The Enablers of Excess

It’s been another tumultuous week in the history of the Premier League. A week that was supposed to be a quiet one for club’s with the international fixtures taking away attention and giving everyone a break, has instead left a void filled by the news of the league’s new pay per view scheme.

This scheme is pretty indefensible. Especially given that most if not all its clubs have yet to pay their season ticket holders back the cash that they have already paid for 2020/21 season tickets which they most likely will never use. The last thing Brighton and Hove Albion said on the matter prior to the PPV scandal forcing a rethink was that they would use the amounts already paid for games which they could not attend to be credited against tickets bought next season’s, presumptuous you might say. Then asking those same fans to fork over more cash to watch games on TV seems far from best practice.

I’ve seen some suggest that this is a case of Premier League Club’s misreading the room, but let’s be honest they’re not even in the room with us humble football supporters. They haven’t been for a long time and yet so many of us still lap up all and sundry that they’ve throw at us and part with our hard earned cash for it.

But in a time of great economic uncertainty and mass redundancies, this scheme is at best insensitive. But let’s be honest, this kind of scheme has been coming for a while. Just this week The Athletic discussed in a recent article the potential for the launch of an online streaming service by the Premier League to allow fans to watch all its games for a monthly subscription, which many describe as an inevitability. And if they did that, I suspect many of us would subscribe parting with yet more hard earned cash.

The reality is unlike in other countries like Germany where football supporters have used organised protests and boycotts of games to limit and restrict TV broadcasters influence on their domestic game at the expense of increased revenue, English football is well past that point.

For decades English domestic football has become more and more reliant on TV broadcasting revenue, so much so that the Premier League’s project restart back in June was described by Culture, Media and Sport minister Oliver Dowden as important to “relieve the pressure on all other clubs [throughout the football pyramid]”.

And with this seemingly ever-increasing stream of TV broadcasting revenue has come ever-increasing player wages and transfer fees. Something us fans have often revelled in and encouraged rather than disgusted in the excess of. So much so that transfer deadline day has become a biannual celebration of the absurdity of the excesses that is the Premier League.

So it’s worth suggesting to all those who were expressing great vocal pressure on their club’s to sign a new player this summer and are now expressing such righteous disapproval over the greed and excess of Premier league club’s and this new PPV scheme, maybe you’re part of the problem?

Take Gary Neville for example, the Sky Sports pundit who’s spent much of 2020 complaining of his old club Man United’s lack of investment in a new defender, despite them having spent nearly £200m on existing recruits. Or Brighton fansite “We Are Brighton” and their motley crew of the growing Albion-Twitterati, who’ve spent an equal amount of time this year denouncing the clubs transfer policy for not spending big amounts of money on a proven striker.

After all, how do you think they’re paying for this at times absurd and deplorable excess, which we have been revelling in for the past two decades? The reality is us football supporters have been enabling this excess for too long, we need to take a good long hard look at ourselves first, before we criticise our club’s latest money making scheme.

This feels like a bit of a crossroads for the culture of football fandom in England. I think a lot of supporters who’ve been dedicating themselves by following their club’s home and away for years will use this break whilst games are played behind closed doors as an opportunity for a rethink of their level of dedication. Given everything since the advent of the Premier League it’s a surprise it’s taken so long, but like many things in our society at the moment, such as working from home, the pandemic has accelerated these cultural changes to happen sooner and made many to rethink their long term plans. And if many do decide to walk away, football crowds in a few years’ time will be much worse off because of it.

Diego Maradona once said of being given his first football by his uncle as a very young child: ‘That first football was the most beautiful present of my life… That day I was given it I slept all night hugging it.’ That’s what football fandom used to be about, somewhere along the line we all lost that spirit, maybe this opportunity for re-evaluation will bring it back.

Local media and the Albion

Recently one of the Albion’s most ardent supporters, The Brighton Argus, has experienced a fair amount of criticism for its reporting on the club. In particular, after a news story they ran about Brighton captain Lewis Dunk being “set to sign” for Chelsea. Upon reading the story, it was clear they’d simply republished a rumour from The Sun newspaper, that has since unsurprisingly turned out to be completely false.

Not a good look for the local newspaper and the fact that it’s in part filling our thirst for Albion stories with their “Content Managers” recycling unreliable stories from other news sources is unfortunately, simply a sign of the times.

The Brighton Argus has certainly seen better days. Decreasing newspaper circulation was already a huge industry-wide concern prior to the crisis many industries now find themselves in as a result of COVID-19. Additionally a recent spate of redundancies including some of the paper’s most senior and experienced journalists has left the paper with a much smaller and on the whole less experienced group of journalists to fill their pages and in particular that thirst for Albion content.

In fact the industry in the UK as a whole is struggling, with an average yearly decrease of its entire market revenue over the last 5 years being reported as 4.4% by IBIS Worldwide recently. And with revenue from print advertising continuing to fall at a faster rate than digital advertising revenue continues to grow, things are only getting harder for the industry.

So it should come as no surprise that the sports pages have turned to such tactics. The Argus is a business after all and needs to make a profit to succeed, combine that with the fact that sport sells or that I doubt many of us have recently bought a physical copy of the Argus, let alone remember the last time we did, makes this type of journalism a somewhat inevitable outcome. It’s hardly a surprise they like many others in the print industry have turned to focusing on website clicks above all else.

The circulation and rehashing of stories in local newspapers like the Argus has been going on for a while. The Brighton Argus itself is owned by the national organisation Newsquest who own a large amount of local publications across the UK and like other such organisations are known to regularly recycle stories across its local papers in order to fill pages. Something that the stand up comedian Dave Gorman’s routine about a group of local newspapers all reporting on dogging in their local area hilariously demonstrated.

This sort of thing hasn’t been common place in the sports sections of the Brighton Argus though, whose reporting has been the go to place for Albion news for many a year, which appears to be thanks to the dedication of its hardworking sports journalists as opposed to the support they get from their employers at Newsquest. In particular during the club’s time of need in the mid-to-late nineties (prior to Newsquest’s ownership of the newspaper), the paper was a huge catalyst for the supporters fight to oust the existing owners of the club. So much so for a period the paper and it’s journalists were even banned from the Goldstone Ground.

As a result we can be confident that this type of story will be despite of the efforts of longstanding Argus Sports reporter Brian Owen, who is no doubt working hard to keep up the paper’s usual high standards of reporting, amongst these increasingly difficult circumstances.

But this particular story (which was published whilst Brian Owen was away on holiday), certainly didn’t match up to those high standards and seemingly caught the eye of the club. The club’s Head of Media Paul Camlin admitted in a recent interview on the Albion’s Roar podcast that as a result of the story he’d personally called Brian Owen to make a point of it.

The signs of local print media’s demise have been there for a while and the recent rise of online sports publication like “The Athletic” (who’ve recruited the former Argus Sports Editor Andy Naylor) is possibly a sign of where the future of “local” sports reporting lies.

But, in contrast to the Argus who have always had a vested interest in Brighton existing and succeeding to aid their own success, organisations like The Athletic don’t and would be far less interested in club’s like Brighton if and when they once again fall on harder times.

Similar local media organisations who’ve also had a vested interest in the club’s success are also experiencing difficulties. The BBC’s seemingly continuous funding cuts have led in turn to local radio and tv budgets being cut and even being rumoured as at risk of closure altogether. Couple this with the demise of many commercial local radio stations like the recently closed long time supporter of the club Juice FM, it all means local voices in the media supporting the club are becoming more limited.

