When Brighton were Skint

Like many residents of Sussex who grew up in the 90s, I wasn’t particularly enamoured with Albion at first. The club were in the doldrums throughout that decade and so a generation of Sussex based football supporters were lost, at least initially. Particularly for the likes of myself that didn’t have a parent interested in football who would drag them along and force an interest.

However, unlike many of my classmates I did eventually turn to my local club when they moved back to Brighton after a two-year period in exile, to play at the Withdean Stadium in Brighton in 1999. A place that became the club’s home for over a decade.

As such, the first Brighton shirt I owned was the classic home shirt from the 1999-2000 season, the club’s first at the Withdean stadium. Probably most prominently known for the shirt sponsor, Skint records. A Brighton based record label, most notably the home of Fatboy Slim, aka Norman Cook, Brighton resident and Albion fan.

Unlike many of the club’s previously low-profile sponsorship deals, this one caught the eye of the national press as well as local media. In contrast, Albion’s previous deals were a sign of where the club was, at that point in its history.

Local restaurant and long-term club supporter Donatello had stepped in for the previous 1998/99 season when another sponsorship deal had collapsed. It was so last minute that the shirts had to be collected from the supplier on the Thursday before their first outing of the season at the weekend, and so recently printed was the sponsors logo that the boardroom was turned into a makeshift airing cupboard that evening. Desperate times call for desperate measures and these really were desperate times at the club.

Brighton began the 1990s managed by Barry Lloyd, who was initially brought in by his predecessor Alan Mullery, to manage the reserves and youth team. His task was tough, remaining competitive in the Second Division amongst the increased cutting of costs and multiple player sales.

By this point the financial problems were now dominating affairs and the club’s performances on the pitch continued to diminish. So drastic was the cost cutting that around that time The Argus had featured a front-page story stating all the club’s first team professionals were for sale.

Despite the club’s financial limitations, Lloyd began building an exciting, attacking side, focused on a passing style. Selling players like Terry Connor and Dean Saunders for a profit and replacing them with cheaper options likes of Garry Nelson, Mike Small, Clive Walker and John Byrne who formed a relatively successful team, for a short period at least.

Initially this approach was successful and saw Albion get to the Division Two playoff final in 1991, going within just one game of a return to the topflight, but a 3-0 defeat in the final to Notts County was followed by an acute drop down the division.

The reality was Barry Lloyd’s impressive work in the transfer market had just delayed the inevitable fall from grace that would later occur at the Albion after years of financial mismanagement and mounting debts.

Many know the story of the 1996/97 season, but the club had been close to the wall well before the club lost its ground in 1997. In fact, a winding up order received in November 1992 for unpaid HMRC debts was a very close call. After four adjournments, the club was given until 21st April 1993 to find the money to pay the debt and only managed it in the end at the eleventh hour when Barry Lloyd’s wheeling and dealing saw goalkeeper Mark Beeney sold to Leeds United for £350,000, which raised the necessary cash. So close, some fans who attended the game at home to Blackpool the Saturday before Beeney’s sale had feared that it might be one of the club’s last.

With the financial chaos leaving the club desperate and vulnerable, next came the beginning of the infamous Bill Archer regime at the club. Archer was initially brought to the club as a director with the club in the midst of its fight with financial difficulties in 1990. As the club explained at the time, he was brought in for his commercial experience after being credited with Liverpool’s famous Crown Paints shirt sponsorship deal. So, it should come as no surprise that one of the club’s main sponsors during the Archer’s regime was Sandtex, a paint brand which is part of the Crown Paints family and a company which had close relations to his retail chain Focus DIY.

So later on in 1993, after another winding up order from HMRC, came a restructuring of the club’s shareholdings and board of directors. Bill Archer became chairman of the club by securing a 56% stake in a joint bid with Greg Stanley (his fellow owner of Focus DIY) who bought the remaining 44% and took up the post of club president, in a deal publicised as helping to save the club’s finances with some new investment.

In reality rather than a new dawn, this was the beginning of a further downward spiral for the club and a moment of pure opportunism from the DIY tycoons. With the pair invested nothing more in the club as equity than the nominal £100 to purchase the share capital and instead loaned the club hundreds of thousands at high levels of interest in the form of bank loans secured against the club’s only valuable asset, the Goldstone Ground. Rather than safeguarding the club’s financial future, they simply delayed the problem from being dealt with by significantly increasing the club’s debt.

So came the war years at the club, and by the end of the 1996/97 season the club only just staved off the threat of relegation to the non-league on the last day of the season, yet another close shave for the club that decade.

