Do Brighton Women’s team need relocation and reparations?

With both Brighton Men’s and Women’s teams finishing in the top ten in the country this year (9th and 7th respectively), these are exciting times to be a Brighton fan. And more exciting times are ahead with the AMEX stadium getting ready to host three Women’s Euros matches this summer, including one of England’s group games and potentially their quarter final match should they win their group. 

Hosting games at this summer’s Euros is a huge opportunity for Women’s and girls’ football in Brighton, as well as across the country. One that will almost inevitably lead to a much greater interest in the Women’s game, particularly at the top level. And so it is a huge opportunity for Brighton to in turn boost interest in thier Senior Womens team.

But a big part of the problem for the club in enabling that increase in interest to materialise into higher attendances and increased coverage, is playing their home games twenty-two miles north of Brighton in Crawley, on the very north edge of Sussex.

The best way for the club to capitalise upon this summer’s excitement as a club is to instead play all Women’s senior team games in Brighton. The problem with Brighton as a location is the lack of potential venues, but there is a simple and obvious solution here, play Women’s senior team games at the AMEX stadium.

Need is a word that I think is often overused by football fans, but above anything else at the club this summer, I feel this does NEED to happen. And happen now, not in three to five years’ time.

Before I continue, I want to prefix this by stating how lucky we are to have a club that resources and equips Women’s and girls’ football better than most in this country. The infrastructure that the club has built both in terms of its new state of the art training facilities, the expert personnel running the show at the club and the specific commercial deal with American Express for Women’s and girls’ football, have all enabled the Women’s senior team to excel and achieve club record league finishes of 6th and 7th place in the WSL in the past two seasons respectively.  

And going forward the club has stated serious aims to become an established top four club, competing at the very top end of the WSL and in European competitions. But all this makes their continued persistence with playing home games at Crawley all the more perplexing and frustrating.

What does the club have to say on this? Recently Paul Barber discussed this very idea, and his thoughts were essentially that resources are finite, and the club has little choice but to prioritise the Men’s game due to the potential financial burden of playing Women’s team games at the AMEX. An understandable business decision, but a short sighted one given the enormous potential growth in the Women’s game to come.

As one of the best Women’s teams in the country right now, the club has a huge opportunity to gain first mover’s advantage. Women’s football has grown massively over the past decade and this summer’s Euros will no doubt continue that trend. So, continuing to play games over at Crawley in front of around 1,000 people is an effective way to diminish that advantage and lose a huge opportunity for growth in the Women’s team.

Just look at the effect of the Men’s teams return to Brighton at Withdean in 1999. It wasn’t an 100% suitable solution and the club made a loss when hosting games there, but returning to Brighton and Hove provided a platform and a foundation for the club to build on, which has ultimately enabled its recent success. Without those years of struggle and strife the club wouldn’t be where it is today if be in existence at all.

In his comments on the reasoning for the Women’s team continuing to play home games at Crawley, Paul Barber also pointed to the potential strains on the AMEX pitch. Again, an understandable reason and I’m no expert on the use and management of football pitches, but given Albion only play 11 WSL home games per season, in general two of which are already being hosted at the AMEX, this is a relatively small number of additional games to account for in terms of pitch management. The equivalent of Albion’s Men’s team being involved in European competition for example.

Nine games, that’s it. I find it hard to conclude anything other than that the club could easily achieve playing both Men’s and Women’s senior games at the AMEX without too much additional strain on the pitch by shifting its priorities. We aren’t talking about ground sharing with a rugby team for instance, as is the case with many other Premier League and Championship teams.

The club already hosts a variety of events, international games as well as a mix of its youth teams matches at the AMEX each season. I find it hard to reconcile the club prioritising those events over Women’s senior team games alongside its previously stated ambitions for the Women’s team.

Let’s be honest, Crawley is barely even in Sussex, let alone near Brighton. I think it’s hard for the club to claim they treat the Men’s and Women’s teams equitably when the Women’s team don’t even play in the vicinity of the city of Brighton and Hove. 