It wasn’t long ago these organisations were virtually the only media interested in the club. Regularly club press conferences would be attended mostly by a small huddle of local media representatives. While supporters of the club would largely rely on the Argus’s reporting during the week and the BBC local radio’s matchday reporting to get their Albion fix. Something many of the 92 football league clubs, as well as many others further down the English football pyramid, will be well accustomed to. But it’s something that is easy to forget in these times of global media interest in the Albion as a result of being a part of the Premier League.

But if local news organisations in general continue down the route of this “clickbait” type journalism rather than the informed journalism that we turn to then for, the power and variety of other media outputs available make it likely that newspapers like the Argus will only get left behind. And I can only see that being a bad thing for supporters of their local football teams all across the UK.

If publications like the Argus and other local media aren’t around to cover the club’s bad times when they inevitably arrive, carefully managed content released directly by the club may be the only output that us fans have to rely on.

Whilst our club has an owner such as Tony Bloom as well as a host of hardworking employees whom we can trust to do the right thing on its behalf, this isn’t an issue. In recent months the club has shown itself to be at the forefront of transparency and communication with supporters.

But many supporters of other club’s around the country aren’t so lucky. And as our club’s history shows, good times don’t last forever and in many cases it’s been the local media with their ear to the ground who’ve held club’s to account when it’s been required.

In his speech after winning the SJA’s 2018 award for best regional journalist, Neil Allen of Portsmouth’s “The News” dedicated his award to all the local sports journalists, saying: “we’re there for the good times, we’re there for the god damn awful times, we’ll always be there”.

And I for one hope they’re still around to do the same if such circumstances unfortunately arise in the future, but don’t hold your breath.

Twenty things from twenty seasons (part 2)

This piece is the second part of two blogs. To start at the beginning click here to read part one.

2009/10 – After an underwhelming start to season and with the club still scarred from the horrors of the season before, manager Russell Slade was sacked in November. This was Tony Bloom first sacking as Chairman, and it was proof he had the ruthlessness required for the job. Whilst in hindsight it looks a clear and obvious decision, many of the Albion faithful wanted him to show more loyalty to Slade after the heroics he oversaw as Albion miraculously avoided relegation in the previous season.

This was a level of ruthlessness that it could be said former chairman Dick Knight lacked in his final season. In contrast, the reason Knight gave Micky Adams the job in the first place was mostly through thinking with his heart over his head, then he gave him enough time to disprove the faith shown in him ten times over. Bloom said on sacking Slade: “Russell is a good man, which made it an even harder decision to take, but it is one which has been made in the club’s best interests.”

After Steve Coppell ruled himself out of a return to the Withdean, in his place Bloom appointed Gus Poyet. Gus was a man who unlike Slade and Adams had no managerial experience to fall on despite his high-profile reputation in England from his playing days at Chelsea and Tottenham. As a result of his profile and outspoken nature, Gus was a man who attracted headlines in the national press for good and for bad from the moment he was appointed to the moment he left the club somewhat in disgrace a few years later.

That day at St Mary’s in mid-November started his Albion career with a bang and there were plenty more bangs to come. I wrote more about the game here, but this was a night when in Gus Poyet’s first game in charge of the Albion the team ran out 3-1 winners in a victory so memorable the third goal is often still played in the game opening montage at the AMEX and whilst it took time for Poyet to properly make his mark on the club, this was a sign of things to come.

2010/11 – the following season saw Poyet turn the Albion from a hapless relegation struggler to a F’ing brilliant Championship winning side. One that wasn’t just great, but also great to watch.

A night that personified Gus’s tenure as manager was that famous and frantic night where we beat Dagenham and Redbridge 4-3 to gain promotion to the Championship.

On a night we expected to secure promotion with ease over a Dagenham side that would eventually be relegated, against a Brighton team who’d not lost at home all season were instead staring down the barrel of a defeat when John Akinde gave the visitors the lead after just 1 minute.

However, that lead didn’t last long and a quick double from the Albion via goals from Inigo Calderon and Glenn Murray game them a 2-1 lead at half time.

But it was not to be plain sailing from there as after 3 second half minutes Dagenham equaliser and then after 3 more they took the lead from the penalty spot

But the lead changed hands once again. First Liam Bridcutt fired home from 25 yards to equalise for Brighton and then Ashley Barnes headed in what turned out to be the winner with just under half an hour to go.

This left the reminder of time where the thousands of Albion fans inside Withdean or listening to the radio at home with a long anxious period where Dagenham pushed for another equaliser, but this time the defence stood firm.

What a way to see off the Withdean days, a pitch invasion ensued, the title was secured the following Saturday away to Walsall and lifted at home to Huddersfield the week after, who had to settle for a place in the playoffs, whilst Albion were about to enter an new era in the club’s history.

By now Tony Bloom’s investment was starting to make a mark on 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, one that had gone on to win League One and would experience more success in the Championship.

2011/12 – August 2011 finally saw the first competitive game at Brighton and Hove Albion Football Club’s long awaited, stubbornly fought for and much anticipated new stadium. As the day’s events off the pitch were going to be memorable, the events on the pitch had to ramp it up a notch to have a chance of sticking in the memory too, and how they did.

The game was to be played against the team Brighton had played in their final home game at their last permanent home the Goldstone Ground back in 1997, Doncaster Rovers. And as we walked up the ramp to the stadium and settled in our padded seats in the state-of-the-art stadium, it was hard to reconcile this club with the one many of us had watched play at the Goldstone and at Withdean over recent decades.

After Billy Sharp gave Doncaster an unexpected lead and in doing so scored the first competitive goal at the AMEX, Albion huffed and puffed for a long time to no avail until a late double from Will Buckley saved the occasion from being dampened.

The £1m man Will Buckley was a second half substitute, coming on for the less than effective Matt Sparrow. This substitution was to have an almost instant impact as after a Liam Bridcutt free-kick was headed clear to the edge of the box, Buckley rifled it home to equalise. Cue pandemonium in the stands and almost as if it was choreographed, thousands of Blue and White flags were flown in the air to celebrate. This would have been enough to salvage the momentous day from ending on a sour note, but more joy was to come.

The momentum was with Albion, players streamed forward in search for a winner and indeed it came, when fellow substitutes Craig Noone and Will Buckley combined. A Noone through pass in behind the Doncaster defence found Buckley one-on-one with the keeper, who scored the winner. Cue further pandemonium, flag waving and an incredible outpouring of emotion. Ultimately the result wouldn’t have mattered as it was finally having the stadium that really mattered, but by winning the team had topped off a wonderful day in fairy-tail style.

2012/13 – With the stadium still in its honeymoon period, a feeling of deflation, frustration and torment was about to well and truly kill that off. It was a feeling brought on by losing the playoff semi to our rivals Crystal Palace; and was a result of those the two Zaha goals and the wild celebrations amongst the travelling Palace fans in the South Stand that followed them.

What made it worse is that for the first time I could remember since supporting the Albion, we went into the derby game with the upper hand. Having finished higher in the final league table and beating Palace 3-0 at the AMEX in the league just a couple of months before, this felt like our match to lose. As a result, this coupled with the chance of top-flight football, it was probably the biggest match for the Albion since the playoff final in 2004.

This confidence remained, when after a 0-0 draw at Selhurst Park in the first leg, Albion were favourites to progress. And as the tie was still 0-0 on aggregate at half time in the second leg at the AMEX, and with the possibility of a penalty shootout looking more likely, this was tense but exciting.

The second half though, was heart-breaking. We started well and had good chances to take the lead, Ashley Barnes hit the bar with one shot and had another cleared off the line, but this was not to be Brighton’s day.

And as the frustration grew so did the anxiety from the home fans and with twenty minutes to go Zaha scored to give Palace the lead. Then after twenty minutes of fruitless pressure from the Albion, Zaha made it 2-0 and with that ended the Albion’s dream of promotion, for another year at least. And as our pain was Palace’s gain, this made it even worse.

