As the English football season once again approaches, Brighton find themselves competing with the best teams in English men’s football once again in the Premier League. But it’s not just the men’s first team this season, the Women’s first team start their WSL 1 season in September, whilst there are various age level men’s and women’s youth teams and a number of disability-specific teams also playing at the top level in their classification. So as the club starts a season of unprecedented status, what is the cause of the clubs wide ranging current success?
One of Brighton’s saving graces over the dark years that followed relegation from the top flight in 1983 was its large catchment area. It has meant the club was still able to pull a significant number of fans to watch it play no matter what, and there have been plenty of times many of us have experienced that “what”, and its not been good. For instance the club regularly attracted 6-8 thousand fans a game to watch a lower league side play in a converted amateur athletic stadium with no atmosphere whatsoever. A ground voted the 4th worst football ground in England in the Observers poll in 2004, the worst being Brighton’s one-time temporary home Priestfield. An attendance that may seem measly compared to current figures, but this was of course a very different club at the time. One that for a while had not been a club the City could taken pride in. Being an 80s baby meant when I was younger I was the only person at my school who supported Brighton, this was typical across Sussex in the 90s and 00s. But despite this apathy from many circles the club still attracted a large core of fans who kept the club alive during the tough periods.
The club’s catchment area has also meant that the youth team has been able to attract a reasonable pool of players. Even when Brighton were relying on sharing their limited training facilities with the local university, they still kept bringing players through to the first team, some of whom went onto play for bigger clubs elsewhere. At times the club relied on such players to fill gaps in the team where finances couldn’t be stretched to buy a replacement. A luxury that other lower league clubs like Brentford had to work harder for and one they have since given up on. I do wonder what could have been for some of the young talented players one-time Albion manager Dean Wilkins championed if Falmer has been given the green light even just a couple of years earlier. Many instead went onto bigger and better things elsewhere.
The club and fans quite rightly champion former chairman Dick Knight for what he did for the club during the 90s, grasping the club away from the previous owner Archer and subsequently going onto lead it into the new stadium at Falmer. However, the intervening period was long, much longer than expected, and it could have led to a feeling apathy and a period of further decline. But instead the club had some great years, in fact some of its best. The Albion won 4 promotions and spent 3 years in the English second tier whilst playing in a ground famously dubbed in the hit protest song ‘We Want Falmer’ as being fit for “Albanian Division Eight”. Those years where the battle for planning permission overshadowed it all, were the truest personification of making the best of it and to Knight, Perry and co. we owe a great debt of gratitude.
However, the club is now a very different organisation, both on the field and off it. Whereas facilities up until the move to the AMEX could be aptly described as ‘make-shift’ they are now of a high standard. The club has moved from porta-loos, portable cabins, sharing facilities with the local university and players washing their own kits to the new stadium at Falmer, a state of the art training centre and unrecognisable levels of professionalism. The club has been saying its “Premier League ready” for a while and in 2017 when the club finally managed to make the step back up to the top table of English football (for the first time since 1983) it was ready for the challenge.
This investment is coupled with ambitious targets set by those in charge at the club. The club stated in its most recent annual report: “Our ambition for the club’s senior teams, both men and women, is to play at the highest level possible.” One they had already achieved with the men’s team and have since achieved with the Women’s. With this investment and stated ambition comes increased expectations as well as the added complexity of running a larger organisation. Along with that, the management of such great change, as shown by the amounts of money paid to some management consultants is not an easy process and one seemingly carried out well.
A lot of the off the field success is due in no small part to the smart investment decisions made by Tony Bloom and the recruitment of the right people in key positions. From Chief Executive Paul Barber to Head of Recruitment Paul Winstanley, Tony Bloom is continuing to invest in both the long and short term and a quick look at the club financial statements will tell you how lucky the Albion are to have found Tony Bloom.
Talking to the accountancy magazine “Economia” Brighton’s Finance director David Jones admitted as much “Tony Bloom loves the club and is passionate about it. His family has been involved for years; his grandfather was the vice chairman in the 1970s and 1980s. He has invested over £250m of his own money including £100m for the new stadium and £30m for a new training ground. He’s funding the club’s losses and provided the funding for a team capable of winning promotion to the Premier League.”
The Albion’s 16/17 financial statements shows a debt due to Tony Bloom of £191m up from £170m in the previous year. As it says in Economia it is “the “friendliest” of debt, because it is entirely owed to Bloom and is interest-free, it shows how much the club is dependent on him.” Jones goes onto underline Bloom’s importance by saying: “The size of the football budget has been largely down to the chairman and how much he was prepared to commit, while at the same time living within the game’s financial regulations such as Financial Fair Play (FFP) and its profitability and sustainability rules.”
