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Paul Barber: CEO, Brighton & Hove Albion FC

Paul Barber: CEO, Brighton & Hove Albion FC

Paul Barber is the CEO and Deputy Chairman of Brighton and Hove Albion Football Club. From redefining the culture at the FA, to adapting to a new culture himself in Vancouver, Paul gives a fantastic insight into his career thus far. With a huge passion for football and in driving the development of the game at all levels, this interview is a detailed and interesting account of life as a CEO in the industry.


I wanted to start with asking you about the present, rather than where it all started for you; I wanted to ask you about your public-facing persona. Since the pandemic started in 2020, you have been refreshingly vocal about the effects the pandemic continues to have on the football industry and on Brighton & Hove Albion specifically. Is that honest, open approach something that is a part of your natural personality or has it been a conscious decision for you to want to be a CEO that isn’t afraid to pop their head over the parapet?

I think it is a little bit of both if I am being honest. I studied marketing and communications and I worked in these areas from junior to senior levels for quite a long time. So, I suppose it has always been a relatively natural comfort zone for me. I am not afraid of speaking out when it’s necessary to do so, or putting the club forward in a situation where I feel we are qualified or experienced enough to demonstrate some leadership. We didn’t set out to be the only voice in the football industry in the early part of the pandemic, and we fully expected other clubs to come out and talk, but we did commit to maintaining our usual weekly media briefings on Zoom using various senior people in our club. What happened as a consequence of that, was that our club’s views were heard more than most as time went on.

At times, the briefings - which generated a lot of positive media coverage for the club - may have worked against us slightly because some people assumed we were pursuing a particular agenda behind the press conferences. We weren’t; we just committed as we always do to an open communication process. We offered our honest reactions to what was happening at the time, in a very uncertain period for football and for everyone working in the game. We did speak out against the potential use of neutral venues to complete last season and in the end, the vast majority of clubs backed the position we had taken from the start - we all managed to play out the remaining matches of the 19/20 season at our own stadiums.

During the same period (and indeed since), we also held Zoom briefings with our supporters (we have another one of those coming up soon) and with our staff (we have continued to do these roughly every 3 weeks or so through the pandemic). Both the fan and staff briefings have attracted hundreds of people at one time and have given us really important outlets to get our messages across, as well as answer people’s questions in a time when, like now, fans weren’t coming to our matches and staff weren’t coming to our offices. It is partly the way our culture is and partly the way our Chairman is – he is very open and transparent. But more than that, I really believe in open and transparent communication wherever possible, as a means of helping to motivate our people and to run the business as effectively as possible. Just this week, we announced nearly 70 million pounds worth of financial losses for the 2019/20 season and we opened up to the media, again via Zoom, about how those losses have come about and how we intend to manage our business to mitigate those losses in the equally challenging months ahead.

The Amex (Source: BHAFC)

Brighton were one of the first clubs to hold a test event (for the return of fans) back in August 2020. What was that experience like and how disappointing was it when fans were told once again that they wouldn’t be able to attend matches?

These are obviously unprecedented times so I think you have to be prepared to lead from the front and have confidence in your staff to put on a safe event.

We were open with the government about our willingness to be guinea-pigs in this situation. We put ourselves forward knowing we were going to get a lot of scrutiny – there was a lot that could go wrong. It could have gone against us in some ways but I have a lot of confidence in our operational staff to put events on safely at our stadium, and that includes during a pandemic.

I also have a lot of confidence in our fans in that, if we ask them to follow specific protocols and advice from the government, they would do so. And that’s exactly what happened. For the test event, we had 2,500 people in the stadium and it went as well as we could have hoped. We had the government officials in attendance, as well as large sections of the national media, and we were under a lot of self-imposed pressure. We saw it as a big responsibility, particularly where it concerned the safety of everyone in the stadium, both on and off the pitch, and we prepared accordingly.

Many clubs up and down the country wanted to see what our operational plan was and we openly shared it with them, along with our post-match debrief. Again, fitting with our culture of openness and transparency, we gave our report to anybody that wanted to see it. Not everything was perfect on the day, and a couple of things didn’t go as we would have liked but overall, and given the complexity, it went as well as we could have hoped. The issues we did encounter were included in our post-match report and we used the learning from the test event to modify our plans (slightly) for the return of fans at Premier League matches, once the new season started.

