Welcome back to the American Express Community Stadium for tonight’s Premier League fixture against newly promoted Nottingham Forest. We extend our welcome to Forest’s players, staff, officials and supporters who have made the long midweek trip from the East Midlands.
It’s more than six years since we last played Nottingham Forest at the Amex. On that August day in 2016, the start of our Premier League promotion-winning season, Glenn Murray scored twice in a 3-0 win after Anthony Knockaert had given us a first-half lead in what was our opening home match of the campaign.
Both Albion and Forest have progressed significantly since then, and our respective playing squads have changed beyond recognition since that EFL Championship fixture. Indeed, of the 36 players on the two teamsheets that day, only Seagulls skipper Lewis Dunk is likely to be involved in the match tonight.
Our last two fixtures have once again highlighted just how unforgiving and brutal the Premier League can be at times. Most neutrals, and probably the fans of our opponents too, would accept that we were the better team in our matches here against Tottenham Hotspur, and again at Brentford last Friday night.
So, two losses and no goals to show for our efforts in more than 180 minutes of football doesn’t reflect our performance levels in either game. We had more possession, more shots on goal, and more shots on target in both matches, but ultimately, we were undone by good finishes by two in-form strikers. Nevertheless, as Roberto and his staff continue to work with our players to embed their playing ethos, we can be greatly encouraged by our underlying performances and, at the time of writing these notes at the end of Sunday’s fixtures, we sit seventh in the Premier League table.
Our very decent start to the season has given us a great platform going into tonight’s match against a Forest side who, under Steve Cooper’s leadership, are adjusting to life in the Premier League with a much-changed squad. Since promotion, Forest have signed more than 20 new players. With one win from their opening ten matches back in the Premier League, Forest will be looking to gain a stronger foothold at this level and, with typically good away support, we can be sure of a very tough game tonight. From here, Forest face Liverpool and then Arsenal – a games programme that underlines just how difficult this league is.
By the same token, we must face Manchester City at the Etihad on Saturday, one venue where we have yet to secure a point, and then Chelsea – under Graham Potter’s leadership – back at the Amex for what is a fixture that is always very entertaining and one that Albion fans look forward to.
Prior to our loss at Brentford, we introduced the new away ticketing polices for the first time. Now before I am accused of lecturing our supporters, I should point out that the vast majority of supporters accepted the minor inconveniences they faced with good grace. Let me make it clear, those staff who travelled would prefer NOT to be spending their Friday evening doing this! And as chief executive, I would prefer not to be asking senior staff to spend a day out of the office to undertake this work and, at times, being exposed to abuse.
So, I would like to place on record my thanks to them too; and also to those supporters who can see why we are having to take these steps, and have written into the club to express their support for the changes, many of whom have been frustrated when buying tickets.
We have made it clear that these measures have been introduced to stop the open abuse of the system, which has stopped many fans getting tickets for high-demand away matches, such as Forest Green Rovers, Bournemouth and Brentford, because others have leapfrogged them using other fans’ loyalty points.
This is not on. As for the comments surrounding 1901 Club members, yes they pay a premium, and yes this is a benefit of membership, something which has been a benefit ever since we moved into the Amex. However, we know where these tickets are going, and members are responsible for any guests they bring, so sanctions will be enforced if there are issues. Also, 1901 Club members are subject to a minimum five-year agreements, so the risk to them of anyone misusing the tickets – and therefore potential sanctioning – is significantly greater.
In addition to the loyalty point abuse, we and many of our fans have noted an increase in antisocial behaviour on our travels. When you consider EVERY single ejection or arrest has been a fan who hasn’t been eligible for a ticket, and neither have they bought directly through the club, something is not right. We don’t want this behaviour at away matches (neither do a lot of our fans, who have flagged their concerns to the club about this behaviour, often drink or drug influenced) and this is why we feel we have to act.
So here is some background, I hope fans will find helpful. We selected 100 fans to collect pre-turnstile. Yes, it is an inconvenience, and yes we understand most fans like to have their ticket in their hand. However, the stats prove there is an issue. Of those 100 tickets held for collection, 17 were not collected, and of the 83 who did collect, thank you and apologies for the inconvenience.
In our experience, the numbers not collecting is a much higher percentage of no-shows for a high-demand away match than is normal. Of course, some of these non-collections were the result of unforeseen circumstances arising, but we can also be sure that many were not. In addition to this, as we carried out random checks, a few other supporters were unable to produce ID that matched the name on the ticket they were holding.
A conservative guess might suggest 15% to 20% of tickets are being passed on, based on a 3,000 allocation, for a high-demand game. This means up to 600 fans are not only missing out on tickets they are entitled to, but also the loyalty points.
These numbers, along with the antisocial element, demonstrate why, sadly, the new policy is necessary to protect the interests of all fans as well as the club’s reputation.
Disappointingly, but depressingly predictably, as a result of the new policies being implemented, our staff also experienced a degree of hostility and abuse from a very small portion of supporters. I can only reiterate here we will not accept any kind of verbal or physical abuse of our staff, and we will impose sanctions.
Some of this abuse came after one or two supporters bizarrely seemed to take great delight in witnessing and filming club president Dick Knight finding himself unable to access the stadium due to a failure of Brentford’s stadium access system. This happened to several other supporters and, frustratingly, it can happen at any stadium, the Amex included, with electronic access systems.
If it wasn’t for Albion staff helping, Dick (and other fans experiencing the same issue) would have faced a long walk to the other side of the stadium to gain entry. Despite this, at least one individual decided to misrepresent what actually happened to Dick on social media, leading to more abuse of our staff.
Recent policy changes have led to a few supporters suggesting they are being treated like children. Sadly, behaviours of the type described above, and more than one or two of the reactions we’ve received in our inboxes since the policy was introduced, have indeed been childish in the extreme.
Thankfully, the vast majority of supporters continue to provide great support and we’re grateful for this. We do appreciate that a small number of genuine fans will be inconvenienced at each high-demand away match, and once again we apologise for this and thank you for your patience.
More positively, your support for the team continues to make a huge difference. Despite the train strike, reduced near-stadium parking, a later kick-off, and live TV coverage, the actual attendance for Tottenham’s visit was our highest for over two years, while our away support is up by 25% on last season’s average away attendances.
Finally, for some very important perspective, receiving advice from our medical team and cardiac specialists that Enock Mwepu should end his playing career, at the age of 24, with immediate effect, was a huge shock and deeply upsetting for everyone at the club, and not least for Enock and his family.
In addition to being a very good footballer, Enock is one of the kindest, happiest, most positive people you could wish to meet. Visiting Enock while he was in the Royal Sussex Hospital a couple of weeks back, he was his same smiley self – grateful for the visit, grateful for the care he was receiving, grateful to have the opportunity to spend the rest of his life with his wife and young family.
It was typical of the man that there was no bitterness or anger at his plight. For our part, we are truly grateful to all of the hugely diligent medics involved in Enock’s care since he was first taken ill, and we will, of course, provide Enock and his family with all the support we possibly can. We sincerely hope Enock will remain closely connected to our club going forward.
* Tonight's programme is available to buy at the Amex, priced £3.50. You can also purchase online here