2013/14 – after a long and drawn out suspension and investigation into Gus Poyet’s conduct he was sacked by the club over the summer and replaced by former Barcelona B manager Oscar Garcia Junyent. And after initial concerns following the fiasco which followed the defeat to Palace that the club would take a step backwards, this showed the club were intent instead on continuing to progress. In that vein the club qualified for the end of season promotion playoffs once again, albeit on the last day of the season with virtually the last touch of the ball off Leo Ulloa’s head finding its way into the net.

In the Semi-final Brighton drew Derby County, who finished 3 places and 13 points above the Albion and so were strong favourites. But it was Brighton who struck first when the on loan Jesse Lingard finished a good team move but by half time Brighton were 2-1 down and that was how the first leg ended.

But to say it was a deserved lead for Derby would be untrue. Brighton manager Garcia said the result was “unfair” and that “We were better than them in all areas. I am really proud of our performance.”

But you have to take your chances in knockout football and that was it for the Seagulls, something that a conversion rate of 20% of shots on target compared to Derby’s 200% that night suggested (Derby’s second was an own goal from Albion Keeper Kuszczak which ricocheted in off his back after hitting the crossbar).

What was to follow was 90 minutes of hell at Pride Park in the second leg, as an Albion team already ravaged with injuries lost captain Gordon Greer early on who was replaced by the youngster Adam Chicksen who was making only his fifth appearance of the season to make up a makeshift defence.

That was the telling moment of the game, as Albion went on to be overrun by a rampant Derby side who scored 4 to Albion’s 1, eventually winning 6-2 on aggregate. And that was that for another season. Yet another season of joy, hope and relative success in the context of the club’s history ending in despair.

Context is important though. For a club that for so long didn’t have a permanent home ground and that had spent most its history in the third tier of English football to establish itself as one of the best teams outside the top flight was a testament to Tony Bloom’s investment. But he wasn’t done just yet, not until the club were in the Premier League. Unfortunately, there were a few bumps in the road ahead before that could happen.

Oscar Garcia resigned shortly after the season ended, a resignation the club had apparently expected. In particular it was his dissatisfaction with the club’s transfer policy being cited in some quarters as a reason for his departure. With the situation not helped when Ashley Barnes was sold to Burnley and Liam Bridcutt moved to Sunderland in the January transfer window of that season. A lesson the club would heed when clubs came calling in later promotion battles.

This was the second manager in two seasons resigning because he felt he couldn’t take the club further in the competitive climate the club were competing within. Whilst some criticism was valid, this was an incredibly competitive league, one where a significant proportion of club’s had significantly higher budgets than the Albion. And with the FFP rules to comply with too, the club were in a difficult spot.

Poyet said that it was “Now or Never” to get promotion to the top tier the season before. Whilst this was a typically Poyet-style exaggeration of the truth, there was an element of truth to it. Especially given the financial power that a number of the other teams had over the Brighton; it was going to take a serious defying of the odds to achieve promotion from here on in.

2014/15 – The next season contextualised just how competitive this division was when after former Liverpool defender Sami Hyypia was appointed manager over the summer, the club went on a downturn which saw only six wins in twenty-six games. A run which lead to Hyypia losing his job and Albion staring down the barrel at the prospect of relegation back to the third tier.

Not long after assistant manager Nathan Jones took charge as the Albion visited Fulham. That night the Albion put in probably the best performance of the season so far to beat Fulham 2-0. The scenes at the end as Jones celebrated wildly in front of the Albion fans were very special, if it were up to me I’d have given him the job there and then, but that is probably why I’m not in charge of making those decisions and Tony Bloom is. You can tell what that night meant to him too by watching his post-match interview.

Later that week Chris Hughton was appointed manager and Jones was kept on as a first team coach. Hughton in fact was keen to keep him on board and had some nice things to say about Jones on his appointment. “Nathan Jones will very much be part of my first-team coaching staff and he has done a fantastic job here. I’m particularly grateful for the last two results and as somebody from the outside with a keen interest looking in, I was hoping that the last two results would fare well, and he has done very well. I have a lot of respect for him as an individual and also as a coach, so I’m delighted to have him on board.”

The next four and a half years saw Hughton and the team he went on to build cement their names as Albion legends; legends that will be spoken about for generations to come. And once survival from relegation was secured with relative comfort, it was a period where Hughton would begin to build possibly the best side in the club’s history.

2015/16 – but you don’t appreciate joy without having experienced plenty of heartache. And 15/16 was to see an Albion side would experience a great deal of that. After an intense season-long promotion race with rivals Burnley and Middlesbrough went down to the final day, Brighton missed out on goal difference.

It was the nearest of near misses as going into the final day, Burnley were two points ahead of Middlesbrough and Brighton but as Brighton travelled to Middlesbrough on the final round of fixtures, they had already achieved promotion. So it came down to this showdown at the Riverside, with both teams knowing that a win would see them up, but a 1-1 draw meant both finished on 89 points (a points total good enough for automatic promotion almost every other season in recent history) and Brighton missed out on automatic promotion on goal difference by just two goals.

The nature of the miss left everyone demoralised ahead of the familiar and this time less eagerly anticipated playoffs semi-final, which would this time be against Sheffield Wednesday.

It wasn’t just the nature of the miss but also the fact the playoffs hadn’t been kind to Brighton, and the first leg at Hillsborough would be no different as a 2-0 defeat left the Albion with an unenviable deficit to overturn.

It was a game to forget, with Dale Stephens suspended after receiving a controversial red against Middlesbrough, and Lewis Dunk also suspended for the first leg, whilst the returning veteran Bobby Zamora missed the entire run-in through an injury, the team were severely weakened. This injury for Zamora was one that ended up forcing him to retire, ending an enjoyable but short swansong that brought back memories of his first spell. Brighton lost another four players to injury during the first 60 minutes leaving them down to ten. And after Kieran Lee gave Wednesday a 2-0 lead many thought would be unassailable.

And so it proved, but it was not without the Albion throwing everything at their opponents in the second leg at the AMEX. In these circumstances you’d usually say the team threw the kitchen sink at them, well here the Albion threw the whole kitchen at them; washing machine, oven, cupboards and all, but to no avail as Wednesday stood firm.

When Dunk game Albion the lead on 19 minutes it felt like it could be our day, but Wednesday quickly equalised within nine minutes and Albion went on to miss a plethora of chances to make a comeback. 27 shots, 9 on target but only 1 goal to show for it. It was to a degree the same old story, three semi-final defeats in four years, three different managers, but when it came to the crunch playoff game the same old problems.

But this day felt different to the others, gut-wrenching, yes. But not as demoralising. For a start I doubt the atmosphere in the AMEX for that second leg will ever be topped, and to go with it was an inspiring performance of real effort and intent from the Albion players. Despite the crushing miss of automatic promotion and the crushing defeat at Hillsborough this team was still kicking.

2016/17 – the next time we all convened at the AMEX there was a reinvigorated optimism around the place. There had been many good summer additions, including a certain Steven Sidwell, now 33, that we came across back in 2003 during a loan spell with the club as a young up-and-coming player. The club also signed Northern Ireland international Oliver Norwood to bolster numbers in a central midfield that had become over-reliant on the partnership of Stephens and Kayal. Shane Duffy was to sign later that month, a player who would go on to form a formidable partnership with Lewis Dunk at the back. And then there was the return of Glenn Murray. A man who’d left the club in 2011 on the eve of the move to the AMEX to join rivals Palace was back and would quickly win round any remaining doubters with his keen eye for goal.