The whole point of the initial test event was not to make us look special in any way, or to put anyone’s health at unnecessary risk, but to use the professionalism and experience of our staff to do something positive to help our industry get back on its feet and help get fans back into stadiums. It worked well to the extent that the government publicly cited our test event as a good example of how fans could be brought back safely, albeit in small numbers initially, during the pandemic.

Indeed, the success of the test event and other subsequent test events, led to the limited number of league matches we saw in different parts of the country; with up to 2000 fans back at the start of this current season, including two more games with fans at our own stadium. For a little while it looked as though we may have helped create something we could all build on. But it wasn’t to be; the second strain of the virus has proved to be far more infectious than the first, and so we have to accept that we are now back playing behind closed doors again.

Looking back, attempting to get fans back was the right thing to do, and we proved we could keep people safe, albeit in small numbers. But we’ve gone from great excitement at having some of our fans back in the stadium in the summer and early part of the season, to being pretty devastated and flat when we took a giant leap back to square one in the late autumn. Obviously, it’s not somewhere we want to be right now – the financial cost of not having fans watch games in our stadiums and the ongoing threat to jobs in our industry is very significant - but we have also said from day one of the pandemic that people’s health must come first; that we have to ensure people are safe when they come to the stadium and that we have a duty to do what we can to help reduce the spread of the virus. In this regard, we have to do what we can to support the government’s policies and messages to keep people safe.


If we now go back to the beginning and ask how you started your career within the football industry?

It was a long time ago - coming up to 25 years! – and if I am being really honest, I always wanted to be a footballer rather than a football administrator! But I wasn’t good enough and when you’re not good enough, you have to accept that it’s not going to be a career for you and you have to re-focus quickly. I went on to obtain my coaching badges but I soon realised I wasn’t going to be a top-level coach either, so to be fair, my aims of having some kind of career in the football industry didn’t get off to the most auspicious of starts!

I had always loved football though and being born and bred less than a mile from White Hart Lane, I started to go to Spurs games with my Dad in 1975. Football was always a big thing in our family and I played football from the age of about 7 or 8 until I was 34 (probably still hoping someone would pluck me from the Southern Amateur League and take a chance on me!). I coached youth football for more than a decade too but having studied marketing, I had started to build a commercial and marketing-based career in industry that culminated in a position on the retail board of Barclays Bank.

Shortly after Euro 96’, I got a very random call from The FA asking me if I would support some work they were doing to look at how English football could be better marketed and commercialised, with a view to our country hosting the 2006 World Cup. Initially, and with the blessing of my then employers, I started working with The FA on a part-time basis; an unpaid consultancy role while still doing my “day job”. A couple of tickets to England matches was my reward for spending many hours debating how we could market England’s bid to stage a World Cup! I loved every minute of it and I got to work with some very passionate and talented people at The FA’s famous old headquarters in Lancaster Gate.

Slowly but surely, a few hours a week turned into the odd day a week, and then a few days a month until one day, The FA asked whether I wanted to be their first Marketing Director on a full-time basis. For a kid that grew up loving football and just wanting to play the game, and who by then had gained some great experience with some big companies in the commercial world, the chance to be the first ever Marketing Director of an organisation like The FA was the next best thing to a career playing or coaching. It was a dream come true, although, having just joined the retail board of Barclays Bank, I was also faced with taking a pretty big pay cut! With a young family and a big mortgage, it probably wasn’t one of my better decisions financially speaking, but it was a chance to build a career in a sport I loved. Sometimes, following your heart is the right thing to do (thankfully my heart is still in football so it turned out alright!). So, after more than two years supporting The FA on a part-time basis, I took the decision to leave Barclays and join The FA full-time.

I enjoyed a great period with The FA, marketing and selling English football from grassroots to the highest level; working with the England team at major tournaments, including the UEFA European Championships in 2000 in Belgium/Holland and the 2002 FIFA World Cup in Japan/Korea; promoting The FA Cup (a competition I still love to this day) and re-branding the FA to help make it a more modern, forward-thinking organisation.

