It was Friday 20 July 2018 when Brighton announced the signing of striker Percy Tau. The Seagulls had agreed a £2.5m fee with Mamelodi Sundowns, with Tau signing a four-year contract at the Amex.
Football supporters in his homeland went mad at the prospect of the Lion of Judah turning out in the Premier League, while 8,000 miles away in Sussex, Brighton supporters were intrigued as to what a centre forward from South Africa’s Premier Soccer League could bring to the Amex.
There was, however, a slight problem. Tau had no hope of securing a work permit. South Africa were outside of the top 50 in the FIFA World Rankings and unlikely to break through at any point in the near future.
The only way for Tau to gain the right to move to England would be by spending several years racking up qualification points on loan in a European top flight – and even that seemed an unlikely route unless he could spend two or three seasons with clubs who went far in the Champions League or Europa League.
Brexit though has changed all that. With the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union, the Football Association has rewritten its work permit rules. The end of freedom of movement for EU nationals to live and work in the UK has made signing young players from Europe far more difficult. To offset that, the FA have made it easier to bring in players from the rest of the world. Hello, Percy.
So, what has Tau been up to in the two-and-a-half years in which he has been a Brighton player who could not play for Brighton? Making a pretty good impression in Belgium is the answer to that. Tau’s first destination after signing for the Seagulls was Union Saint-Gilloise, the Brussels-based club also owned by Brighton chairman Tony Bloom who compete in the second tier of Belgian football.
There were no work permit points on offer for Tau’s efforts in the Proximus League during the 2018/19 campaign. Instead, he needed to focus on building a reputation for himself that would convince a bigger outfit than Union to give him a chance the following season. Tau duly did that, enjoying a memorable season which culminated in him winning the Proximus League Player of the Year award.
He scored 13 times and assisted 15 in his 35 appearances for Union and although they missed out on promotion to the top flight, there was a famous run to the semi finals of the Belgian Cup including historic victories over city rivals Anderlecht and a Genk side who would go onto win the Jupiler League title at the end of the season.
That summer, Tau enhanced his reputation further by inspiring South Africa on an unlikely journey to the quarter finals of the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations. He was the best player on the pitch when Bafana Bafana shocked hosts and tournament favourites Egypt in the second round, eliminating Mohamed Salah and co via a 1-0 win in Cairo.
South Africa’s performance at the tournament was still not enough to push them into the world’s top 50 and so Tau had to spend 2019/20 in Belgium again. The Lion of Judah was moving up in the world though, his form for Union convincing Club Brugge to take a chance. During his year with Club, Tau played Champions League football against Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid, claiming an assist in a 2-2 draw at the Bernabeu. When Club dropped into the Europa League, Tau went onto give Manchester United plenty to think about. He ended his time in Bruges with four goals, eight assists and a Jupiler League winner’s medal after Club were awarded the Belgian title when the season was cut short because of Covid-19.
For the 2020/21 season, Tau joined his third Belgian team when Vincent Kompany took him to Anderlecht. The Lion of Judah has made quite an impression in the four months in which he has worked with the former Manchester City captain, who spoke in glowing terms about Tau.
“Percy is a player with a top-level football brain,” Kompany said in an interview with South African football website Kickoff.com. “On top of his talent and his ability on the ball, Percy works hard, so that’s why we’re a good match. He’s a talented player that works hard and has the right attitude towards his teammates. Within our team, it’s easy for him to improve. It’s easy for him to show his better side, but none of it would be possible without his willingness to work.
“When you see Percy for the first time in training, straight away you think he’s an artist, someone who likes the beautiful gesture, the beautiful dribble. He’s an artist with an edge, which is exactly the reason why I value him so much. It’s a mix of his talent and his hard work and for me, that’s a non-negotiable, and that’s why he fits in really well with our team.”
Tau had managed four goals in 14 appearance before Brighton exercised the recall option they inserted into his Anderlecht loan once it became clear that his exploits in the Belgian top flight, coupled with the relaxation in work permit rules, meant the Lion of Judah would finally be able to move to the Premier League.
On the face of it, Tau does not appear an obvious solution to the problems which have haunted Brighton so far this season. He is not an out-and-out goalscorer of the sort that the Seagulls have been crying out for. Graham Potter’s side have had no trouble creating opportunities; it is their inability to finish them off which has led them to sit perilously close to the relegation zone with just two Premier League wins on the board.
Instead, Tau brings a skillset which sets him apart from Potter’s other forward options. He is a ball carrier, somebody who looks to run, dribble and take players on. The Seagulls’ football under Potter this season has been characterised by sideways pass followed by sideways pass, often played at a pedestrian pace. Tau will inject pace and a different threat to opposition defences. Variety is the spice of life and for large parts of this season, Brighton have appeared very one dimensional.
Tau is versatile too. He has been deployed as a centre forward, a second striker, a number ten and on both the right and left of a front three throughout his career. In Potter’s favoured 3-4-1-2/3-4-3, he could fill any of the forward positions with equal effectiveness.
The step up from Mamelodi Sundowns to the Premier League is obviously a huge one. Even coming from Belgium to England is hard and there are no guarantees that Tau will be cut out for Premier League football.
But with his army of enthusiastic South African followers taking over every one of Brighton’s official social media accounts and a smile that seems to be permanently etched on his face, Tau’s long awaited arrival in England will be entertaining at least. The Lion of Judah is finally here.