Thankfully prior to the end of this season, after Archer and Stanley had overseen the worsening of the financial mess at the club, they were eventually forced out. But only after prolonged protests from supporters and an endless number of mediation talks with a consortium looking to buy the club and secure its long-term future, headed by Dick Knight, a lifelong Albion fan and former Marketing executive.

The draw away to Hereford had seen the club survive relegation to the non-league by staying above the relegation zone, but there were further threats to it Football League status to come.

The club subsequently faced a vote of expulsion from its fellow Football League clubs for bringing the League into disrepute. But it again survived, by a margin of 47 to 17. Part of this was on the proviso that the club paid the Football League a £500k bond, with repayment conditional upon the club moving back to a permanent home in Brighton within three years. A condition Chairman Dick Knight stated in his autobiography “Mad Man”, that would have bankrupted the club had it not met it.

All the trouble that had come alongside the (not so) civil war between those running the club and those supporting it had dragged the club’s reputation through the gutter. So much so it had to put up a fight just to convince the local council to give it permission to play at Withdean stadium in Brighton, a fight that extended the club’s stay at Gillingham for two full, financially crippling, seasons.

A big part of the turnaround required at the club involved increasing the club’s commercial revenue. When he took over Dick said he was “astonished to discover the club had virtually no revenue from merchandising or commercial activities at all.” A fact particularly true as a result of losing the Goldstone Ground and having to play home games at Gillingham. So, giving the club some form of presence in Brighton during that period in exile was crucial.

They did this by opening a shop in central Brighton on Queens Road in the autumn of 1997, along with a notable kit marketing campaign released later that year to gain more awareness of the new club shop featuring celebrities Louise Redknapp, Jordan and Lenny Henry.

Dick’s attention grabbing, light-hearted and if at times crass marketing was a key part of gaining that public favour. From the Bring Home the Albion campaign (which primarily needed to convince local Withdean residents the club’s fans weren’t a bunch of hooligans about to spoil their local area), the Falmer for All campaign (which included all sorts of attention grabbing schemes including a giant Valentine’s Day card that was sent to then Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott), and even the club’s marketing of its commercial output, Dick’s advertising career continued well after he left the advertising industry.

At the top of the list has to be the Skint shirt sponsorship deal that lasted most of the club’s time at the Withdean stadium. The irony of a football team that was bold enough to be proud to be Skint won a fair few of the club’s critics around. “It’s delicious,” Dick Knight said upon the announcement of the sponsorship. “A club that has gone to the very brink of oblivion will have the cheek, confidence and wit to stride out next season with Skint on its shirt. The deal is typical of the new spirit at the Albion, and we see this as a great way to build an idiosyncratic, unconventional image.”

Along with a change in club crest a couple of season prior, the first Skint shirt was a symbol of the change in fortunes at the club at that time that came with the change in ownership. It became particularly associated with the success of a young Bobby Zamora, the talisman of the double winning title team that would see the club go back to the second tier in just its fourth season back in Brighton.

That’s not to say the difficult times were over, they had just begun a new chapter. A point demonstrated by something Norman Cook said to the Guardian in 2003 “I’ve also put some of my own money into the club. The chairman Dick Knight took me out to lunch, and I asked him whether Bobby Zamora was going to be sold. He looked at me and said: ‘Well if someone puts a lot of money into the club then we can afford to keep him.’ I said that sounds like blackmail and he replied: ‘Call it what you like dear boy but that’s how it is’.”

It’s a story that exemplifies the club’s Skint era. A club that didn’t have much and was often swimming against the tide. But continued to progress, in no small part down to the creativity, determination and ingenuity of Dick Knight.

Get your kit off the Queens Road club shop, Wonderbras and Valentines cards

As an avid Brighton fan my interest was piqued by the discussion on a recent episode of the Quickly Kevin 90’s football podcast of a Brighton kit marketing campaign from 1997, so here’s a piece which gives some background on how the infamous campaign came about.

This was a kit advertising campaign far away in style from the recent ones from the club which have included members of its various men’s, women’s and disability specific teams. Instead this campaign included notable celebs with links to the local area wearing the new kit with a slogan slavered with innuendo.

The campaign itself was an idea that came as part of the new club chairman Dick Knight’s plan to increase the club’s commercial output after taking over the club.

Dick had just bought the club from the disgraced former owner Bill Archer. Not long after the club’s short-term future was secured and relegation out of the Football League was narrowly avoided. But the club had to spend the first two full seasons of his ownership playing over in Gillingham before finding a suitable (not so) temporary home back in Brighton at Withdean Stadium, with the club not finding a permanent home until 2011 at Falmer Stadium.