Of course, much of the attention towards the club and investment from the club is aimed at the men’s team. And with the incredible amount of competition and media coverage in men’s senior football that team’s success, rightly or wrongly, ranks above all others in many observer’s eyes. Soon after Bloom took over he quickly pumped money into the football budget of the club. After appointing Gus Poyet as manager, at the Poyet’s request he put money into improving the professionalism of the club by paying for services so players could concentrate on the football, for instance so they didn’t wash their own kit. He also began investing more so Poyet could build a team in his vision that went on to win League one.
However the more significant change has come off the pitch since those make-shift days playing at the Withdean. A great example of his astute investment that has led to this success is the Albion’s much praised recruitment team. Back in 2015 and pre the appointment of Chris Hughton as manager, the Brighton Argus were already praising this move. You only have to look at the success of the signings made last summer to know what a success this investment has been.
Whilst some of the investment decisions are made primarily to produce results on the pitch, others are made with a view to promoting the clubs culture and community spirit. There is no greater example of this than the clubs award winning community scheme Albion in the Community, highlighted via the success of some of the national disability-specific league teams championed by the organisation. In its annual report the Albion said: “We know how important this club is to so many people and know we can have an impact in such a positive and inspiring way. Since our promotion to the Premier League, we have seen so much pride and positivity in the local area and we will continue to embrace that.”
Another area the club are investing in is in Women’s football, highlighted by the success of the first team who will be playing against the best English Women’s football has to offer in next season’s WSL. When the club appointed former England, manager Hope Powell this underlined how serious it was for this team to succeed. In previous eras, any other team other than the men’s seniors were more of an afterthought, but the club now has an array of well-funded and well managed teams playing under the club badge.
But why does this matter? In my opinion it only goes to extend the culture created and cultivated in Dick Knight’s period as chairman. He took a club that was broken and moulded it back together into a proper community club. He took the passion the fans had shown to see off Archer and utilised it to aid the clubs progress at the Withdean. His legacy is a club that is truly a part of the city, part of the community and by investing in the variety of football teams the club ensures it caters for all people within that community that hold it so dear.
A further example of the club’s willingness to invest in the local community and further afield is the Monk Farm estate development, one not without its controversy. Whilst that is true it also goes to show the club’s commitment to invest in not just the City of Brighton and Hove but Sussex as a whole.
This all comes at a cost of course, the clubs latest accounts for the 16/17 season show the total annual operating costs were £68m with a loss of £38m (up from £51m and £25m respectively in 16/17). One of the additional disclosures that is required is the pay of the highest paid director. Which in the latest accounts stood at £1.2m (up from £0.6m in 15/16, although much of the year on year increase relates to his portion of a club wide £0.9m promotion bonus). It is widely believed this salary is paid to Chief Exec Paul Barber, and whilst reviewing the 16/17 year end accounts Kieran Maguire from the Price of Football says he believes he is “worth every penny”. He goes on to say: “Ultimately if Tony Bloom thinks Paul Barber is worth the money then that’s good enough for us.” Here, here.
In Paul’s time at the club he’s overseen structural changes of the like the club has never seen and considering the tangible success that has occurred in that time, whilst still managing to maintain some of the culture cultivated under Dick Knight and Martin Perry’s stewardship, he’s got every reason to be proud of his work. Furthermore, it’s no wonder other clubs have been rumoured to be after him.
All this said, it’s hard to give Brighton the “model club” tag that some other have been labelled with in recent years. As already stated a lot of the success in recent years remains down to Tony Bloom’s investment. Whilst the club foundations were rebuilt through the hard work of Dick Knight, the board of directors and the fans during end of the Goldstone, Priestfield and Withdean years, Tony’s investment has given those foundations a further platform to reach taller and broader levels of success.
That said, the cynic in me would also say that in football success is often cyclical and after a short period clubs often reverse to mean. Look at the line up of this seasons Championship and League One and you’ll see an array of clubs who’ve basked in the glory of a short successful period at the top, only for it to come crashing down in a heap after a few bad signings and a few key people leaving. And Brighton are no different to any other Premier League club that finished outside the top half last season, relegation is and for the short to medium term remains a realistic possibility. But at least we know with Tony at the helm, if the worst does happen then the club will never stoop to the low it did in the decade or so following relegation from the top flight in 1983.
On the day Dick Knight stepped down as chairman and handed over the reins to Tony Bloom he described it as a “natural progression”, but what has happened since that day has in fact been not far short of miraculous. Whatever the coming season brings, the City of Brighton and Hove and the county of Sussex has a football club to be proud of and a community organisation to treasure. UTA!