We also wanted to prioritise and promote women’s football which, 21 years ago, was not as developed or as well supported as it is now. We wanted to promote the development of youth football through club academies too, along with an ongoing and often under-reported commitment to grassroots football; ensuring that it was accessible to all sections of the community, including disabled players. We even had 5 plasma screens (quite expensive and relatively unusual technology back then) in the reception area of the new FA headquarters in London’s Soho Square – a great contrast to the more austere and reserved surroundings of our previous Lancaster Gate home – with each of the screens showing a different area of football we were responsible for promoting.

To be Marketing Director of The FA was such a great privilege and I really didn’t think work could get any better. But with Adam Crozier, The FA’s CEO, as my boss, I went on to take responsibility for all of The FA’s commercial activities, which included selling broadcasting rights and sponsorship, overseeing the licensing of The FA’s intellectual property, leading negotiations for use of the England team’s image rights and negotiating friendly matches for the England team with other football associations. Most fascinating of all, while Wembley Stadium was being re-built, I led The FA’s work to stage the FA Cup Final and FA Community Shield events at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, and took the England teams to play matches at different venues across the country. I later added responsibility for media and communications to my role and for a period, I was The FA’s chief spokesperson - a role that gave me a great experience in dealing with the national and international media and other audiences, in a variety of high profile and pressurised situations. This experience has been valuable to me, still to this day.

From The FA, my career in football took me to another dream job at Tottenham Hotspur, which is the club I grew up supporting since I was 7 or 8 years of age. I am now split of course! Brighton is very much my first priority on every day of the week, including when we play Tottenham in the Premier League or in cup competitions, but when I don’t need to worry about Brighton’s result, I switch on and watch Spurs play whenever I can. It’s fair to say that in my ninth year at Brighton, I now get as much joy - and heartbreak - from both clubs! Joining Tottenham was a brilliant experience though because it was my first time working in a professional football club and it was a great honour for me to join the board of the club I grew up supporting. I was also able to work with one of the best chairmen in the Premier League (Daniel Levy) and I learned a lot from him on how to run a football club. I’m very fortunate in that I now work for another of football’s best chairmen, Tony Bloom, from whom I have also learned a great deal and with whom I have enjoyed one of the best periods of my career.

 Source: BHAFC/Paul Hazlewood.

After more than half a decade at Spurs, I had an outstanding opportunity to move to North America to work in Major League Soccer (MLS). It was a different experience to what we have in the Premier League - a very different culture and style. It was a new way of life for me and my family. Vancouver Whitecaps are one of North America’s oldest clubs, have great owners and supporters, and Vancouver remains one of the world’s best cities to live in. I really enjoyed the experience in every way but after 3 years, I had the ‘bug’ to come back to England.

My sense was that if you leave it too long working overseas, people can easily forget about you and they don’t know what you can do anymore, but if you stay away too short a time, people wonder whether you were able to ‘cut the mustard’ working overseas! You have to time things just right and I felt that 3 seasons was a nice length of time for me and my family - not least because the time period also happened to coincide with natural progressions in my children’s education. I felt I was able to demonstrate I’d done a decent job for Vancouver but also, I hadn’t been away too long for people to forget what my capabilities were.

I planned my return to the UK based on couple of opportunities that had become available. Brighton was one of them and it felt like a real meeting of the minds when I first met with Tony (Bloom). We got on well and I really liked the vision he had for the club. The club had just moved to the new Amex stadium, which had a 20,000 capacity at that time (it’s now close to 32,000 and sold out every week in ‘normal times’). We didn’t have our own training ground so that exciting project was there to be part of and of course, Tony had this great vision for Brighton to become a Premier League Club. I had never worked in the Championship before and I had never had the experience of feeling the excitement to work for a club aiming to be promoted to the Premier League.  

 Source: BHAFC/Paul Hazlewood.

It just seemed like a really good idea and for the third time in my career, I counter-intuitively took on a job that I know some people questioned at the time, particularly as I went to Brighton rather than take an opportunity to work for another Premier League Club. It was absolutely the right decision and more than eight years later, I am still here; still loving the challenges this job presents me with and still really enjoying living on the south coast.


You mentioned your time in North America and the different culture you had to adapt to. How difficult was it to do that and then adapt to football in England once again when you returned 3 seasons later?

To a large extent, you just have to go with it. The first few months in Vancouver were quite difficult though. I was living on my own, in a city and country I didn’t know, a culture I didn’t know, working at a new club and in a league I didn’t know... I felt lucky that I was going to work in an English-speaking country but even so, I found that the language and culture was still quite different to England. For example, how we are chatting now in this interview would probably be understood by 90% of Canadians but there would be that 10% where people wouldn’t understand some of the nuances or the humour.

