On May 19, I had the shock of seeing the name of my club, Brighton, used in the same sentence as “Abramovich” – without apparent irony. It came in the Guardian headline: “Brighton finds its own Abramovich with £80m loan”; the man being Tony Bloom, an “internet gambling entrepreneur”.
By the time the Seagulls move into their new stadium in 2011-12 they will have been in financial difficulty for 20 years. Remarkably the club have never slipped into administration, but the troubles it has suffered at the hands of former chairman Bill Archer are well known. For two consecutive seasons (1996-98) Brighton finished 91st, before returning to League One level.
Throughout this period, Albion fans accepted that the club had no money. Effective youth development and a string of loan signings kept the club going on the pitch, whereas off it, sterling work by Bloom’s predecessor Dick Knight and others has kept things going. But without the new Falmer Stadium, the club, in the long term, was doomed. However, most Albion fans were unaware that a combination of spiralling costs and the credit crunch was putting this Holy Grail in danger of never being finished. Then along came Bloom, whose cash, in an Abramovich-style “interest free loan”, has now secured this development.
I should feel overjoyed. Yet we’ve been here before. The film of The Damned United does its best to write Brighton out of the Clough mythology, but he was there for a time, at the instigation of then-chairman Mike Bamber. Bamber had plans to get Brighton out of Division Three and into the top league, and spent to do so. Clough went – but two years later Alan Mullery succeeded. Considerable sums were spent on players – £238,000 on Teddy Maybank in 1977 was a huge amount for a Second Division team at the time. It worked, too. Brighton rose to the top division and stayed for four seasons, including the famous FA Cup final defeat of 1983. And then it all fell apart.
The early 1980s were not the right time to be successful in English football. Attendances were dropping sharply and Brighton have never succeeded in extending their supporter base beyond Sussex. Despite a brief revival in 1991, which saw the club 90 minutes away from the top flight, debt levels rose, creditors came calling and the decline was sealed by Archer’s takeover and subsequent asset-stripping.
Bamber’s reign brought top-division football but no long-term stability. The crumbling Goldstone Ground could not be improved due to restrictions imposed by the affluent owners of property nearby. There was no investment in youth – for years Sussex-born players were rarities in the first team, with the departure of young players like Gareth Barry and Paul Ifill reflecting the lack of infrastructure. The improvement in this situation is, at least, a source of promise. Though it is commonplace to describe clubs as having great potential, for Brighton it really should be the case. They have one of the biggest catchment areas in England for both youth players and fans, with no other league club within 30 miles. There seems little reason why the new stadium should not be the foundation on which the club’s future can now be built.
But will we be patient? The Guardian claimed Bloom would only recoup his investment if Brighton made the Premier League within “five to ten years”. I look at the fate of other moderately-sized clubs who reached too far (Bradford and Southampton spring to mind) and at what happened the last time we tried this, under Bamber, and the decades-long financial crisis which followed.
Brighton have gone overnight from being one of the poorest clubs in their division to one of the richest. But sudden riches can bring arrogance, and I don’t want my club to become arrogant. I want it to be healthy, to survive another 100 years, having success along the way but always being there. Bloom’s money has saved it for now, and the saving grace is that it will mostly go into construction, not wild investments in unpredictable playing assets. If Brighton are in the Premier League by 2020 I’ll cheer as loud as anyone: if they do it right, they could still be there by 2030 as well. Drew Whitworth
As a season-ticket holder in the Chicken Run at West Ham for more than 20 years, this is a difficult thing to admit. But I am becoming embarrassed to call myself an Irons fan.
This realisation was brought home to me following our home defeat by Chelsea in April. The next day, the back-page headlines were dominated by Hammers fans’ “spiteful” abuse of Frank Lampard and John Terry. The reports focused on our “unacceptable” taunting of the England pair, accompanied by pictures of fans’ faces contorted with rage. The Mail on Sunday asserted: “West Ham fans have developed a reputation for being among the most vile in the country.” In the Sun, the on-field action took up only the final fifth of the match report, with the article featuring such opinions as “even by the vile and hateful standards set by West Ham ‘fans’, the abuse meted out to Terry and Lampard was a disgrace”. The following day, PFA chief executive Gordon Taylor said West Ham fans had “overstepped the mark”.
The fans were vilified for continually chanting “John Terry, your mum’s a thief” and, at Lampard, “you let your children down”, in reference to a heated on-air debate the player had partaken in the previous morning with a radio DJ who had called him “scum” for leaving his fiancée and children.
The patrons of the Boleyn Ground don’t sit on the fence when it comes to ex-players. Although they are scathing towards the many they feel have “wronged” them (Lampard, Paul Ince, Nigel Reo-Coker and Jermain Defoe, for example) or “local boys done good” (Terry and David Beckham), they are over the top in their praise of anyone who left on good terms (such as Carlos Tevez and Marlon Harewood). But the booing of Michael Carrick and Joe Cole – players of whom we should be proud – even by a minority of fans, only reinforces prejudices.
During our home defeat against Spurs in December, I had to endure a particularly unsavoury incident at the hands of a repugnant individual who sits behind me. He first came to my attention a few seasons ago, when he failed to acknowledge a minute’s silence. From the referee’s first whistle, hatred pours forth from him. Every opposition player is a “cunt” (always preceded by their nationality, if they aren’t English) and the referee is blasted for every decision that goes against West Ham. The friend with whom I used to attend matches gave his ticket up because of this “fan”.
At this particular match, his language was confined to alternating his wide vocabulary of swear words with the word “yiddo”. I had put up with this for about 20 minutes, when the Tottenham fans started singing “Spurs are on their way to Wembley”. The idiot behind me replaced the word “Wembley” with “Auschwitz”. I told him that I found his comment offensive. He said: “It’s what they call themselves, you thick cunt!”, which he repeated when I suggested that they don’t sing about the murder of millions of people. The exchange carried on in this vain for about 30 seconds. A nearby steward ignored the situation and nobody else said anything (at least his family and friends weren’t ignorant enough to support him). During the Chelsea match, I had to listen to this overweight yob scream “Lampard, you fat, ugly cunt!” for 90 minutes. When he started the “you let your children down” chant, I couldn’t help but smile. He attends games with his teenage son and daughter, who must cringe at his aggression.
Things have changed so much since I started attending matches in 1986. In those days – a time when football was it its lowest ebb, with hooliganism at its peak and the tragedies of Heysel and Bradford still fresh in the mind – West Ham fans were renowned for their humour. Many a dull game was livened up by a wisecrack from the crowd. Swearing was reserved for match-changing incidents or bad tackles – not simply a misplaced pass, as is the case these days. Energies used to be channelled towards supporting the team, rather than abusing the opposition. But now, it is as if spending £45 on a ticket gives “fans” the right to indulge in the kind of intimidatory behaviour that would get them arrested outside a football stadium. The humour has been replaced by hatred.
I’m not the only one who is becoming fed up with West Ham supporters’ behaviour. Last month, the Express featured a letter from a fan, who having attended matches at the Boleyn Ground for 30 years, now wondered whether he wanted to be part of such a hate-filled environment. I know how he feels. After having missed only about 25 home games since March 1986, I very much doubt that I will be renewing my season ticket. Darron Kirkby
From WSC 269 July 2009