But more than that, key players had been held onto, Dale Stephens and Lewis Dunk in particular had been subject to fierce transfer rumours of a move away, but both stayed, largely due to the club’s firmness to reject a number of offers. Clearly a sign they’d learnt lessons from the ill effects of the sale of key players in prior transfer windows.

When the first home game came around against Nottingham Forest there was plenty of optimism of the team going one better and finally achieving that coveted goal of automatic promotion to the topflight.

And it was a game that mirrored much of what was good about this Albion team, Anthony Knockaert who went on to win Championship player of the season scored the opener and then the returning Glenn Murray scored his first two goals after returning to the club and was set on his way to scoring 23 that season.

What followed was possibly the best season on the club’s history when it’s comes to pure joy and glory. At times winning felt like an unvarying habit and losing inconceivable.

After unexpectedly losing at home to Brentford in early September the team didn’t lose again in 2016. And aside from that Bristol City defeat at home where the team had already been promoted, only Champions Newcastle took all three points from the AMEX from there on in.

After the win over Forest, Brighton went top that night as a result of playing on a Friday night ahead of the rest of the division. They went on to spend 76% of the season in those automatic promotion places, including most importantly the last one. Premier League here we come!

2017/18 – There were more triumphant days than the 2-0 home defeat to eventual Champions Manchester City, but for me there have been no game which filled me with more pre-match excitement, maybe except from the opening game against Doncaster six years before.

Brighton in the Premier League, that’s right Premier F***ing League! The hairs on the back of my neck were stood up all day with anticipation. Before the game Brighton city centre was packed with football fans of both the royal-blue and sky-blue persuasion and the 5-30 kick off allowed everyone a bit more time for everyone to lap up the atmosphere and enjoy the build-up on a sunny late summer day.

Once you got into the ground you were greeted with the sight of countless TV crews lining the pitch in anticipation of the Premier League’s opening weekend late Saturday kick off, this felt like Brighton were finally box office.

As the teams came out a banner was lifted in the North Stand saying “From Hereford to Here”, the title of a poem written for the occasion by Atilla the Stockbroker which was based around the club’s rise since that win at Hereford in 1997 that kept the club in the football league. For me it wasn’t quite from Hereford away in 97 to here but from Hartlepool at home in 99 to here, but it had still been some rise that I’d been lucky enough to witness the majority of.

At times during the mid-Withdean years when the Stadium planning permission battle seemed endless, it was hard to imagine the club playing in the top flight, but 34 years since the club last reached these height, 20 years since that Hereford game and the closing of the Goldstone and 6 years since the opening of the AMEX it had finally come. Through all the battles with shoddy owners, planning committees and playoff semi-final opponents, the club had finally made it.

The game itself was less important but as brilliant as the day was, City were just as mesmerising, and Albion matched them for large periods. And in fact, Albion nearly took the lead before two quick goals around the hour mark sealed a 2-0 win for City.

This was a lesson in what the step up to the topflight was all about, the ball retention, passing accuracy and constant tempo of the City possession was like nothing the team had seen in the Championship. So, they quickly found out what survival would require and in the coming months Hughton’s men continuously progressed and eventually achieved safety with the relative comfort of two games to spare.

2018/19 – Finally, we come to last season and when it comes to the best moments of that season there are none that beat the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley. But rather than focus on the game here I want to focus on the day, and what a day it was.

Yes we lost, but the day was never about the result, it was about the club and its fans enjoying a historic day in the club’s history. Brighton fans filled pubs all over London, from Marylebone to Mayfair, from The Globe in Baker Street to The Green Man in Wembley. And the pre-match the atmosphere in the west end of Wembley stadium was a sight that could have put a lump in the back of the throat of even the less sentimental from within our fanbase.

For me the best moment of the day was still to come. At the final whistle 35,000 Brighton fans stood on their feet applauding and cheering their side. Proud of their efforts and appreciative of what had been a memorable cup run for the club, it’s second best performance in the FA Cup and the best for 36 years.

These were post-match celebrations that will live long in the memory. I, like I’m sure many others, felt quite emotional at the end, maybe it was the weariness from the battle, maybe it was the sound of Fatboy Slim’s “Praise You” ringing around the Stadium, a song that has become synonymous with the club, or maybe it was sharing such a momentous day with family and friends. Either way it had been a second half performance from the team to be praised. Whilst chances were few and far between, this Albion side had pushed possibly the greatest team in the world right to the end. And after a few post-match drinks to savour every drop of the day we went home satisfied that we’d made the most of it and the team had done the City proud.

Whilst some would criticise this as a typically negative performance from Brighton, including the BBC’s Jermaine Jenas who called it as “missed opportunity” for the club, they were up against a great team. And you only have to look at the final ten minutes where Brighton did throw players forward in attack to see what they were up against, a period in which the Albion managed to create no clear cut chances, whilst City created the best of the game on the break, which Raheem Stirling struck tamely into the hands of Brighton ‘keeper Maty Ryan.

The club hoped this would be a springboard for the two key home games coming next in their relegation run-in, but instead the team lost both games at home to Bournemouth and fellow-strugglers Cardiff and only stumbled to safety when at one point it looked like it would be achieved comfortably. But achieved it was and I go into my twenty first season as an Albion fan supporting a topflight club, which considering all that has gone before is pretty special.

Twenty things from twenty seasons (part 1)

According to the World Health Organization, twenty years equates to around a fifth of the average life expectancy in the UK. It is also a period of time that equates to around a sixth of the history of Brighton and Hove Albion Football Club.

So on reaching the culmination of the twentieth season since I decided to start following the Albion, and as the club approaches the twenty year anniversary of moving back to Brighton and making Withdean Stadium its temporary home, it feels like a good time to reflect. So here’s a few memories from times gone by.

1999/20 – You never forget your first game. But by 1999, I’d already been a football goer for a few years, having been sporadically taken to Arsenal and England games by my parents. But it wasn’t until Saturday 6th November 1999 when I first experienced the Albion live. A day which saw an unspectacular 1-0 win over Hartlepool at Withdean Stadium.

I remember little of the games aside from Jamie Campbell’s headed goal and the subsequent firework that followed. Something that became a regular celebration of Albion goals at Withdean for the majority of the club’s time there.

It was a game Albion Manager Micky Adams described as having a “dead” atmosphere. No wonder really considering the quality of the match and the fact it was such an incredibly cold day. I still remember my brothers’ complaints ringing in our ears, so if you’d told him then that we’d be regularly frequenting this place for the next twelve years I expect his response would have been far from friendly.

Yes, the Withdean wasn’t a place to be when the weather wasn’t on your side, with no protection from the elements. And on this day the wind swept through the newly upgraded converted athletic stadium with a fierce harshness. But nonetheless this was a place we would grow to begrudgingly love over the coming years.

2000/01 – The next season a man arrived at the club who for a while defined my love for it. And when Bobby Zamora signed for the Albion from Bristol Rovers for £100k I think the majority of fans thought we’d go on to win the league. So much so that on the first day of the season away at Southend the Albion away end sung chants of ‘Championes’ before the game, only for the team to embarrassingly then lose 2-0.

But nonetheless the team did win the league with Zamora the league’s top scorer on 28. We all know the rest, those three seasons with the club go down as one of my favourite periods over these two decades. A period that began and ended with the transfer of Bobby Zamora.

2001/02 – In the third season at the Withdean it got even better for the Albion. The team continued their supremacy and marched on to a second consecutive title and promotion. With a little help from that man Bobby Zamora, who once again top scored with 28.

Even the departure of manager Micky Adams couldn’t derail the Albion’s journey onwards and upwards. After he left for Leicester City, Peter Taylor moved in the opposite direction and got the team over the line. But, he then left in the summer after realising the club’s plans for a new stadium and the financial resources available to strengthen the team, weren’t quite what he’d been hoping for.

