Paul Barber meets Albion fans in London and Burwash

Here's what the Chief Executive said during a 90-minute get-together with Seagulls Over London and Seagulls Over Burwash members, plus the main points from the recent WFT fans forum with Zoe Johnson and Mikey Harris.

By BHAFC • 12 June 2024

Paul Barber met Seagulls Over Burwash members on Monday.

Deputy chairman and chief executive Paul Barber recently took part in a 90-minute Q&A session with members of the official supporters’ club Seagulls Over London.

Questions from a packed an audience included how the club might vote on VAR at the upcoming Premier League meeting to the search for new head coach.

Here is a wider flavour of the topics covered.

Roberto De Zerbi’s departure: Paul kicked off with the news that broke over the weekend and explained the parting of the ways had been amicable and by mutual consent. Everything was done very professionally by both sides, and there was no animosity on either side. Roberto and his staff will always be welcome back at the Amex.

What are the lessons we need to learn from this season? Paul said we had played for a lot of the season with 11 or 12 injuries. Some had longer recovery periods than we’d hoped for. If we’d known how long players would be out, we may have acted differently in the January window, but you also had to balance that with the potential to have a bloated squad once players were fit. We have already invested in bringing in two top medical staff to upgrade our team for next season alongside our current personnel.

Chief executive Paul Barber spoke to Seagulls over London at their meeting this week.

How do the new FFP rules look? Paul explained that Premier League clubs are looking at two new models which is based on clubs spending no more than 85% of turnover. There is a debate around if that means all turnover or just TV income. Another possibility is anchoring to around five times the lowest turnover in the league. This is still to be finalised, but Paul said all clubs would favour a system which keeps spending under control but when other clubs breach rules everyone wants fast action, but not to the detriment of a proper process and right of appeal. The League are acting on this, but Paul reminded members that the League do not make the final decision on the outcome of charges or any associated sanction. The hearing and judgement is carried out by an independent panel, typically including a high-ranking KC. And with regard to sanctions, there’s no set tariff. Clubs voted not to have a set tariff as, amongst other concerns, it is felt this could allow clubs to take a punishment when it best suited them.

How do we motivate players and staff to bridge the gap between Albion and the bigger clubs?  Paul explained that whilst we will never be the best payers, a big part of the attraction of our club revolves around the club’s ethos, values and culture and our commitment to doing things right on and off the pitch, for instance our investment in facilities, pitches, top medical staff, the best travel for our teams, and top coaches who can help players improve and progress across all teams.

How can fans’ views be heard over the vote to scrap VAR? Paul outlined the current state of play on VAR. Howard Webb (head of PGMOL) is working hard to improve things. The statistics clearly show key match incident decisions are more accurate with VAR with around 96% of decisions correct this season. However, when you adopt VAR as all top leagues have, you are either all in or all out, so there’s no halfway house with goal line technology and automated offside but not the other aspects of VAR.

By Paul Hazlewood
The statistics show key match incident decisions are more accurate with VAR with around 96% of decisions correct this season.

So, we have to be very careful about rushing for change, and views from managers, players, fans and administrators is very mixed, not least because many aspects of how VAR works is still confusing.

For example, pundits calling for ex-players or managers to be in the VAR room probably don’t know that current IFAB rules prevent this. Others confuse when VAR can and can’t intervene. And we all accept that VAR has diminished the experience for those fans paying to be in the stadium.

However, constant criticism of the current pool of referees coming through the pyramid isn’t helping. Many are being turned off from progressing because of the constant criticism of officials, and this is not only an immediate issue for lower levels of the game but a real concern for the future as it is from this group we will see future top officials emerge. At every level, our sport needs more match official talent not less.

Assuming VAR stays in the Premier League, and our sense is it will, to improve the in-stadium experience next season, VAR decisions will be explained over the stadium PA and the VAR experience in grounds will vastly improve; we will also be introducing semi-automated offside technology, which will be quicker, much more accurate, and, we hope, far less controversial.

In terms of the vote, the club hadn’t decided yet, but Paul’s feeling is that most clubs, ours included, will be veering towards wanting to see how these improvements help.

As far as gathering definite opinions from fans, it’s incredibly difficult. Almost as a perfect example of the significant discrepancy between pundits’ thoughts and social media views of fans’ opinions, a show of hands in the meeting was very clearly in favour of keeping VAR, with only two people out of more than 60 in the room wanting VAR scrapped.