For the first six months, I had to quickly adapt so that I could effectively communicate with the staff on what I wanted to do and how I wanted things to be done. The style and way I communicated with people during my time at Tottenham and The FA, didn’t always work in North America and sometimes the humour didn’t work either. That was a huge problem for me because if I haven’t got the ability to use some humour when I communicate, I’m in real trouble! And there was also a period of adapting to life on my own, until the school year finished in England and my family could join me. This meant I became the most frequent – and well known - solo restaurant goer in Vancouver because cooking isn’t my thing!

I had participated in a daytime TV show to promote the club and the sport to explain that football could be just as enjoyable as North America’s more celebrated sports, such as ice hockey, baseball, or the NFL… and, doing my best to use some humour after the presenter asked me about the most difficult part of my transition from England to North America, I said, “Well I don’t cook so I have been out every night at different restaurants and I’m often doing so on my own because I don’t know too many people in the city yet.” It was just a throwaway remark but by the time I had got back to the office in Vancouver, the club’s receptionist told me I had around 40-50 messages waiting for me all from people inviting me out to dinner or round to their house! It was typical of the culture in Vancouver, where the people are very kind. I spent an entire afternoon responding to every message to let people know I was okay and not to worry about me as I wasn’t really lonely or starving! It’s experiences like that which are fantastic and give you funny little stories when you return to the UK.

I quickly settled down and got into my stride, and was very keen to experience the differences between leagues in the UK and North America. For example, to get a sense of the team’s travel logistics, I went to away games in the MLS. We moan here in England when we have to travel from Brighton to Newcastle on a Tuesday night but try going from Vancouver to Dallas on a Tuesday night; that’s a six-hour flight passing through different time zones, a temperature change of 30 degrees… and then you might have to travel back after the game and play again on the east coast on the Saturday - the east coast of the US being some 3,000 miles from Vancouver! So, whenever I hear players or managers talking about Saturday-Tuesday or Saturday-Wednesday travel up and down the length of the UK, I do smile because the MLS is very different to what we experience here. You can’t use private planes in the MLS either; it’s typically scheduled services and economy class seats.

Coming back to England was a big change again and Brighton is a club with a distinctive culture; the fans saved the club and the club continues to play a big role in the community. Tony Bloom and his family have been closely connected to the club for nearly half a century too. So, having previously experienced working at clubs in two big cities - London and Vancouver - Brighton was an entirely different proposition for me.  I wanted to use some of the things I had learned in North America, such as how to present matches, engage openly and directly with fans, and create entertainment around the match itself but, at the same time, I had to get my head back into the mindset of how English fans like to watch football. In Vancouver, some fans would turn up 5 minutes before kick-off, watch the first 10 minutes of the game; get up to get a beer; come back and watch another 15 minutes and then get up again for a hotdog. If they did that in England, fans would go crazy at the constant interruptions to their enjoyment of the game. But that’s the way some people consume football (and other sports) in North America. Generally speaking, watching live sport in North America is a very different experience to watching football here.

So, coming back to England, I had to go through this period of refocusing to remind myself just how intense English fans are about their team and the 90 minutes of football. In England, it is all about that 90 minutes of football but, while everyone in North America still wants their team to win, the experience of going to games is not just about the game but about what happens around those 90 minutes of live sport too. How are the hotdogs? Are there big screens showing the action on the concourse if I leave my seat at any time? Is the beer cold? What kind of entertainment is laid on before or after the match? Their focus is on the all-round entertainment of the afternoon or evening rather than just the sport, whereas in England, if there is a bit of entertainment pre- and post-match then great, but really, it’s all about the sport – and the result of course!  It was a lot of fun and I am glad that I had that opportunity to work in North America but I am also glad to be back working in English football because I love it to the bottom of my heart. Going away for a few years really made me appreciate what we have here all the more.


Moving onto the Amex Stadium project, how proud are you of what has been achieved in terms of the atmosphere and facilities?

I am extremely proud of what has been achieved. We are now in our 10th season and it’s amazing how quickly that decade in our ‘new’ stadium has gone. There are several things that I love about it.

