Down at the bottom of the First, something is stirring. Chris Eldergill reports on Steve Coppell's attempts to keep Brighton up with no visible means of support
When Steve Coppell took on his latest quest in management at Brighton & Hove Albion, there were more than a few eyebrows raised. Coppell was taking over a team that sat rock bottom of the First Division, having lost ten games in a row and still with no permanent home. Brighton were employing a man who had managed their greatest rivals, Crystal Palace, on and off for over a decade. Supporters even had a terrace chant dedicated to him.
Coppell admits that after resigning as Brentford manager at the end of last season, he believed he wouldn’t be out of work for long: “I honestly did think that I would get a job at a Division One club over the summer, but it wasn’t meant to be and then it came to September, then October, and I didn’t have a job. Then Dick Knight [the Brighton chairman] came to me and asked whether I would be interested in becoming manager of Brighton. It wasn’t a case of having a conversation, it was more of a case of ‘When can I start?’”
Now in his 19th year as a manager, Coppell is widely admired for working with extremely limited resources and only last year took cash-strapped Brentford to the Second Division play-off final. While he may not have been the most popular choice among Brighton fans, he has a successful record, often achieved under difficult circumstances. So it wasn’t a particularly tough decision for the Brighton chairman – with only four points all season, Knight conceded at a recent fans’ forum that he had made a mistake in promoting coach Martin Hinshelwood to manager over the summer.
If Coppell was unaware at the time of the size of the task, it didn’t take him long to realise. After Brighton went two up in his opening match at home to Sheffield United, he then saw his inexperienced side concede four goals in the final 30 minutes and record their 11th consecutive defeat. It was to get a whole lot worse for Coppell, whose next game was against Palace, in the first meeting of the two rivals for 13 years.
Coppell admits the big defeat was embarrassing: “I knew how much that game meant to the supporters and 5-0 – it was humiliating. I went into the dressing room at the end and told the players that. It reminded me of my days at Palace when we went to Liverpool, which was my team as a boy. All my friends and family were there and we got hammered 9-0.” Then, as now, Coppell managed to draw positives from the situation: “Believe it or not, there were still some good aspects to take from the defeat and it could well be that this game was the catalyst to change things around.”
Indeed, after the debacle in south London, Brighton went four games without defeat. How is Coppell measuring his success? “I think you have to determine what success is. At Palace, in administration, success was surviving and not getting relegated. Here I would imagine the No 1 priority would simply be to stay up. The Brighton fans are also realistic. They understand that it was a difficult division to come into. The irony was apparent when we went in front against Bradford, because our own fans started chanting ‘Champions!’. So I think they know we have got a mountain to climb.”
Unable to splash out on new players, Coppell is aware he has to use his resources to the maximum: “This is one club that is not going to sacrifice itself financially to achieve success at all costs. I was made fully aware of the budget before I accepted the job. I still have a little room to manoeuvre and any signings I do make, I hope will make that little bit of difference.”
Having kept a similar squad for the past two seasons, Brighton entered the First Division clearly lacking experience at this level. Coppell immediately brought in former Wimbledon defender Dean Blackwell and Simon Rodger, who had played under him at Palace. Another resource key to Coppell’s plan is the loan system. Brighton’s strong links with Arsenal have resulted in teenager Steven Sidwell joining up with his Highbury team-mate Graham Barrett, also on loan.
Coppell believes this option is vital for clubs who don’t have huge financial resources: “The top clubs now have several hungry players, particularly younger ones, who they can’t satisfy with first-team football. Some of the more established internationals don’t want to get their shorts dirty in the lower reaches of the First Division and it is a comfortable existence to be a reserve at a Premiership club. It is the younger ones who need the games, who need the challenge, and I think they are the ones who can be of help to Albion.”
While Coppell has several good allies within the game and can utilise the loan system, this is something the previous boss Hinshelwood saw a little differently. “Martin wasn’t very happy to use this outlet,” Dick Knight says.
However, it was a unanimous decision to keep Hinshelwood with the club and he has now taken up the post of director of football. Coppell was more than happy to work with him: “With any manager going to a new club, there is a spell when you look around and want to know the ins and outs of everything. You want to know the personalities, how far you can push them, what you can and can’t say to them. Martin has made this so much easier. He is the oil between so many sections of this club now and he still has a big say in the way things are run. Very often the director of football is a very superficial position, where they just hover around the first team, but Martin is a hands-on guy and has put an awful lot into this football club.”
Alongside Coppell and his players, the board of directors have their own battle for survival. Talking to fans at a recent forum, Knight stressed how far the club had come: “In five years, we have come from the brink of extinction to the First Division and what that means is that you have a football club to support on a Saturday and we are playing Derby County, lately of the Premiership, not Newport County.”
Like other clubs Brighton have lost £2.5 million of expected revenue from the collapse of ITV Digital, but they also face a far greater problem. Since the club sold the Goldstone Ground back in the mid-Nineties, they have been homeless and had to endure two seasons ground-sharing with Gillingham. After intense campaigning from the fans and a new board appointed with Knight at the helm, Brighton returned home, where they have enjoyed back-to-back championships.
But the temporary solution at Withdean, a converted athletics stadium with a capacity of 6,960, is costing Brighton dear. As Knight points out: “Over 50 per cent of our gate receipts go into putting on a match at Withdean, compared with an average of ten per cent at every other league club in the country.” The club’s solution is a 22,000 all-seater stadium in Falmer, just outside Brighton. The club have encountered a number of problems with this, not least convincing local residents and environmentalists. However, the board is still confident of securing planning permission early next year.
While Coppell makes it clear that off-the-field issues don’t affect the manager or players, he believes problems like Brighton’s are too common: “The supporters here have been raped. They have seen their ground stolen from them and they are now trying to resurrect things. At Brentford it is also a critical period. Before they give up what has been their spiritual home for so many years, they have got to make sure they have a new one to go to. It is the supporters who have got to be protected and this is where the football authorities really have got to stand up and be counted, otherwise clubs are going to die unnecessarily.”
Coppell has few enemies, even fewer now he has won over fans at Brighton. But can they keep hold of him? After two successive promotions, both managers who achieved this, Micky Adams and Peter Taylor, left the club. With Coppell only signing until the end of the season, does this mean he will do the same?
“I don’t think it is a signal of intent of what I want to do in the future. There were 34 games to go when I came here, the team were at the bottom of the division and it was time to put the blinkers on and concentrate 100 per cent on this particular task.”
It remains to be seen whether Coppell will stay long enough to manage Brighton in their new stadium, if and when it is built. But what he has achieved already is significant. Not only has he recovered from that humiliating defeat at Selhurst Park, he has generated confidence among both the team and the supporters. Coppell is no miracle worker, but he has shown how the current financial crises can bring out the best as well as the worst in struggling clubs.
From WSC 191 January 2003. What was happening this month