As much as some will suggest options like Withdean or the clubs training ground in Shoreham, realistically, as we found out during the prolonged fight to build the AMEX at Falmer, there is no other realistic option in or around Brighton & Hove when it comes to hosting professional football matches. It’s the AMEX or nowhere.

When you look into the realities, it’s an accommodatable issue. Yes, crowds will likely be relatively low at first compared to mens first team matches, but even if it’s a case of playing in a tenth full AMEX stadium, that would be far better than playing in a fifth full Broadfield stadium in Crawley, miles away from the club’s key supporter base, and by a long way.

I don’t accept the financial arguments either. Particular given that Men’s football has ridden a wave of success built on the foundations of the repression of Women’s football for many decades.

As discussed by Freakonomics on a previous episode of their podcast (a series that I would wholeheartedly recommend), reparations are one option to solve this issue and in my opinion in this case are now long overdue.

I am not suggesting that the Men’s teams should share their revenue 50/50, but merely are required or even just encouraged to invest a portion of it into Women and girls’ football to compensate for the advantages the Men’s game has had by the restrictions placed on the Women’s game for so many decades.

If we go back to the beginning of Brighton Women’s teams’ history, we can understand this better. Brighton Women’s story begins in the 1960’s; in those days Brighton was represented in Women’s football by Brighton GPO, a team formed by several workers from the local post office’s telephone exchange.

There was no Albion Women’s team then as the state of play in Women’s football was vastly different. Men’s teams weren’t involved in Women’s football due a ban on Women’s football taking place at football league grounds that had existed since 1921. And it wasn’t until the formation of an independent body in 1969, the Women’s FA (WFA), that there was an official national organisation behind Women’s football giving teams like Brighton GPO the opportunity to compete in a formalised national competition.

Two years later, in 1971, the FA lifted its ban on Women’s football taking place in football league stadiums and in 1983 the WFA became officially affiliated as part of the FA. However, it wasn’t until 1991 that the FA fully integrated Women’s football within its national structure and a national league structure was established. Therefore, in 1990, along with a number of other clubs at the time, the Brighton Women’s football team was affiliated under the Brighton and Hove Albion F.C. umbrella and became a founding member of the Women’s Premier League in the 1991–92 season, starting within the regionalised second tier, the Division 1 South.

Despite this being relatively recent history in the terms of English football, in the early 90s Women’s football was still very much in its infancy following the decades of oppression from the hands of organisations like the FA and by extension international bodies like FIFA which it had great influence over, who deemed football ‘unsuitable for females’. For example, it would be another five years until Women’s football would first be played at the Olympics during the 1996 Atlanta games, despite the Men’s tournament existing at all but one Olympics since 1900.

Whilst since the 90’s and particularly the turn of the Millennium, Women’s football has continued to grow rapidly, there were still limited resources at the club to provide any significant level of investment into the Women’s team. With the Men’s senior team struggling to make ends meet at Withdean this left little funds for the Women’s team and left them still reliant on AITC fundraising to survive. This meant whilst teams at the very top like Arsenal were going professional, most others like Brighton were still semi-professional and most fans who went to watch their clubs Men’s team were lucky if they saw a page devoted to the Women’s team in the match day programme or an advert for the odd cup game against a big side to be played at the clubs main stadium.

In regards of one of Albion’s senior teams playing miles outside of the vicinity of Brighton & Hove, the club has of course experienced this kind of thing before with the Men’s teams brief 2-season spell ground sharing with Gillingham before their aforementioned move to a temporary home at the Withdean Stadium.

Whilst the journey to Gillingham was admittedly much further away than Crawley, the teams return to Brighton saw a rejuvenation in the club’s image after the damage of the civil war years in the mid-nineties and average crowd numbers doubled. There is no reason to believe that with the help of a post-Euros boost, a similar if not greater increase in crowd numbers could be achieved by the Women’s team were they to be permanently based in the vicinity of Brighton and Hove.

Whilst the club can in many respects be seen as a leader in regard to Women’s and girls’ football in this country, and they do their best in making Crawley feel like a suitable home for its Women’s team, including putting on free coaches for supporters and previously investing in upgrades to the ground’s facilities. It feels like an unsatisfactory solution and one which doesn’t sufficiently resource one of its senior teams, who are meant to have equal status at the club.