Firstly, the stadium sits in the valley of the downs and in an area of outstanding natural beauty. That’s pretty unusual for a football stadium attracting tens of thousands of fans every other week, isn’t it?!

Secondly, the design of the stadium within that setting is magnificent and it gives everybody that’s in it a great view of the action, which again is a really important factor for English football fans. When I was growing up watching football at some of our country’s old-fashioned stadiums, that wasn’t always possible. As much as I loved the history and atmosphere of those stadiums, I used to spend much of the time standing up and trying to look around the tall person in front of me. So every time I sit at the Amex or at other modern football stadiums up and down the country, I find it amazing at how great the facilities are now.

And then thirdly, it’s the staff. We have a brilliant team of people who buy-in to the club’s values and treat all our fans and our visitors well. That mentality has been ingrained into our staff and I still think that’s unusual in football. When I used to go to football as a kid, particularly away matches, we were treated as badly as you could imagine. We were herded on to buses or trains, marched to the stadium; given the worst part of the stadium to see the game with little or no access to decent food and drink, and had to use really poor facilities, not least the toilets – which at times were just a brick wall that you had to stand against! So, whilst at the time we didn’t know any different and we loved it anyway, it was pretty disgusting to be honest and anyone that harps on for the “good old days of watching football”, well, they definitely weren’t there as far as I’m concerned!

Graham Potter signing (Source: BHAFC/Paul Hazlewood.)

I really love what we have accomplished at the Amex and the way we treat both sets of fans with respect. We sometimes have home fans complaining that we give away fans too good of an area to watch the game and, to some extent, I understand what they mean because our visitors have a great view and brilliant facilities at the away fans end of our stadium. But we have to set aside 3000 seats for away fans in ‘normal times’ and we need to treat them well because we can’t easily sell those seats to anyone else. Ultimately, selling out all areas of the stadium, including the areas set aside for visiting fans; selling good quality food and drink to our visitors, helps our club’s finances. That helps us to buy better players and ultimately perform better.

A lot of the credit for the quality of the Amex goes to my predecessor Martin Perry, who led the building work on the stadium. I often say that he did the hard work and I’ve done the easy bit because if somebody said to me that I had to build a stadium in the middle of the South Downs and from scratch, I probably wouldn’t have got the job at the club. The fact it was all managed by Martin was great because it was then left to me to build the culture of the football club around it, which I am much better suited to do.


You are also a board member for Women in Football. How did that opportunity arise and what encouraged you to take-up the position?

As I mentioned earlier, supporting and promoting women’s football was very much part of my responsibility when I was working at The FA more than 20 years ago. Hope Powell, who is now our Head Coach for the Brighton women’s team, was the manager of the England women’s team back then. Hope and I got to know each other well and I came to understand how difficult her job was at that time. The women’s team didn’t have a lot of access to facilities and they didn’t have great equipment or too much of an infrastructure to support them. There were very few full-time women’s football staff at The FA, other than the immediate staff around the team and some really good administrators (including my friend the excellent Kelly Simmons, who is now director of the women’s professional game at The FA). They were also supported by a part-time women’s football committee made up of a small number of hard-working grass roots members of the FA Council. It really struck me how difficult it was for Hope and her staff in comparison to the infrastructure we had for the men’s game.


Sometimes, back in those early days at The FA, I would bump into Hope and she would tell me her group didn’t have enough footballs to train with. This was the England women’s team, not a Sunday League team or an under 9’s school team not having enough equipment to train with! I remember sitting in my office at The FA one day after another ear-bashing from Hope, with her telling me we were useless (although I don’t think it was quite as polite as that!) and that she needed more support from us. To be honest, I just had to sit there and suck it up because she was absolutely right. After she left, I sat at my desk and thought, ‘Right, we really need to do something about this because this is ridiculous.’

So for our next sponsorship programme, we set about creating specific rights for women’s football. Part of re-negotiating the sponsorships relating to the England national team meant that if, great partners such as Nationwide Building Society wanted to continue to sponsor the men’s England team, they had to sponsor the women’s team too; they weren’t able to sponsor one without the other. Nationwide were brilliant because it married up with their own business - 75-80% of their staff were female at that time and it made absolute sense for them to invest in women’s football as well as the men’s game; it really resonated with the staff in their organisation. So, not only would it work from a brand building point of view, but it would work for staff morale too.

