When Roberto De Zerbi named his Brighton team to take on West Ham United, there was one selection that raised eyebrows everywhere. At the age of 32, Jason Steele was handed the first ever Premier League home appearance of his 13-year football career.
While Steele rarely lets the Seagulls down as their cup goalkeeper and Robert Sanchez has made his fair share of mistakes this season, no Brighton fan would have predicted before the hammering of the Hammers that a change of number one was in the offing.
Steele, though, more than justified the faith of De Zerbi. There were two saves with his legs from Jarrod Bowen and Tomas Soucek in the space of 20 first-half seconds, without which the game could have taken a different course. Brighton only led 1-0 at the time through an Alexis Mac Allister penalty.
De Zerbi confirmed afterwards that Steele would continue as first choice in the Premier League for the foreseeable future. The Albion head coach told the media: “I am sad for Robert because with him I have one of the best relationships. I spoke with him yesterday but I my job is to be a coach. You have to be honest and clear and Jason now is playing better than Robert. Robert is playing well but Jason was fantastic in build-up, for example, in my style. Maybe he is closer than Robert to my style.”
Steele’s elevation to Brighton number one for the time being completes a remarkable rise over his five seasons at the Amex. Signed on a free transfer from Sunderland in the summer of 2018, Steele was initially brought in to fulfil the role of third-choice goalkeeper who also counts towards the Premier League’s homegrown quota.
He had both Maty Ryan and David Button ahead of him in the pecking order, as well as young prospects Sanchez and Christian Walton, who were both viewed as potential number ones for the not-too-distant future. There seemed little prospect of Steele ever being needed to play Premier League football.
At the time, this seemed just as well. Black Cats fans were utterly befuddled that Steele had landed a new job at a top flight outfit, describing him as the second-worst goalkeeper in their club’s history for his early performances in the 2017/18 season as Sunderland were relegated to League One. Incidentally, the worst goalkeeper is Lee Camp, who essentially replaced Steele. A grim year for Mackems everywhere.
And thanks to Netflix and Sunderland Till I Die, the rest of the football world got to share in the misery. That meant Brighton supporters already had some insight into their new number three prior to his arrival at the Amex. Steele had unwittingly become one of the stars of the show through his transformation from fresh faced new signing with a positive outlook into a bloke increasingly shell-shocked by the mess unravelling around him at the Stadium of Light.
Steele’s Albion debut came six months after his Sunderland nightmare ended. With Ryan on international duty with Australia at the Asian Cup and Chris Hughton wanting to keep Button for the Premier League, Steele was trusted with the gloves for a third-round FA Cup tie away at Bournemouth.
Brighton won 3-1 with Steele making some important interventions. David Brooks had scored twice past Ryan a fortnight earlier when the Albion suffered Premier League defeat at the Vitality Stadium but could find no way past Steele, including with a powerful volley well saved. B*tter was to come when Steele made an extraordinary stop to fly across his goal and keep out a header from former Seagull Steve Cook.
A huge grin lit up his face after that stop. In that moment, you could almost see the dark cloud caused by that year at Sunderland and another relegation to League One the previous season with Blackburn Rovers lifting. Seeing what two big saves and being part of a winning team meant to him as he saluted the travelling fans at Bournemouth earned him the respect of the Albion faithful.
His status as a cult hero was confirmed two seasons later when Brighton went to League Two Newport County in the FA Cup. For most of a testing evening at Rodney Parade, Steele resembled a Sunday League goalkeeper playing the morning after 15 too many Stella Artois the night before. In one bizarre moment, he ended up trying to win a header outside his box facing his own goal after a back pass went badly awry.
Worse was to come when a dropped catch directly led to Newport scoring a 96th minute equaliser after Solly March thought he had won it for Brighton with a strike in the final minute of the 90. Steele’s blunder led to extra time and then penalties, where his performance went from ridiculous to sublime. He saved four of County’s seven spot kicks, helping the Albion avoid an embarrassing exit at the hands of their League Two hosts.
Steele has remained the Seagulls’ number two and cup goalkeeper ever since that weird and wonderful experience in Monmouthshire. He made his Premier League debut with Sanchez suspended at Aston Villa in November 2021, making several good stops and not putting a foot wrong to be one of the few Brighton players to come out of a 2-0 defeat with much credit.
Both De Zerbi and Graham Potter have talked about his professionalism and his importance on the training ground. Steele has worn the captain’s armband in early rounds of the Carabao Cup where his experience and character have proven invaluable in starting XIs made up largely of Under-21 players.
Steele underlined his reputation as a penalty saving expert by saving Charlton Athletic spot kicks in the fourth round of the Carabao Cup in December. Unfortunately, his heroics were all in vain as Brighton managed to miss four of their penalties to suffer elimination. De Zerbi, though, had been suitably impressed and three weeks later, Steele signed a new contract.
For Steele to go from rock bottom at League One Sunderland to playing at the highest level of his career as number one in a Brighton side challenging for Europe is a remarkable story. It is testament to his character and resilience and explains why his popularity with Albion fans now extends beyond that of a cult hero. People are genuinely happy for a great guy to be rewarded after being severely tested.
Brighton too deserve credit. The rebuilding of Steele is another feather in the cap of former Albion goalkeeper coach Ben Roberts. During his time at Brighton, Roberts turned David Stockdale into the best goalkeeper in the Championship, Ryan into a very good Premier League number one and helped Sanchez from an unremarkable loan at Forest Green Rovers to being part of Spain’s Euro 2020 and World Cup 2022 squads. He was also the man who started the career of Nick Pope, taking him to Charlton from non-league Bury Town.
Roberts’ work is being continued by his former assistant Jack Stern. Looking beyond the goalkeeping set up at the Albion and the wider environment and culture of the club have also played a massive part in Steele’s journey. There is something about Brighton right now that brings out the best in every player to walk through the doors at their Lancing training ground, further evidenced by the struggles the likes of Marc Cucurella and Yves Bissouma have suffered since leaving.
There is little better in football than a good redemption story. If things go well for the Albion over the next three months for Brighton, Steele could go from twice being relegated from the Championship, a comedy character on Netflix and the second-worst ever Sunderland goalkeeper to helping Brighton finish in the top seven and winning the FA Cup. Nobody would deserve it more than the Man of Steele.