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.

The Tweeting Seagull WSL Albion season preview – From inspiration to realisation

Ahead of the new WSL season the Telegraph asked me to answer some questions about Brighton’s prospects, which you can read here. And I’ve extended my thoughts into a season preview blog. Which you can read here:

The new WSL season starts this weekend with probably the greatest amount of anticipation since the FA launched the Women’s Premier League in 1991. And with Brighton retaining its topflight status for a second season the excitement is also building in Sussex.

Like most WSL teams, Brighton’s fan base is comparatively minuscule compared to that of the club’s men’s team. And playing their home games over 20 miles away in Crawley hasn’t helped to build on that either. But with WSL season ticket sales hitting club record numbers this summer, there is hope all that can change. The potential of the teams support no better demonstrated than the record breaking WSL crowd of 5,256 attending the final home game of last season against Arsenal after it was played at the club’s HQ, the AMEX Stadium.

Last season was a big step up for the team in its first ever topflight season. And this was particularly true for most players who were adapting to going professional, along with the squad losing some key players who decided to not go do so, like promotion winning captain Vicky Ashton-Jones. But despite a few heavy defeats to Arsenal, Man City and Chelsea, lessons were learnt and the season ended well with a 4-0 win away to West Ham.

Nevertheless for the club to remain competitive then continued progression will be required. The WSL has never been stronger and with the addition of the highly resourced Man United and Spurs replacing the softer-touch of Yeovil, points will be harder to come by. But there will still be hope of further progress at the club this season.

This is something manager Hope Powell is more than aware of ahead of the new season, saying to the Argus over the summer: “With the introduction of Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur to the division, it is set to be an even tougher task, and all the players and staff need to be ready for what lies ahead.”

And she will no doubt continue to ensure Brighton won’t replace Yeovil as the league’s soft touch. Mainly through the team’s relatively solid and resolute defensive base. Last season they made most teams work hard to break them down, bar the handful of heavy defeats that come with the territory of being an inexperienced newly promoted team.

This was an attribute shown best by the team’s relatively comparable defensive record to the remainder of the WSL outside the top four. And the shrewd additions of Dutch international Danique Kerkdijk who has signed from Bristol City along with the highly rated Danish youth international Matilde Lundorf Skovsen, adds to the teams strength at the back, which will be needed given the long-term injury recently sustained by Laura Rafferty.

It will be hoped that as well as those signings, the further additions of experienced WSL keeper Megan Walsh and former French youth international Lea Le Garrec, as well as the added experience gained by the existing players from last season, will all ensure the squad possesses the quality required to make the required progress. Required given that the team were too often found lacking against more established WSL teams last season.

At the other end of the pitch goals were harder to come by, with a quarter of the team’s goals coming in that 4-0 end of season win over West Ham. A victory that came after the team had secured survival from relegation. England youth international Ellie Brazil top scored in the league with just four, and it will be hoped that her and Imi Umotong (who scored only one league goal last season) can contribute more in that department this season.

Much like with Graham Potter and the Men’s team, much will depend on Hope Powell and her coaching team continuing to get the most out of this fairly young squad of players and for the more experienced players,including the likes of last season Albion’s player of the season award winner Aileen Whelan, to continue to lead the way. One young prospect in particular to watch out for is England u17 Captain Maya Le Tissier (no relation) who will be hoping to make more of an impact on the first team this season after making her debut last season.

In 2015 the club stated that it wanted to be playing Champions League football in 5 years, and whilst wins over Birmingham, Liverpool and West Ham towards the end of last season demonstrate progress, achieving that within the stated timeline is at best unlikely.

Those of course were different times, before the mass professionalism of the topflight and before Albion’s involvement in it. But Tony Bloom announcement at the recent fans forum that the club’s long-term vision for the Women’s team has been revised for it to become a top-four club is equally ambitious in the short-term.

Realistically another season of avoiding relegation is the goal, whilst bettering last season’s 3rd bottom finish would probably be considered a success for Hope Powell’s side.

At the beginning of last season, Hope Powell spoke a lot about the importance of her team being role models as much as being successful competitors. But with the success of the Lionesses at this summers World Cup, it does seem that discussions about Women’s football in the UK have largely moved on from talking about inspiration and aspirations and onto realisation of the sports potential.

As Assistant Manager Amy Merricks recently said “The game is changing all the time and we need to ensure that we constantly evolve with it as well… It’s great to be on this journey and now we want to be able to stay at the highest level.”

With this increased focus on Women’s football in the UK coinciding with the increased competitiveness of the WSL and Brighton and Hove Albion’s new AMEX sponsorship deal including performance based payments specific to the Women’s team, there will be much more focus this season on results and performance. The question is, can Brighton’s aspirations and progression keep pace with the continued advancements of the Women’s game in the UK?