Dean Hammond is a big fans of casinos, so he can appreciate the clever hand dealt to him by Mark McGhee at the start of last season.

Awarded only a short-term contract and fearing the boot, the young midfielder has come up trumps by securing his future with Albion until June 2008.

The chips were down for Hammond this time last year. The Seagulls had won promotion without him in McGhee's first season, when he had been loaned out to Leyton Orient.

Given just a three-month deal, he was still trying to prove he was worth keeping following an absence from the first team of almost two years.

Now the roulette wheel of fortune has turned full circle for Hammond. Having survived to earn a contract through to the end of this season, he has just extended it by a further two years.

The trigger for this remarkable transformation?

"The three months probably gave me a kick up the backside," Hammond admits.

"I hadn't played in the side for a long time and I wasn't cruising but maybe I was comfortable.

"Then, when I was only given three months, I thought I could be out on my ear, so I got myself fit and worked harder."

Managerial poker-playing may, in the first instance, have galvanised Hammond into a response but his updated deal is entirely self-gained as far as McGhee is concerned.

"It's absolutely been down to the boy himself and hard work,"

McGhee said. "He went away in the summer determined to give himself the best chance he could.

"I remember speaking to a guy who stayed in the same hotel as him in Mexico. He told me it was 45 degrees and yet Dean was out pounding the roads.

"When he came back the first day of pre-season he led in every single discipline, from 1,200 metre runs down to 100's.

"He was bursting to do well, really fit and strong, so he gave himself a head start and he's just continued from there."

Hammond, 22 last month, returns to the scene of one of his recent triumphs tomorrow. He scored a precious equaliser in the 1-1 draw at Burnley in Albion's penultimate away match last season, which was followed by a double in the 2-2 home draw with West Ham.

Hammond, reflecting on a run of seven games without a goal, said: "I need another one really. I've had a few chances.

"I hit the bar against Leeds and I've missed a few. I should probably have four or five now but I'm still on two so to get another one would be nice.

"I wouldn't settle for another 1-1 draw at all. We are playing some good football and I think we have got to go to places like Burnley trying to win.

"Last year it was a game of two halves. We didn't turn up in the first half but then in the second half we probably played some of our best football of the season.

"We are going into it with a lot of confidence and looking to get three points."

Hammond was playing on the left of midfield when he headed Albion in front at Derby on the opening day and equalised late-on at home to Crewe two matches later.

Now he is operating in the role he prefers, in the middle alongside Richard Carpenter.

"I'm more natural playing in the centre," he said. "That was where I was brought up through the youth system and where I played when I was younger.

"When I played on the left it was maybe more important for me to be an attacking player and get goals because I'm not a natural winger and I wasn't going to take people on and get past people.

"In the centre there are still chances for me to get into the box, like against Sheffield United when I had a header and maybe should have scored and against Leeds when I headed against the bar.

"Because we are playing more attacking football we are creating more chances, so maybe I can get a couple more goals. I'll just have to work on my finishing in training I suppose."

Hammond is not the finished article just yet but, according to McGhee, he is not far off.

"His end to last season obviously gave him tremendous confidence," McGhee said. He's pretty much a total midfield player in the sense that he gets up and down, he's got a good engine, he can pass the ball and, in particular, he can score goals.

"I still think he can improve his heading and his reaction and power over shorter distances: If Hammond plays his cards right and keeps on playing well then who knows?

Perhaps he could become the next youth team product, after Adam Virgo and Dan Harding, to attract attention from bigger clubs.

Not bad for somebody who only 18 months ago was the casino equivalent of a busted flush.