Tony Husband is well known to most Albion fans as the Sports Presenter on BBC South Today, and his voice is also familiar as a commentator on weekend matches on BBC radio and Match of the Day.
Since the BBC decided in 2012 that Brighton’s local coverage in the early evening should be handled by Tunbridge Wells-based BBC South East, Tony has been off East Sussex screens. But viewers west of Worthing know that he still retains a soft spot for the Albion and will be keenly interested in Saturday’s FA Cup tie at Bournemouth.
Being based mainly in Southampton, he has spent long periods covering Saints, Portsmouth and Bournemouth, and he admits that finding the Cherries the top club of the three is something few would have expected. “I first came into the area in 1998 and got properly onto the sports beat in 2000 and since then the proverbial rollercoaster has been ridden by all three clubs and Brighton as well,” he says.
“More has happened to all of them, good and bad, than some clubs experience in a lifetime, front page and back page. Some older Bournemouth fans still have to rub their eyes when they see their club in the Premier League. Broadcasters are accused of over-using the word ‘remarkable’ but it sums up what has happened to them.”
Bournemouth were in dire financial difficulties as recently as 2008 and were hit with a 17-point deduction to start the 2008-09 season. They were still ten points adrift at the foot of the league when Eddie Howe became the league’s youngest manager at 31 on New Year’s Day 2009. Tony had spotted Howe as a rising star even before that.
“I’ve spoken to Eddie many times,” he says. “I first realised what an intelligent guy he was when I was commentating for Radio Solent and the manager would let us have a spare or injured player as co-commentator.
“Eddie would have been about 24 and had a knee injury, although not the one that finished his career, and I did quite a few games with him and he was very incisive. He could analyse the game and had a sharp eye for what was happening. It was obvious he had a long-term future in the game if he wanted it. A wise head on young shoulders.”
It was not quite success all the way after that. Howe left for 22 months at Burnley and chairman Eddie Mitchell got into a few scrapes with supporters and the BBC before handing over the reins in September 2013 to Maxim Demin, a Russian investor to whom he had sold 50 percent of the club in 2011. “The road back for them was not always smooth, and there was a lot of off-field drama during the reign of Eddie Mitchell, but he brought financial stability that had been lacking in previous years,” Tony says.
“They had had a succession of buyers who had failed to deliver and they were going from one bad situation to another and digging themselves into an ever-deeper hole. But Mitchell was known as a builder and he put down the foundations for what has happened today. He saw where the club needed some TLC, he brought Eddie Howe back from Burnley, and he brought in Maxim Demin.
“I remember somebody telling me that Eddie Mitchell wasn’t at a home game because he was in Russia. We were assured we shouldn’t read anything into that! But that turned out to be the game-changing moment, from the club being in the hands of a wealthy businessman who wanted to see his local football club restore some pride, to a Russian who saw an opportunity to invest some serious money.
“That put the club on a footing where I think it had never historically seen itself, even in the moderately successful Harry Redknapp days. The combination of the perfect manager at the right time and an owner willing to back his ambition have produced the most sensational story.”
Ten years on from Howe’s first appointment, how does Tony rate him? “I remember him very well as a promising player whose career was ended by injury and you wonder what might have happened differently if he had been able to keep playing. But his age means that he recognises the modern player in a way that some of the more traditional managers don’t.
“He has a bond with the players and is incredibly demanding of them, but also shields them when they need it. He has made so many of them better players than they ever imagined was possible, made them Premier League footballers by finding the talent in them. But he can be ruthless too; players fall by the wayside if they’re not up to it.”
As a successful young coach, Howe is often linked with jobs at bigger clubs. Does Tony expect Howe to move on sooner, later, or at all? “Eddie is so guarded that I don’t think more than one or two people absolutely closest to him could possibly say what his move would be, when and if his time at Bournemouth ever comes to an end.
“He went once before, to what was a significantly bigger job at Burnley, and by most people’s observations he wasn’t altogether comfortable there and it wasn’t a very difficult decision to go back to Bournemouth. He’s got what is in many ways his dream job, where he is really effective, carrying out almost a football fairy tale.
“The question is always: ‘When will he move?’ But is he even thinking about it? You know that if he stays, in a few years’ time people will say ‘He didn’t have the ambition,’ but does that matter to him?
“I don’t think many people know Eddie closely enough to say how much that plays on his mind. Sure, he’s ambitious. But he also wants things to be right. He wouldn’t have the control at somewhere like Tottenham that he has at Bournemouth.
“He is at the cutting edge of modern methods and yet in some ways at Bournemouth he can have an old-fashioned managerial role, because it’s a small club so very little goes on there without his involvement. In an age where head coaches report to sporting directors, who report to finance directors, he can still have a traditional over-arching role.”
As an exiled Plymouth Argyle fan, Tony has no particular footballing loyalties in his adopted region, beyond wanting clubs to do well so that he can report on good stories. But he admits that the initial disappearance of Albion coverage from South Today in 2012 was a blow.
“On a personal and a professional level it was a real shame,” he says. “My grandparents lived in Hove, only a stone’s throw from the Goldstone so I’d grown up going there on holidays and always had a great affinity with the story of the club, and it was nice to cover them as a professional.
“We went from having Brighton as a major part of our sporting environment to being told that we would not cover the Albion as we didn’t broadcast in the city. But later there was a repositioning so that we could cater for the many fans in the west of Sussex who still watched us. We still have to defer to our colleagues in the South East over the BBC’s primary Albion coverage but we follow the results as closely we can.
“I know that was warmly received by the club and I was personally delighted that we could re-connect, if in a slightly different way from before. We had criticism when Albion disappeared from our programme but it wasn’t my decision - we argued the West Sussex point from day one. I was thrilled when I got the green light to re-engage with Brighton and carry on telling their brilliant story.”