A simple way for the club to make a gesture towards repairing the damage carried out on the Women’s game for decades in this country, and to build upon the club’s recent success in the Women’s game, is to give their Women’s senior team the opportunity to thrive by playing their games in its state of the art AMEX stadium within the city of Brighton and Hove. If so, I don’t think it’s a decision anyone will come to regret.

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Progress under Potter yet to be seen at the AMEX

This Sunday Albion face Southampton in what is already pretty much a dead rubber, with both sides sitting comfortably in mid-table, out of the way of both the relegation dogfight at the bottom-end of the table, as well as any loftier ambitions towards the top-end. And yet Albion go into this Sundays match at the AMEX with a lot to play for.

First and foremost, there’s the small matter of improving their awful Premier league points total achieved at the AMEX this season, small being the operative word. Having taken just 15 points from 16 games, only Norwich (20th) and Watford (19th) have earned less points at home in the Premier League this season.

And yet at the time of writing the club sit 10th, with a genuine chance of not just a club record high league finish, but a first ever top-half topflight finish following back-to-back wins in the capital over first Arsenal and then Spurs.

The key factor in those most recent wins appears to be that the team were not playing at home. With games running out in Graham Potter’s third season in charge of the club, he has still failed to win as many Premier league games at the AMEX as his predecessor Chris Hughton oversaw in just two seasons.

The atmosphere at the AMEX has been a regular point of contention in recent seasons, but particularly this one. No wonder however, given how bad the teams form has been there under Graham Potter, having won just 12 home games out of 54 in the Premier League.

But there has still been significant progress, albeit mostly away from the AMEX. Ahead of their trip to Man City on Wednesday night they have doubled their points return away from home compared to that under Chris Hughton, having won just 24 points from 38 games away from home under his tenure, 0.63 per game. Whilst they have won 64 from 54 games under Potter, or 1.19 points per game. And at the time of writing have the 6th highest points total away from home in the Premier league this season.

Albion’s poor home form under Potter isn’t without its improvements in many aspects of the team’s performance too, particularly ball retention. Something Chris Hughton failed to improve despite his numerous attempts to do so towards the end of his tenure, including a doomed persistence with a switch to a 433 formation.

Under Chris Hughton, Albion had the fourth lowest average possession, the fifth lowest passing accuracy and the second lowest shots taken per game in the Premier league’s 18/19 season. This season Brighton have the fourth highest average possession, the seventh highest passing accuracy and the sixth highest average number of shots taken. To put this into context, rather than these attributes being comparable with relegation contenders, these attributes are now more similar to title contenders.

But I doubt you need me telling you that it’s the key part of the performance that Albion are failing to improve on, as turning all that good work into goals has been the constant issue for Graham Potter’s Albion. In fact, in many ways the team have regressed at the AMEX in front of goal under Potter having averaged a fairly measly 1.00 goals scored per game in the Premier League at the AMEX, compared to the 1.13 averaged under the more defensive Chris Hughton.

To put that into context, this translates this to an average of 22.2 shots per goal scored from Graham Potter’s Albion so far this season at the AMEX compared to just 10.8 shots per goal at the AMEX under Hughton in 18/19.

Looking purely in this context it’s surprising Graham Potter has remained in the job for this long despite this poor home record, for many mangers your home league form is your bread and butter. Brighton aside, you have to go up to newly promoted Brentford (14th based on home results) to find a team who haven’t sacked their manager.

However, I am not for one minute suggesting Graham Potter should be sacked, but it’s important to appreciate that it’s hard to find many examples of teams with as poor a home record as Brighton’s who haven’t dispensed off their manager. And this is a record that has persisted for three seasons, not just one.

It does highlight both how much the teams away from has been the saving grace, how patient and trusting Albions board of directors have been and how much credit they should get for the teams relative success this season. But it does also help to explain and contextualise the frustration and at times toxic atmosphere you can experience at the AMEX.

