This is Albion 2.0: Just How Big Can the Seagulls Become?
Despite reports of Gus Poyet being on the verge of taking over at Reading last week the deal ended up in tatters, apparently due to the Uruguayan’s reluctance to risk having a relegation against his name.
With Reading’s chances of a second successive Premier League season now in the hands of Nigel Adkins, we’ve been taking a wider view on the whole affair, wondering what Poyet’s decision implies in regards to the relative sizes of the Royals and Brighton. Moreover, with a little help from our friend Sam Swaffield of The Seagull Love Review, we begin to consider just how big the Seagulls can become.
Lloyd (neutral): The stats overwhelmingly suggest that Reading and Brighton historically belong in the third tier of English football. Quoting Football 365’s excellent records, which run from 1888-2002, each club has spent more years at that single level than at all others combined (even with the subsequent years from 2002 added on):
Tier 1: 4
Tier 2: 15
Tier 3: 49
Tier 4: 7
Tier 1: 0
Tier 2: 11
Tier 3: 56
Tier 4: 8
Both, however, have clearly enjoyed a boom period over recent years and — through a wealthy backer, good management and being located in a relatively well-heeled catchment area — have been transformed into member clubs of what this website has previously termed the ‘Greater Championship’. No longer do supporters of either club need bother themselves with Football League Trophy games or the first two rounds of the Cup Proper.
Of the two however, Reading have been managed well for a longer period and are currently in a stronger position, having enjoyed the revenues that the Premier League and the Championship have to offer for well over ten years since their last appearance in the lower leagues in 2001-02.
Also, unlike some, Reading haven’t frittered income on players’ wages alone and the Royals now benefit from as tight an off-field set up as a club at this level enjoys. What’s more, they run one of the country’s most productive academies.
Having also been taken over by wealthy Russian backers in 2012, on paper the Royals surely represented Poyet with a greater opportunity to work towards the kind of level he’s hungry for. So why, Rob, did he turn you down?
Rob (Reading): I think it could be for a number of reasons. As you imply, Poyet has always appeared to have his eye on the main prize and I don’t think he would see taking over at a club about to be relegated as a plus point when he would really like to see himself as a future Chelsea manager or, failing that, the boss of a leading Spanish club.
Reading have found it almost impossible to acquire players of sufficient quality and Anton Zingarevich would likely have been unable to offer him any guarantees in that respect — for instance, Reading’s record signing still stands at the £2.5 million paid to Nantes for Emerse Fae in 2007 while Brighton have already topped that with the amount they forked out for Craig Mackail-Smith (one caveat here — the ‘undisclosed’ fee that the Royals disbursed for Greg Halford in January 2008 was rumoured to be £3 million).
Reading are far more likely to be in the Championship next season than Albion — it’s been a torrid few months for the Berkshire club and although the general lack of spending does provide hope that a quick return can be engineered, I personally wouldn’t bet on it — losing week after week damages confidence and the mediocre/terrible campaigns that Bolton, Blackburn and Wolves have endured provide a salutary warning.
Your thoughts, Sam?
Sam (Brighton): Was it Reading, Albion or Poyet who had the most influence on this deal falling through? People have suggested a variety of factors: the pros and cons of both clubs; the stigma of relegation; the loyalty to Albion; the career-minded focus of Poyet. The easy conclusion would be that it was a combination of these things but I’m not so sure.
When it leaked that Poyet had rejected Reading’s offer, an indirect quote from Albion CEO Paul Barber suggested that Poyet had never taken the Reading gig seriously; that his meetings were merely part of Albion’s open policy on letting staff speak to clubs in a higher division.
Reading would have offered Poyet more money, greater transfer funds and far superior training facilities. Equally, I would speculate that Reading told Poyet that they wanted him to recreate in Berkshire what he did in Sussex. To start a project so-to-speak; to create an identity.
