for the Champions’ League in 2013 and topped the Bundesliga last season, but he fell back to earth in the spring when a run of one win in 10 games led to the sack.
“It might sound scary to jump to that level right away, but I have no regrets,” he said. “The last two months there I think I learned so much. Every manager, every coach needs to go through that kind of period.”
He will hope to avoid too many repeats at Brighton, whose chairman, Tony Bloom, sold him on the club’s ambition, which is to reach the Premier League whatever the financial restrictions, an aim underpinned by the impressive new infrastructure he has bankrolled.
“I think if I’d stayed in Germany I would have had to wait until October, November for the first manager to be kicked out and I would get my chance,” Hyypia said. “But when I talked to the chairman and Paul Barber, they convinced me that Brighton was a great place to come and it’s a great club. Hopefully we’ll do everything we can to fulfil that ambition. That is the challenge for me.”