The question is, does playing at the AMEX inhibit the team taking those chances in front of goal? That certainly seems to be the case since Graham Potter took charge and if the last home game vs Norwich is anything to go by, it’s getting worse.

Despite the teams potentially unprecedented league high finish in the club’s history, an atmosphere of frustration and anger caused by this poor home form has on more than one occasion this season even led to audible booing and jeering of the team.

It’s not just the team’s performance in front of goal where the fans get frustrated. All those impressive passing and possession stats may look good on paper, but often translate into a fair few moans and groans from the crowd as Albion recycle the ball from side to side without much forward penetration for long periods of the game. Patience is a virtue not held by everyone in the AMEX crowd it seems

Graham Potter’s recent comments about how some Brighton fans urging his players to shoot presents the players a “challenge” was taken out of context by some as a criticism of the crowd, something he later denied. But it’s fair to say that the team’s patient and possession-based approach doesn’t appeal to everyone.

Graham Potter’s tactical development of the team from a fairly direct and defensive side to a possession based, more attack-minded side has rightly earned its plaudits, but it doesn’t always get the same appreciation from the home support.

It’s often said whilst in other countries the crowd will get excited by an individual moment of skill or technical brilliance, British football crowds are more likely to get off their seat as a result of their team winning a crunching tackle or a corner.

Whilst the Hughton era ended up frustrating itself to death by not being able to retain enough of the ball, the Potter era (for all its achievements) is in danger of at least being diminished by the exact opposite, a perceived over retention of the ball with ultimately similar end results. Well, at home at least.

Amongst the frustration Graham Potter’s saving grace has been his ability to retain the team’s stability without the ball, whilst progressing the team’s performance with it. Something that’s been the club’s foundation throughout its Premier League tenure.

Whilst the recent dip in form has included 9 goals being conceded in the last 4 games at the AMEX, the 11 conceded in the 10 prior tells a very different story, particularly when you consider four of those were scored by reigning champion’s Manchester City, who were the only team to take maximum points away from the AMEX over that period.

Whilst not at the AMEX, last Saturday saw Brighton back to their defensive best, Spurs barely had a sniff. Indeed, it was a fairly quiet day for Albion’s goalkeeper Robert Sanchez, who didn’t have to make one save.

This was a defence without record signing Adam Webster and without the recently sold Dan Burn, yet they produced one if the best defensive performances of the season.

Being realistic, with resources dwarfed by many top flight clubs, even many of those outside of the Premier League’s giants, bad runs are going to happen for Brighton in the Premier League and times of struggle are going to occur.

So, getting to 40 points this early in a season shouldn’t be an underestimated achievement. And getting results away to Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal, and Spurs all in the same season shouldn’t be either.

The transformation in style under Graham Potter cannot be understated, but still needs time and patience to reach full fruition. The team have gone from one with a playing style more comparable to strugglers like Burnley and Newcastle to one more comparable to title challengers like Man City and Liverpool. Turning that style into substance consistently isn’t a quick fix, nor is it an inevitability, especially with the potential of much upheaval in personnel this summer.

As Jermaine Jenas said on BT Sport after Brighton’s win over Spurs: “I won’t have any talk about Graham Potter and his job… Brighton fans need to remember to an extent, they need to understand this guy is about to achieve something historical with this football club… they’re almost lucky to have him.”

Sunday’s match with Southampton is a great place to start turning the bad home results around. And it could be that the freedom of a supposed meaningless dead rubber and of not having the pressure that comes with the imminent threat of relegation, is exactly what Graham Potter’s Brighton need to shake the monkey of their underperformance at home from off their backs.

For all the talk of progress under Potter’s management, many of the great AMEX days in the Premier League era have come under his predecessor. Yet I for one wouldn’t be surprised if Brighton did go on a bit of a run, caused a few more shocks and picked up a fair few more points in the process this season, starting with Southampton on Sunday. And with the visit of Man United and West Ham coming next month, two teams Albion have surprisingly good recent records against, the opportunity for that first top half topflight finish is very much still alive despite the recent poor run of results.