Sadly, Reading are a club that lack a bit of that. On the pitch they have been dull this season; they have as little colour as biscuits. Through admittedly commendable prudence, they have shown little transfer market nous this season, but the thing that sticks is a seeming lack of fight, spirit or passion. Perhaps an extension of the club itself, and with relegation on the cards, that’s no great package.
So what about Albion? Are they a club that means so much to Poyet that he can’t bring himself to leave? I’m not sure, but he has a good gig at The Amex, that’s certain. It was always match made; Albion have been popular with the media since the dark days of the mid to late 90s. Poyet is a guy who most fans like; they liked him as a Chelsea player (imagine that today) and there was wide scale adulation as he made it all work at Albion, and all in time for the opening of the stadium too. Chairman Tony Bloom tasked Poyet with getting Albion into the play-offs this year. He may well fail, yet such is his popularity at the club that fans would not critique with any substantial volume.
The stadium is now finally completed, corners and all, and our highest home gate in 30 years was also a victory against our nemesis, Crystal Palace — nearly 5,000 more people than Reading’s biggest gate this term. Albion are on the up, they have been for three years now and before then were considered somewhat of a sleeping giant. In comparison, the Royals had the same boost through infrastructure over 10 years ago so that’s quite a head start on us. Brighton and Hove is a bigger city within a bigger metropolitan area, but even then 60% of our season ticket holders come from surrounding Sussex, a county of some 1.6m denizens. The ground is 50 miles away from the nearest comparator club and The Amex is one of the finest stadiums in Europe. A multi-million pound academy is being built in Lancing and we’ve just signed a huge shirt sponsorship deal with American Express worth a rumoured £1.75m a year.
That isn’t to say we’re bigger than Reading now, but we will be soon and we’ve certainly got a lot more chutzpah, that’s for sure.
Alas, with all of that taken into account, and moving swiftly along from my Reading-baiting, it is most probably Poyet, thinking about Poyet, who turned down the Royals’ advances. Gus is in a funny position, really. He is ambitious and wants to work with bigger budgets with better players against more glamorous opponents, ideally at Chelsea. But he knows you don’t go from the Championship to Stamford Bridge just like that. His honours as coach reads League One Champions only, and even if he won the Championship it doesn’t put him on the same level as the names that one would usually associate with a top-4 club, let alone European Champions. Poyet needs a stepping stone; Brighton and Reading are simply too small. What’s next for him is anyone’s guess, but I don’t see how this decision was either two-fingers up to Reading, or a renewing of vows with Albion.
Lloyd: Some interesting views, Sam, although Reading supporters — particularly those who advocate the Reading Way — might have something different to say about their club’s alleged lack of identity.
Turning the spotlight back on the Seagulls, it’s clear that Albion are in the ascendancy and the quality of the stadium and the extent of their financial backing would suggest that this progress is set to continue.
Indeed, despite a £9.1m loss after tax in 2011-12 — see Swiss Ramble’s twitter timeline for a full summary of the club’s results — Brighton’s financial health compares strongly against rivals such as Leicester (-£29.7m), West Ham (-£25.5m), Bristol City (-£14.4m), Cardiff (-£13.6m) and Forest (-£11.6m) and they look well positioned ahead of Financial Fair Play being introduced more rigorously in the Football League in the coming years.
But, as impressive as their rise has been, I wonder if it’s not — to a degree — a little false in that it’s been largely underwritten by a single backer. Of course, in many ways that makes Brighton similar to Reading and in turn that perhaps indicates that Albion’s rise isn’t necessarily going to be as inexorable as it currently seems.
Like Poyet, their recent honours are restricted to League One titles and I just wonder how long the club can keep up the same kind of momentum before the dust settles and people begin to lose interest (where were those 1.6m Sussexonians when Albion were struggling to fill the Withdean?), as inevitably happens when a team plateaus or starts falling backwards.
If they make it this season — keeping an ambitious Poyet in doing so — then they’re potentially made, just as the Premier League’s TV money jumps up again.
