While I would never have anticipated it at the start of the season, the 2019/20 campaign has proved to be the most challenging of my tenure as Brighton & Hove Albion chairman.
The coronavirus pandemic has affected us all in so many different ways and my overriding thoughts remain with the many thousands of people, both near and far, who have lost their lives or lost loved ones. I would also like to take this opportunity to thank the NHS and all key workers for their immense work in the face of extreme adversity. They are real heroes and I salute them all.
Once Mikel Arteta was diagnosed with coronavirus ahead of our game with Arsenal at the Amex on 14th March, it sparked a chain of events that would see our season halted for over three months.
In the immediate aftermath of that initial postponement, and with the very real prospect of games being postponed indefinitely, our first thought as a football club, was to pay our regular casual matchday staff – some 600 in total – for the remainder of the season. I was also pleased that all food ordered for the hospitality and food kiosks for the Arsenal game was donated to Sussex Homeless Support.
Safeguarding the livelihoods of all our staff has been of paramount importance. With no matchday income forthcoming for the foreseeable future and with a real reluctance to furlough those on our payroll, I was humbled to see Paul Barber, Dan Ashworth and Graham Potter take significant voluntary pay cuts to ease the financial burden. Other members of staff also offered to take voluntary cuts, which was a wonderful gesture, but one I rejected.
I was delighted that our players set up and then made significant contributions to the Albion As One fund, which the directors and I were delighted to support. This initiative helps a number of chosen charities in Brighton and Hove and throughout Sussex who have been hit particularly hard during this crisis. We will always be mindful of the role the community played in helping the club in its hour of need and this has been our way of giving something back – and it’s been heart-warming to see so many recipients already benefiting from the fund, which has reached in excess of £370,000.
It was also important that we strengthened our commitment to assisting the NHS and key workers wherever possible, so we were delighted to be able to convert the Amex into the south coast’s biggest drive-in coronavirus testing centre. The stadium has also been used as storage for vital NHS supplies and, together with the club’s training centre at Lancing, has been made available for NHS training and the local emergency services.
As an expression of our gratitude to the NHS, we have ring-fenced 1,000 tickets for NHS staff and their families for future matches at the Amex and we’re all looking forward to the day when we can welcome them, and all our supporters, back to the stadium.
In the meantime, it is just good to be playing football again. After all we are a football club, that is our business, and it was always our intention to see the current Premier League season finished. We made our stance very public in the numerous Zoom press conference calls we set up – and once Project Restart was given the green light, our staff worked diligently to ensure we were ready to host Arsenal for our opening game on 20th June.
While it was a surreal experience to see the team play without any of our fans present, the day ran smoothly, with a brilliant last-gasp Neal Maupay winner. With a hard-earned draw at Leicester City the following Tuesday and another three points at Norwich City, I have been delighted with the way the players have returned from their enforced break.
Since the club resumed training, the attitude, commitment and desire of the players has been there for all to see, and has been reflected, overall, in their performances. At the time of writing, there is still work to be done but I’m confident that we will retain our Premier League status and can look forward to a fourth successive season in the top flight.
I've thoroughly enjoyed the way we have approached every game this season, regardless of the result. I've been delighted with the impact Graham and his coaching staff have had on the squad, and that confidence they have in their ability to improve the team and create an outstanding football environment was rewarded with extensions to their contracts until the summer of 2025.
Our players deserve much credit too; it’s never easy to adapt to a completely new style of football, especially when you’re playing in the toughest league in the world, but they’ve looked assured in pretty much every game they’ve played. They’ve also provided us with a number of memorable moments – the highlights for me being the home win against Tottenham and the ‘double’ over Arsenal.
That Spurs win saw Aaron Connolly grab the headlines, given his brace on the day. His inclusion in the squad this season, along with Steven Alzate, is another feather in the cap for our academy. With nine academy graduates making their first-team debuts against Aston Villa in the Carabao Cup and a number of players performing really well on loan in the Championship and elsewhere, the future of the club looks really bright. We also have a head coach who is only too happy to promote our young players on merit – and the fact that pathway exists should fill all our academy players with plenty of optimism as they strive to make our first-team squad.
With this being our final home game of the season, I’d like to end by thanking all our wonderful fans for their loyal support – be it in the stadium or, since Project Restart, from the comfort of their own homes. We know you’ve been with us every step of the way.
Enjoy the remainder of the summer, keep safe by following the Government guidelines, and hopefully we can start to welcome you back at the Amex next season.
Thanks for all of your support,