Back in 1997 Dick took over the club having just come out of a successful advertising career including being behind advertising campaigns such as Wonderbra’s famous “Hello Boys” advert from a few years earlier. So slightly edgy marketing campaigns featuring attractive women that may just seem crass in the modern day were all too familiar to him.

The Wonderbra adverts were of course controversial, but Dick has defended it saying: “As soon as the campaign launched, we had protests from Women’s groups who claimed that women were being exploited. It was the opposite. The ads were sexy not sexist. The woman, Eva [Herzigova], was making statements. She made you laugh at the same time.”

Whereas Feminist activist Julie Bindel, co-founder of legal reform group Justice for Women said: “Wonderbra’s ‘Hello Boys’ advert, the scourge of the feminist movement throughout the mid-1990s, was so sexist it was almost a parody.” But in many ways that hits the nail on the head of what may be one of the key elements to Dick’s success in advertising, his almost parody like wit.

Either way, in 2011 it was voted as the favourite ‘iconic’ advertising image in a poll by the Outdoor Media Centre. So before Dick arrived at the club in 1997 it was this that his career was best known for, but he was soon to become much better known as the saviour of Brighton and Hove Albion football club.

As soon as he took over, he then had a huge job on his hands turning the fortunes and the image of the club around. An image so tarnished 17 of the 71 other Football League clubs voted that year to expel Brighton from the League whilst a further 8 abstained from the vote with the rest voting for the club to keep its status.

A big part of the turnaround required at the club involved increasing the club’s commercial revenue. When he took over the club Dick said he was “astonished to discover the club had virtually no revenue from merchandising or commercial activities at all.” A fact particularly true as a result of losing the Goldstone ground that year and having to play home games at Gillingham (a trip that included three separate motorways). So giving the club some form of presence in Brighton was crucial.

They did this by opening a shop in central Brighton on Queens Road in the autumn of 1997 (the grand opening of which was carried out by then Brighton manager Steve Gritt), with the kit marketing campaign released later that year also linked to gain more awareness of the new club shop.

It’s not often a football fan is first pulled in by their club through its club shop, but this was my personal experience. I was just about old enough to be aware of the club’s plight at the end of the Goldstone years, but with my parents not being football fans they were never likely to take me to the Goldstone, especially when various forms of protests became a regular occurrence.

But I do have them to thank for the regular trips to Brighton. And when on our walk down from the train station towards the centre of town I would always insist on a look in the club shop. Not long after I was hooked, so much so that when the club came back to Brighton in 1999 it wasn’t long before I was sporting the new ‘Skint’ Brighton shirt and making regular trips to the theatre of trees at Withdean with thousands of other Albion fans.

But two years before the club’s reputation was in the gutter and it had a fight on its hands to just convince the local council to give it permission for a suitable site to make its home.

Dick’s attention grabbing if at times crass marketing was a key part of gaining public favour for that. From the Bring Home the Albion campaign (which primarily needed to convince local Withdean residents the club’s fans weren’t a bunch of hooligans about to spoil their local area), the Falmer for All campaign (which included all sorts of attention grabbing schemes including a giant Valentines Day card that was sent to then Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott), and even the club’s marketing of its commercial output, Dick’s advertising career continued well after he left the advertising industry.

Which of course brings us to one of his first, the “get your kit off the club shop” campaign. The fan site We Are Brighton have recently written a piece on the campaign, which might provide some more info for those whose interest was also piqued by its recent mention. And the adverts can be seen in Seagulls Programmes electronic copies of the programmes from the 1997/98 season.

But how did it all come about? It’s simpler than you may think as all the three people in the campaign were chosen due to their links to Brighton. Jordan and Louise were both from the area whilst Lenny Henry at the time had recently worn a Brighton kit for a sketch in his BBC TV show “Lenny Goes to Town” for an episode which was based in Brighton.

Louise’s advert was the first to appear and included a poster of the picture being available to buy in the club shop, whilst the others followed later. Lenny Henry’s even happened to coincide with the club’s end of season sale.

Whilst this campaign may raise a few eyebrows now, it was all part of Dick’s constant effort to raise the club’s profile and boost its commercial opportunities, which would then in turn increase the much-needed investment into the club. And lest we forget it is his advertising wit and charm that was behind and inspired many of the Falmer for All campaigns ideas that got our clubs the right to build the fantastic stadium we now call home.

Ideas like the previously mentioned Valentine’s Day card that is apparently was when John Prescott first became aware of the huge public support for the stadium.

So whilst we may wince at the idea of some of his campaigns, we must recognise that without Dick Knight’s advertising career know-how the club would likely not have progressed to the state in which it is in today.