But for me the moment of the season was that Swindon game at home. The worst 0-0 you’ll ever see, but a result that secured yet another championship title. There’s nothing like seeing your team win a title but seeing them do it two seasons in a row is particularly special.

The club had won two titles winning promotions in my first three seasons as an Albion fan, but what I was soon to find out was that there would be just as many ups as there would be downs.

2002/03 – And inevitably after such a sharp jump up the leagues, the following season was one of those downs. Whilst the season started brightly with four points from the first two games, a run of 12 straight defeats followed and the writing was on the wall for the Albion.

But after Steve Coppell was brought in to replace the hopelessly out of his depth Martin Hinshlewood as manager the team put up a great fight and almost survived. At one point remarkably lifting themselves out of the relegation zone.

And a game that summed up this fight was a 2-2 draw at home to Burnley. The club’s had met on the first day of the season a day which saw a 3-1 win for Brighton at Turf More, a win that had preceded that losing run. And when the clubs met again in the December of that season there would be more Albion celebrations.

But first the Albion once again found themselves behind. Burnley were dominant in the first half and finally took a deserved lead through Glen Little. Then after many chances came and went and with less than twenty minutes to go, Burnley first goalscorer Little found Ian Moore with a cross who doubled the Clarets lead.

I like many Albion fans had seen this story too many times before that season and assumed that was that. I was close to giving up and leaving when unthinkably the Albion mounted a comeback through a 20-year-old young rookie on loan from Arsenal named Steve Sidwell.

And it was that man Zamora who was to turn provider this time. First, he found Sidwell with a cross who pulled the deficit back to one with three minutes left on the clock. Then the duo combined again for Sidwell to equalise and cue bedlam in the rickety South Stand in the Withdean rain.

It wasn’t just that the Albion had got a result by scoring two late goals, but also that it was done so despite being second best for long periods. But after a successful spell on loan Chairman Dick Knight made a futile attempt to sign him when Steve Sidwell’s loan soon ended. But instead Sidwell went to Reading where he was later a key player as the club achieved promotion to the topflight. The Albion’s main marksman Zamora would also leave at the end of the season for topflight Tottenham. I wonder what that side could have gone on to achieve if it had held the same pulling power that the club does now to enable it to hold onto its best players.

2003/04 – So a new season brought a new dawn for Brighton back in the third tier. As following the resignation of manager Steve Coppell who left in the September of that season to join Steve Sidwell at Reading, there was another new manager in the shape of Mark McGhee.

Whilst Coppell didn’t save Albion from relegation, he had at least ensured there was a fight and that the Albion were ultimately only relegated on the final day of that season.

When McGhee came in, he built on the organisation and experience that Coppell had instilled, constructing a solid defence-minded team that conceded only 43 goals in 46 games, the third best in the league that season. McGhee also added a much-needed injection of Scottish Charisma to post-match interviews, something Steve Coppell’s dry monotone nature lacked.

And it was McGhee’s charisma and wit that pushed the Albion over the line into a playoff place for promotion back to the second tier at the first time of asking.

After being drawn against Swindon in the playoff semi-final and winning the first leg 1-0, the Albion were poor in the return home leg. After going 2-0 down in extra time they needed a late goal from defender Adam Virgo to take the game to a penalty shootout, which they won to get to the final.

That Virgo equaliser still goes down as a favourite Albion goal of mine. We thought we were beaten; some fans had already begun to leave, and it really was the last throw of the dice to get as many players forward as we could and launch the ball into the box. The scenes when he scored and then when we won the shootout were like little seen at the Withdean.

Then came the final, one of the great Brighton and Hove Albion days as nearly 30,000 Albion fans descending on the Welsh capital of Cardiff, a following about four times larger than the average attendances the club were getting at the time at Withdean.

Ultimately, we won the game when we were given a penalty through a foul on Chris Iwelumo and as soon as he won it, there was little doubt that Leon Knight would put it away. 1-0 Albion and that’s how it ended.

But the build up to the game, in fact the season as a whole, had been dominated by the campaign to get planning permission to build our new stadium at Falmer from the then Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott. Most notably the postcards saying: “We’re pleased to be here (with a picture of the Cardiff Millennium Stadium), but we wish we were here (with a picture of the design for the new stadium)” the club gave out with the playoff final tickets and that fans were encouraged to send to John Prescott’s office.

At that time, it was always a balance between fighting for the new stadium and focusing on matters on the pitch, and the requirement to fund the continued legal battle was stretching resources at the club. Former manager Steve Coppell said during his time as manager whilst the club struggled against relegation: “The football has almost been a sideshow. If that money had been spent on the pitch, we wouldn’t have found ourselves in this position.” But this was to continue for some time yet.

2004/05 – Given that the planning permission battle was to run on for a few more seasons, the fact the club avoided relegation from the second tier for the only time during the Withdean era is a testament to the good work Mark McGhee was doing at the club.

His style wasn’t to everyone’s taste though and would eventually be his downfall a couple of years later. One of the best examples of his approach was the switch of Adam Virgo from Centre Back to Striker to play him as a target man, eventually becoming the club’s top scorer that season.

I remember the surprise when I first saw that he was playing up front. Like most I first thought it was bizarre, but this exemplified the makeshift nature at the club that McGhee had to work with at the time.

This was first tried in what was a notable 1-0 win for the Seagulls away to recently relegated from the topflight Leicester City, who were incidentally managed by former and also future Albion manager Micky Adams.

And it was just as bizarre of a winner as the Leicester defence’s failed offside trap left Virgo with so much room, he had plenty of time to set himself and slot the ball home past former England goalie Ian Walker.

And he wasn’t the only former England international on show for Leicester as up the other end Dion Dublin wasted a few opportunities to peg back the seagulls. In fact, this was a Leicester team full of players with plenty of topflight experience and the three points were a real coup for the Albion.

Virgo admitted the forward role wasn’t one he relished saying after the Leicester win: “I wouldn’t say I am enjoying playing up front. There is a lot of running involved” and McGhee was clear that it wasn’t in his long-term plan saying: “Adam is a better centre half than centre forward or right-back and eventually he will be a terrific centre half for us.”

But Virgo never really did get the chance to do that. He played most of that season as a make-shift target man, top scoring with eight. In doing so he caught the eye of Celtic manager and former teammate of McGhee, Gordon Strachan, who signed Virgo for £1.5m. A deal Dick Knight described as “the best deal I ever did”.

Things didn’t work out though for Virgo at Celtic as personal issues and broken promises counted against him. After a knee injury during a loan spell at Coventry he found himself back at Brighton in 2008. When despite being a fairly regular face in the team over those next two seasons, he never looked like the potentially great centre back he had under McGhee pre-injury. And when his contract ran out, he left the club in 2010, subsequently ending his playing days with spells at Yeovil and Bristol Rovers.

2005/06 – The following season Brighton couldn’t repeat the feat of survival again, ultimately succumbing to relegation as the bottom placed team sitting a whopping 12 points from safety. Whilst the club had made a huge financial gain on the sale of Virgo, much of that money went into keeping the club and its fight for a new stadium afloat and as such the on-pitch matters suffered.

But there were still some high points. In particular when Albion won a meeting between themselves and rivals Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park 1-0 through a Paul McShane header. A win that to a degree dispelled the ghosts of the 5-0 defeat there that bookended the 12-game losing run in 2002.

Brighton were favoured by the fact that hat-trick hero of that day back in 2002 for Palace Andy Johnson started on the bench due to injury. But it was Albion’s strike-force which looked like it was missing something as an out of form Leon Knight and a young Jake Robinson spurned a number of chances until McShane became the unlikely goalscoring hero to earn Albion a morale boosting victory.