But what if they don’t and Poyet is whisked away before a further promotion is engineered? Do the club have the kind of infrastructure in place that will see them match Swansea for quality of recruitment? Is the club bigger than Poyet?
Your thoughts, Rob?
Rob: The single backer issue is a key one but I certainly wouldn’t be critical of Brighton for that — after all, Reading owe pretty much everything to John Madejski. I would say, however, that the view looking upwards from the top reaches of the Championship can be a decidedly rosy one, but the realities of the Premier league can be very stark. Contrary to the impression a few fleeting glimpses on MOTD and televised away games at Manchester United might provide, the effort put in by the Reading players this season has actually been extraordinary — the problem is, they just aren’t good enough. That points have been rescued in dramatic last gasp salvoes against Chelsea, Fulham and West Bromwich Albion has been a testament to the spirit of the team.
As for nous in the transfer market well — does ‘nous’ mean spending £8 million on Loà¯c Remy or £11 million or Gaston Ramirez? — on the contrary, I’m proud that Royals have to date displayed such restraint and that they can revert to Championship football with a hopefully sustainable future in store.
I’ll concede, however, that one or two big money additions to the wage bill such as Pavel Pogrebnyak and Danny Guthrie haven’t worked out and there has been a naivetà© about Readings dealings at times. Nor is Reading a particularly fashionable place (mind you, when has that been a prerequisite for a football culture?).
For me, Poyet will eventually leave Brighton and I wouldn’t be surprised if this was sooner rather than later — so the key element will be to hire a manager who will preserve the style of play and the system. That’s been the Swansea approach — Brendan Rodgers and Michael Laudrup must have rubbed their hands with glee at the minor tinkering they needed to indulge in to keep the show on the road. So, a judicious appointment will do the Seagulls no harm at all. So to answer your question Lloyd, the club is unquestionably bigger than Poyet.
Financially, that £9.1 million loss must nag though — of course untold riches await if promotion is achieved but that can so easily be frittered away in wages and transfer fees — if Brighton are to be truly impressive as a club, these early signs of an Icarus complex need to be reined in. I’m inclined therefore, to think that another season in the Championship might do the club good. Looking at the fixtures between now and the end of April Sam, do you feel promotion can be achieved? — and where do you feel the squad needs strengthening in particular?
Sam: The club can achieve promotion, technically, but my heart and head tells me that we’re just not good enough. I don’t consider this a bad thing. Like a lot of fans, I love the Championship. It’s still a relatively new concept for us as other recent forays were pre-Amex and this is Albion 2.0, a different beast. One that many are still trying to work out.
The Icarus analogy is spot-on, but there’s a feeling that such critiques would be shot down by our sugar-high fans. This craving for top-flight football is not my holy grail, but for many it is rabid priority. Our foundations are strong though and our owner and board responsible. Success will hopefully come organically, whether now or in the future.
Our squad is pretty good and we have some real quality dotted all over the pitch, but so do a lot of Championship clubs and these things do not necessarily equate to success. The clichà© that the English second tier provides the best competition is quite interesting; it may be that it is the most entertaining league but only through all the clubs having a fantastical ability to implode on themselves. Only Watford have really, really impressed us this year. Everyone else, including us, seem to have a confidence issue.
If Poyet had his way he’d have a new striker (Simeon Jackson is on his way on loan as I write) and although we don’t concede too many goals, a Premier League standard central defender is needed to replace the ageing Gordon Greer. We have some contract work to do in the summer to keep our better performers but, like Poyet, it’ll take some club to entice those guys away.
Thanks to Sam, again, for his contribution to this article. As he suggests, we’re all still working out how big Brighton can get, so it’s been difficult to produce definitive answers or forecasts here, particularly given that just a handful of games remain as Albion aim to close in on the Championship play-offs. We’d welcome others, Seagulls or not, to have their say in the comments.