Fan experience and ticketing: Paul said that away fans will almost certainly be moved to a different part of the Amex from the 2025/26 season. Although there was no statistical evidence that the current south stand arrangements gave visitors any benefit, the consensus inside the club is that what looks like 25% of the stadium being given to visitors (despite the 10% allocation) can motivate away sides where they attack the south end where their fans are.

How will the fan zone work? Paul said that in colder months it’ll hold around 1,000 people and will be specifically targeted for home fans with no admission fee, but in warmer weather it opens up at the sides and will cater for around double that number with lots of different food and drink options, live music and big screens offering a great viewing experience of live sport all the way through the season. With a £7m investment to pay back, the venue would also be utilised to its full potential between home matches. Moving a water pipe had slightly delayed the build but it will be ready for autumn. Paul added that we want to fill it for every home match to help alleviate issues around travelling in and out of the Amex.

Can the train experience be improved on matchdays? Paul said the train companies do try and, despite perceptions to the contrary, there is only so much the club can do to influence how they operate. The fan zone should take the pressure off during peak periods before and after matches, but it isn’t easy making big changes as our fans are only a very small percentage of the travellers using the railways in any given week and even on a matchday.

What can the club do to tackle homophobia at games like that we experienced last week v Chelsea? Paul reiterated that kind of homophobia in and around our matches was totally unacceptable, and we have a zero-tolerance policy. If it’s individuals it’s easier to act, as they can be isolated, identified and arrested in the moment or, as is sometimes the case, after the fact. Sometimes the perception is that no action is being or has been taken, but this isn’t the case. It might not happen at the game, but in the concourse out of sight of the majority (to help ensure the situation doesn’t escalate) or even a few days later. For large groups chanting abuse it’s the Premier League and The FA who act, and this can lead to large fines for clubs who don’t take tackling this issue seriously. Again, whilst sometimes there may be a perception that nothing is happening or the club isn’t acting, it is and we are, but in the most efficient and operationally effective way possible. Please trust our professional staff to do their jobs in the way they know best. We have seen examples of this working well and clubs taking firmer preventative action across this season.

Finally, what is the ceiling for the club? Paul said both he and Tony Bloom didn’t believe there is a ceiling, but any club needs a lot to go in its favour to win trophies. We believe we have a chance every season to be in the top ten and to compete for the top six and maybe win some silverware domestically or in Europe. It’s about being progressive and taking small steps along the way and making sustainable progress. In any walk of life, we all know that success is rarely achieved in a straight line of progress, and top level football is no different.

By Paul Hazlewood
Zoe Johnson, managing director of women's and girls' football, spoke to Albion fans about a wide range of topics.

Albion fans attended an online forum with interim head coach Mikey Harris and Zoe Johnson, managing director of women’s and girls’ football, where several topics specific to the women’s first-team were discussed, and here is a flavour of the key points covered:

What is the latest on player recruitment? Zoe said that there will be incomings and outgoings to help grow the squad over the next few seasons. She added that the recruitment team are dedicated to find the talent that fit into our style of play and club values. Other clubs are chasing the same talent, but we have the advantage of world-class facilities and an environment with good people working at the club.

How close are we with a new women’s first-team head coach appointment? Zoe reiterated everyone was happy with progress made both on and off the pitch since Mikey arrived in January. The process around appointing a new head coach has been extremely thorough and hopefully an announcement can be made soon and that the club want someone for the long haul. The club has clear ambitions and are striving towards them; we’re grateful to the fans for their support.

What is the club’s position on academy development? Producing our own players is key to the long-term development of the women’s team. We have given opportunities to four players from the academy this season and they have also trained regularly with the squad. This remains an ongoing process.

Can we give more tickets to be given to families to improve the experience at the Broadfield Stadium? There has been a steady increase in attendances, and we want to keep adding to that. Long-term they want the team to be back in the city and Zoe confirmed that work to have our own stadium in Brighton is ongoing. Giving away free tickets is not sustainable and it just doesn’t work in terms of building a regular fan base and actually only serves to devalue the ticket, for those who are paying to attend.

On Monday 10 June Paul attended a meeting of Seagulls Over Burwash where many of the topics he covered in London were discussed during a 90-minute q & a with members.

He updated everyone on the search for a new head coach and spoke about issues arising from the Premier League shareholders meeting last week, including the vote to retain VAR and the various improvements planned to VAR next season including the use of semi-automated offsides to make decision-making quicker.

He outlined Tony Bloom’s commitment to improving the squad this summer and said he expected Albion players competing in the Euros and Copa America to make a delayed return to pre-season training.