But later that season Palace came to our place and got a late winner through Jobi McAnuff and beat the Albion 3-2 to even the score. It just seemed like they always got the better of us and always had the last say. How things change.

2006/07 – So with the club back in the third tier and with everyone still stinging from the horrors that they saw over the previous season; Mark McGhee was sacked in September only a handful of games into the season.

In his place came former club captain and more recently Youth team coach, Dean Wilkins. Once in charge he put his focus almost entirely on developing the young players at the club. But unfortunately, as Dick Knight says in his autobiography: “a good coach doesn’t necessarily make a good manager.”

The first season he had in charge was far from a success as the Seagulls finished only six points and three places above the relegation zone.

But as always in the darkness, there is still light. And that came with a humongous 8-0 win over Northwich Victoria in the FA Cup first round that was played in front of just four and a half thousand dedicated souls at the Withdean Stadium. With Brighton 2-0 up at half time the Conference side crumbled as they went on to concede six second half goals.

This was a win that would end up being Brighton’s equal third highest winning margin in its history. A margin that is only beaten by a nine-goal winning margin over Wisbech Town in the FA Cup first round in 1965 and a twelve-goal winning margin over Brighton Amateurs in the FA Cup first qualifying round in 1902.

Jake Robinson scored a hat trick, Dean Cox scored a brace and there were also goals for Alex Revell, Sam Rents and Joe Gatting. Notably, Alex Revell was the only one of the five goalscorers that wasn’t a product of Dean Wilkins work with the youth team.

In fact, one of those youth products Jake Robinson is a man associated with another Albion record as being the youngest ever goalscorer for the club, a feat he achieved three years earlier against Forest Green in the Football League trophy.

But Dean Wilkins partiality towards his youth team products went far beyond that of a run out for a highly rated sixteen-year-old in a neglected and low priority cup competition. The scorers that day were a sign of the work Wilkins did whilst manager that was at times foolhardy. Dick Knight admitted in his autobiography that a number of potential signings were turned down by Wilkins whilst others that did materialise, like a young Glenn Murray, would often be used as bit part players to make room for Wilkins youth team players.

Whilst his overall vision of a team fill of Sussex born players leading Albion out at the AMEX was a noble one, it almost certainly could not have been achieved whilst gaining Brighton promotion back to the second tier as Poyet would achieve four years later.

2007/08 – The following season saw a significant upturn in fortunes as the team finished 7th and were ultimately unfortunate to just miss out on a playoff place to Leeds United. This was all-but confirmed the night before a trip to Bristol Rovers for Albion’s last away game of the season. Nonetheless they took a good away support with Wilkins referencing this saying: “It is the best in the division by an absolute mile… After Leeds won on Friday it looks like we have missed out on the play-offs, so the amount of fans turning out here today was quite phenomenal.”

I remember it being an unusually sunny day for a football match and I ended up with a quite rosy-red sunburnt shade to my facial skin-tone due to the uncovered away end. I’m not a regular at away games, mainly due to a general laziness when it comes to committing to the long journeys involved. But on this occasion living a 10-minute walk down the road from Bristol Rovers’ Memorial Ground it wasn’t as huge of a commitment as usual.

And it was a game the travelling support who had made the journey from Sussex wouldn’t regret doing so, as goals from Ian Westlake and Glenn Murray earned Brighton a 2-0 win.

The game was advertised as the last game at the Memorial Ground for Bristol Rovers, but we returned their next season after redevelopment of the ground was delayed and then later scrapped altogether. They still play there to this day.

It’s been a while since Rovers started talking of moving stadium and have since lost significant ground to city neighbours Bristol City who’ve redeveloped their previously run-down Ashton Gate stadium into a modern stadium fit for the purpose of topflight football. Rovers story is one that really makes you appreciate the AMEX.

That day in 2008 turned out to be Wilkins last away game in charge of the Albion as he was demoted back to a first team coach over the summer. In his autobiography Chairman Dick Knight admitted that he’d “lost confidence in Dean Wilkins abilities as a manager.”

2008/09 – So the summer of 2008 then saw another new manager, this time it was the return of the man who built the team that I had initially fallen in love with back in 1999, Micky Adams. As a result, the excitement and optimism at the club seemed to be on its way back. And it was enough for me and my brother to get season tickets again, which considering I was still living in Bristol made it quite a personal commitment, but Micky was worth it.

However, despite a decent start repeated home defeats followed. One home game that remarkably didn’t end in defeat was the visit of Premier League Man City in the League Cup. Unlike now the visit of a topflight team was a real novelty but living and working in Bristol meant evening games were a no-go for me and I had to settle for watching Sky Sports News for score updates.

So I was left jumping around my living room amongst my slightly bemused housemates as the winning penalty went in that gave Albion a victory at the end of an engrossing 2-2 draw. It’s a shame that the team were otherwise so dreadful that season. The return of Micky Adams didn’t work out at all, but as well as this moment of glory there was also the run to the semi-finals of the Football League Trophy, where the Albion were a penalty shootout away from a final at Wembley, but it was not to be.

Not long after that game Micky Adams was sacked, and Russel Slade came in as his replacement. The change was needed, the team looked hopeless and doomed to face relegation under Adams towards the end of his reign with him stood seemingly helpless on the sidelines.

However, under Slade’s leadership the Albion did stay up on the final day of the season thanks to a 1-0 win over Stockport that bookended a truly great escape from relegation by the team.

In doing so they had managed to avoid falling into the football league’s bottom tier, which considering we were now two years from the opening of the AMEX, feels like a pivotal moment in the club’s recent history.

To read part two click here

Rainbow laces and banana skins – diversity and prejudice in football

In light of the banana skin thrown at Gabonese international footballer Pierre Patrick Aubameyang during last Sunday’s North London Derby and the Homophobic abuse sung by Huddersfield supporters in their match with Brighton the day before, the football community continues to soul search for the antidote to the prejudice that is still apparent in modern football stadia each weekend.

It’s easy to overlook incidents like these as either committed by a small group of idiots or just misplaced banter respectively, particularly when you’re not directly affected by the prejudice. However, it’s just as easy to over compensate and find fault in minor issues where there is no fault.

Comedian Matt Lucas has spoken about his experiences of Homophobic chants at football games. He said on a BBC documentary about football and its attitude towards homosexuality back in 2012 that you had to be able to have a “bit of a laugh”. But, whilst he sees chants like “we can see you holding hands” as harmless, he recognised that there is an ugly side to it, referencing the chant sung about Sol Campbell which makes false claims that he is a homosexual living with HIV.

As a Brighton fan I’ve heard plenty of homophobic chanting at matches, including a few references to HIV. Sadly, whilst a lot of homophobic chants are less unpleasant than this, there are periodic occurrences of the uglier variety. And no matter how often you hear it, it’s always shocking. In fact it’s not just in the stands. When going to Brighton away games I, like many other Brighton fans, have experienced one-on-one homophobic abuse aimed at me because of the football shirt I wear. Personally I can easily just ignore the abuse and laugh in pity at the individual giving it out, but there is no doubt that for others it would deter them from going to a game again.

Another person, I find worth listening to on the subject of discrimination is Comedian Nish Kumar. He commented in the guardian recently that as a society previously “we were in denial about the extent to which Britain had cured itself of the poison of racism. We’re definitely not in denial about it now.” Even if you disagree with his overt political viewpoint, it’s hard to disagree with this point given the rise in popularity of nationalist, at times racist, political views over the last few years. A political shift that has shown as a society, not just in Britain but across much of the Western world, we have become more aware of the prejudice within our mix that we would liked to have thought had been eradicated. And the recent incidents in the Premier League last weekend bring this to our attention even more.

Many supporters of clubs accused of discriminatory chanting will say it’s all about creating a unwelcome atmosphere for the visitors and just ‘part of the game’. This is an argument many Burnley fans made after the booing of Gaetan Bong last season led to accusations of racism. But whilst no malice may be intended by those giving out abuse from the stands, prejudice of all kinds is still very prevalent in modern society, be it in our football stadiums, in our workplaces or in our politics. So to accept it under the premise of ‘banter’ would be at the risk of normalising this kind of discrimination.

With the 24 hour news cycle and the constant scrutiny on social media platforms that now exists, it’s easy for these incidents to be taken out of proportion. The recent documentary on ITV “Out of their Skin” fronted by Ian Wright certainly showed that football and society has come along way from the days when monkey chants and uses of the racist terminology was common place in Britain. From the shocking clips of the far-right political group the National Front, to the tales of former Chelsea player Paul Cannoville being racially abused by his own supporters, it’s worth remembering things have been a lot worse in the not to distant past. Whilst the recent incidents are deplorable, they are a long way from the aggressively sinister attitudes towards minority groups in the 70’s and 80’s.

But nonetheless there is still a long way to go before we can genuinely claim equality. Be it the lack of Black, Asian and other ethnic minority groups represented in football, something Brighton’s very own Chris Hughton has spoken about on multiple occasions. Be it the evident homophobia at most Brighton games shown by opposition supporters. Or be it the blatant sexist behaviour most women in football often talk of regularly dealing with. In fact a recent report from the equality group Women in Football stated that reports of discrimination in women’s football had risen by 400% during the 2017/18 season.

Football being a predominantly male sport has meant that sexism isn’t as popularly called out as other forms of discrimination. From the inaugural Women’s Ballon D’or winner Ada Hegerberg upon receiving the award being asked presenter Martin Solveig if she knew how to twerk. To Eni Eluko being patronisingly clapped by Patrice Evra for making a good point during the half time punditry of ITV’s coverage at this summers World Cup. Or the derision shown to another female pundit Alex Scott, every time she appears on TV. Sexism is as prevalent, if not more prevalent, than any form of prejudice in football today.

When assistant referee Sian Massey was unwillingly caught up in the Richard Keys and Andy Gray sexism saga that led to them both leaving Sky, she subsequently came under a lot of attention from the media, mostly out of sympathy. So much so that every right decision she made was seemingly picked out by pundits on all football programmes for praise, a well intended but nonetheless patronising gesture we could all do without. For Women to be truly accepted in football, we need to stop treating them as if they’re a novelty act. Sian Massey and Alex Scott have both earned their right to be in the jobs they hold, a statement without question for most male pundits or officials, but one women in the same positions have to tolerate on a daily basis.

In isolation all this may appear fairly harmless, but put together it paints a much more worrying picture of modern football. Whilst the chants from fans towards their opposition counterparts can often just be put down to ‘banter’ and part of creating an unwelcoming atmosphere for the visitors, they can also create an unwelcome atmosphere for many minority communities.

In a week where the Premier League were promoting diversity through its rainbow laces campaign, ironically at the same time the type of prejudice it aims to eradicate has been brought to the foreground of public’s consciousness. Whilst there have been darker days in British football, in order to ensure a true and meaningful form of diversity is achieved we can’t afford to let complacency set in. Even if some deem it banter, or isolated incidents committed by idiots, there are certain thing that just shouldn’t be accepted and more needs to be done to eradicate it.

But how? In football stadiums self-policing of fans by fellow fans has provided a great deal of the progress seen since the 1980s and is still a large part of eradicating discrimination in football stadiums now. In a blog on the Crystal Palace fan site Red n Blue army, one fan’s talks of his personal battle dealing with the homophobic chants from his own fans during Tuesday’s derby against Brighton and whether self-policing is enough or whether to report it. In my eyes self-policing can only do so much. Many of those starting these chants know it’s wrong to do so and revel in it, being told this by a fellow supporter will only encourage them.

I see the best solution as to punish the clubs these fans hold dear. Only when the prospects of their club is at stake will these people act responsibly. And only then will clubs take genuine evasive action and punish fans for their behaviour.

The sight of a banana skin splattering over the Arsenal’s players rainbow laces, laces there in support of diversity, is a lasting image of the issues British society still has to deal with in order to create genuine equality. Now, as ever, football must recognise the important part that it must play in continuing this process.

ITV Digital – A tale of greed and speculation

It’s been 18 years since the digital television provider owned by television companies Granada and Carlton, originally known as ON Digital then subsequently better known as ITV Digital was granted the rights to Football League and League Cup live TV coverage. What began with optimism and spending levels in the Football League of an unprecedented nature to that date, ended in chaos and outrage. But how did it all happen and what lessons can be learnt?

The infamous tale began as David Lister put it with “a rush of blood to the head”. A fee of £315m was agreed with the Football League for which ITV Digital were getting exclusive rights to show live Football League and League Cup games for three years starting in the 2001/02 season. A monumental sum compared to the current deal at the time, and in fact only £14m a year less than the 5-year deal just agreed with Sky due to start in August 2019, nearly 17 years after the ITV Digital deal started.

In David Lister’s Independent article, he talks about how the ITV Digital venture was “doomed to fail from start”. He goes on to detail a long list of mistakes that led to the ITV Digital failure. For example, how in November 1998 there were not enough set-top boxes to meet the demands from the Christmas period. Lister also details how “in three-and-a-half years, ITV Digital consumed £750m of the ITV companies’ cash to attract 1.2 million subscribers. The break-even figure was 1.7 million. Sky has 5.5 million”. ITV Digital’s intention was to provide competition to Sky, but it ended up only reinforcing its dominance in the market.

By the end of the first season of the new TV deal ITV Digital had collapsed and the Football League was in crisis. As the crisis came to a head the late Tessa Jowell, then UK Government Minister for Culture, Media and Sport spent time encouraging the company to keep going, but it was to no avail, leaving the Football League without its main income source.

Subsequently Minister for Sport Richard Caborn warned financially troubled clubs that the Government would not mount a rescue operation. In fact, going as far as stating that there were “four very famous clubs who will probably not be in existence at the end of the season”. But this was a threat that proved untrue, but a threat that was spoken of a lot at the time.

Then Manchester United chief executive Peter Kenyon spoke out on behalf of the top clubs in the country in favour of halving the number of professional clubs in the league pyramid. Amongst others the PFA and Football League objected and ultimately won out, but Kenyon wasn’t alone in calling the current Football League structure “Unsustainable”. John Williams, the director of the football research unit at Leicester University agreed with Kenyon, but the number of full time clubs in England remains as high today as it was then.

The argument of reducing the number of professional clubs is an old recycled argument from the dark days of English football during 1970s and 80s, one that was driven by the top clubs wanting a larger share of the TV revenue and went away when the introduction of the Premier League markedly increased the size of the market and the proportion of revenue going to the top clubs.

However, it’s no wonder that the Football League has survived as it is when you consider the breadth and depth of support for Football in the UK. You only have to look at stories like that of my club Brighton to see how the threat of a local community losing its football club can pull everyone together in a show of support.

Many saw the deal with ITV Digital and the subsequent chaos that followed largely because of clubs speculating on money that they had not received yet. But as former Barnsley chairman, John Dennis put it clubs like his saw it as “perfectly reasonable to assume the terms of a properly negotiated contract with a properly constituted company would be honoured”. Barnsley who hadn’t long been relegated from the Premier League were one of the clubs who subsequently went into administration to stave off the threat of extinction.

How wrong they were and with many clubs left with players on relatively lucrative long-term contracts, many players were released, some players like those at Watford and Grimsby instead agreed a pay-cut and many other clubs were left with financial difficulties to manage for years to come. According to one Guardian report at the time 30 of the Football League’s 72 clubs were at risk of going under and 12 went into administration in the immediate aftermath.

Those 12 teams included Bradford City, who were also suffering from a recent relegation from the Premier League and the accompanying subsequent fall in revenue. As a result, they found themselves unable to meet the contractual demands left over as a legacy of their Premier League days and also went into administration.

At this time Leicester were another recently relegated team who coupled with Premier League debts, the collapse of ITV Digital pushed them over the edge and into administration. And it wasn’t until a Gary Lineker headed consortium enabled the club to exit administration in 2003 and secure its long-term future.

Administration is a tool used in business for an organisation to restructure and keep running as an organisation under a new directorship whilst paying a reduced amount to its outstanding creditors, and as such appeals more to football clubs than other businesses. This large influx of football clubs entering administration was also partly so they could utilise loopholes in British law under the “football creditors rules”, which prioritises other football organisations and staff over non-footballing creditors.

This trend led to clubs succeeding under administration being heavily criticised for utilising this loophole as a financial advantage. In particular Leicester City, who after exiting administration in 2002 achieved promotion at the end of the 2002/03 season back to the top flight. Subsequently the Football League brought in rules meaning clubs would be subject to penalties such as points deductions if they were to utilise the administration route in future.

Of course, many clubs like them should and did take their fair share of the blame for financial mismanagement. For many clubs, ITV Digital’s collapse was simply the final straw in a long list of evidence of financial mismanagement. And considering what has already been said of ITV Digital and its flawed business model it’s surprising clubs were as fast and loose as they were with the money that was to be never forthcoming.

Stories like the demise of Bradford’s fortunes and subsequent stories like that of Portsmouth have led to the introduction of greatly increased parachute payments for clubs relegated from the Premier League and financial fair play regulations for all Football League clubs, including a salary caps.

The issues that clubs had financially were exaggerated due to a temporary collapse of transfer market. With many Premier League clubs like Leeds and Chelsea along with many of the Football League clubs experiencing financial difficulties, the financial trouble couldn’t be fixed as easily as it could now by a club selling off their top players for a quick injection of cash and reduction of the wage bill.

Unlike now where the Premier League riches filter down the English football pyramid via the transfer market, it simply didn’t exist at the time. For example, due to their own financial difficulties the pre-Abramovich Chelsea stated they would concentrate on home-grown talent, how times have changed.

The transfer market is often a get out of jail card clubs use to paper over the cracks, much as my club Brighton did in the late 80’s. And is ultimately often just a tactic used to delay the inevitable effects of this mismanagement. Many shared this view, for example David Taylor, then chairman of Huddersfield Town said: “Many clubs have been guilty of paying out silly wages in an effort to get success. The demise of ITV Digital brought home that you have to be more realistic in the wages you pay.”

At my team Brighton, the chairman at the time of the ITV Digital collapse, Dick Knight reassured fans that the club’s finances were secure. In fact after stepping down, in his book ‘Mad Man’ he wrote about how he and Leyton Orient chairman Barry Hearn were both sceptical from the start. So much so that Dick Knight said he told the board of directors that they weren’t going to rely on the money turning up at all, but as it has already been shown many other club chairman didn’t have the same foresight.

However, to a certain degree it’s hard not to sympathise with the football clubs and their owners given the circumstances they are working in. If you consider the pressure they are under it’s no wonder clubs speculated to make the most out of the anticipated financial windfall. It’s a well-accepted culture in the Football League for clubs to sail close to the wind financially and rely on windfalls from generous benefactors to make ends meet. Just look at my club Brighton in the Withdean years and imagine what the club would have achieved without the generosity of some of the directors at the time, I suspect a much more modest period in the club’s history would have followed.

It’s also true that fans believe this is the duty of the board of directors to part with their cash for the better of the club. Dick Knight, now a club legend and a man who took the club from a perilous position in exile to stability and success during the years at Withdean Stadium, was nicknamed ‘Dick Tight’ by many of the fans on the website North Stand Chat because of his perceived lack of willingness to get his chequebook out. The ambitions of fans are often forcing owners to take financial risks whilst at the same time not being irresponsible with regards to the club’s financial sustainability. Two requirements that have little correlation with each other and create little synergy.

Sky benefited from all this chaos, with the Football League returning after only one season away. In some ways it saved the day and, in the process, got a cut price deal for Football League TV rights for the next four years totalling only £95m. Many complained of Sky’s opportunism, but they’d been supportive and constructive partners of the Football League for a number of years up to this point. In particular, helping in no small part to make the Football League playoffs, the highlight of the English football calendar it is today. It was the Football League that decided to walk away from this partnership in search of better things, something that in hindsight looks greedy and foolish.

Furthermore, unlike ITV Digital, Sky have always met the contractual financial demands they have agreed with footballing authorities for TV deals. And they were the established market leader in digital TV. So, it’s fair to say that the Football League and its clubs deserve some criticism for entering into this deal with a company that instead were without a proven track record or established subscriber base, even with the backing of the ITV brand.

To add to this, it became clear the Football League had not ensured the contract was as watertight as it should have been. When they later took their claim for damages against ITV Digital to the high court, the judge ruled against the Football League’s claim. The judge said that it had “failed to obtain the necessary written guarantees”, because the final contract hadn’t been signed. Which was further damming evidence of the Football League’s incompetence in this whole fiasco.

Around the same time as the ITV Digital collapse, a Scottish football pay-per-view tv deal known better as “SPL TV” was being planned for the Scottish top flight but at the last minute the idea was scrapped due to the high risk of the venture. Once again, the club’s greed got the better of them and after rejecting a much larger deal with Sky had to accept a far less valuable deal with BBC Scotland. As well as the initial financial loss this deal also meant Scottish football has been out of sight of much of the UK ever since.

There could be lessons in this story in the current discussions surrounding the deal just agreed with Sky for Football League (now better known as the EFL) TV rights, with talk of a breakaway by some of the top Championship clubs. The bigger clubs such as Leeds, Aston Villa and Derby are said to be unhappy with the deal and in particular the affect the increase in live midweek fixtures could have on attendances.

The problem is that these same clubs were happy to take Sky’s money when it suited them. Now Sky knows it’s TV rights deal for the EFL games constitute such a high proportion of those club’s revenue, it can hold the clubs and its fans to ransom and to hell with the consequences for anyone else. In fact, the cynic in me says it would be encouraged by the potential of decrease in attendances as it would only increase dependence from those same clubs on Sky’s TV rights deal revenue. It’s hard to see anything but a Sky win here.

And whilst BT Sport seem to have established themselves as a secondary party to Sky in the fight for Premier League TV rights, the latest round of bidding was overshadowed by rumours of their financial insecurity. Furthermore, any substantial deals with new partners that were spoken of like Amazon (who after rumours of grander intentions bought only the smallest TV rights package, showing only two full match-days), will likely be ignored due to the risks played out in the story of ITV Digital.

And ultimately that’s the main legacy of this story, as well as the increased financial regulation that exist for English football clubs today, is the increased power and influence of Sky in British football.

Additionally, and unlike many predicted at the time, the number of professional football clubs didn’t fall, in fact the Football League has the same composition now as it did then and after years of recovery is in as strong a position as ever.

Just look at the recent England squads and the number of players involved with Football League clubs on their CV (like Brighton’s very own Lewis Dunk), or the number of Premier League teams who were not that long ago playing in the lower divisions of the Football League. There are plenty of examples which show that the Football League’s influence on English Football is still very strong, and long may it continue.