If I look at the involvement of women in football in pure business terms, half of the population is female so why would anyone in our industry make it difficult for women and girls to access football? It makes absolute business sense for football to engage with women and girls; make football welcoming and accessible both from a participation and consumption point of view.

So as far back as 20-odd years ago, helping to develop women’s football was very much part of my work, but I was then lucky enough to go on and become a dad to two daughters. They both grew up with me working in football and so they knew no different other than being around the game; they were in and around football clubs from a very young age, they often watched their brother play football and they grew up with a real interest in the sport.

Ironically, both girls now work for Premier League clubs so there’s a big part of me that is very proud of that but at the same time, there is another part of me that feels an even greater sense of responsibility to help ensure there is a clear pathway for women in football - I now have an even bigger vested interest.

I want my daughters and any other woman working in our industry to feel as though they could take the job I do one day; they have access to the same opportunities that I’ve had without any additional barriers to their chances of success just because they are female. If any woman has the talent and the knowledge, they shouldn’t have any problem with progressing in the football industry.

So Women in Football is a natural organisation for me to help, support and speak on behalf of, as a male ally. I would also like to think that if barriers do still exist, they aren’t as high or as strong as they once were and that either way, they are coming down rapidly.

There are already some great female role models in our sport: Denise (Barrett-Baxendale) at Everton, Karren (Brady) at West Ham, Susan (Whelan) at Leicester, Donna (Cullen) at Tottenham, and Michelle (Walder), a non-executive director at our own club, as well as many other talented women working in senior and junior positions at football clubs and related organisations up and down the country. We have an increasing number of women who are leading Premier League clubs very successfully and why shouldn’t they? They are all very accomplished and experienced business people, and as a father to two young women starting out in football, it’s great to see today’s female leaders inspiring younger women to follow them into the industry.

I guess the one thing I haven’t mentioned about my career yet though is the need for some luck along the way. I have been fortunate to not only be in the right place at the right time on occasions but I have also been fortunate enough to have had good leaders who have pushed and encouraged me. Now that I am in a leadership role myself, I hope that I encourage people in the same way; I want them to be the best they can be and to take responsibility. I don’t want them to make mistakes but it’s (usually!) not the end of the world if they do. My staff know I get grumpy about avoidable mistakes but we all make them sometimes and if we don’t make the same mistake twice, we have all learned from the experience. I have always been lucky enough to have bosses like that - go off, take the initiative, do what you need to do, do it as well as you can and if you make a mistake, then own up to it quickly, learn from it and move on. I believe if you combine that type of leadership with a clear vision of what you’re trying to achieve and a good bit of luck, you’ve got more than half a chance of being successful and bringing people with you.


What is the most enjoyable part of your current role and what is the most difficult part of your role?

Winning games and losing games…

Anyone in football will tell you that life in this business is great when you’re winning and it’s not so great when you’re losing because everything around the football club, whether it’s staff morale, commercial success, ticket sales, the mood of the fans, the mood of the media… it’s ultimately determined by results. We can be a fantastic club who is focused on our community and supportive of our staff; a club that is open, engaging, communicative and transparent but if we lose every week then we will still get hammered by all and sundry! That’s the nature of the business. It can be very harsh sometimes but ultimately, we all know we are in a results-driven business!

Celebrating promotion to the Premier League, following their 2-1 win over Wigan Athletic (Source: BHAFC/Paul Hazlewood.)

It’s interesting because it’s obviously the same across all leagues; it’s great when you’re winning and not so great when you’re losing but Premier League clubs have an increased scrutiny and pressure put upon them. Do you think there is more external pressure in the Premier League and if so, how have you managed that?

There is, yes. When you’re in the Premier League and you’re a club of our size, you don’t win as often as you might like so when you do win, it’s a big thing. Realistically, we need to win a minimum of 10 games and draw 10 games a season to make sure we stay in the Premier League. But winning only 10 of 38 games is tough for fans, especially when at lower levels and pushing for promotion, you might win more like 60-70% of your games in a good season. But the consequence of winning all those games at a lower level is that you’re promoted, which means you then have to get used to a higher level – a level where wins, particularly in the Premier League, are much harder to come by.

One of the other challenges of being in the Premier League is the constant scrutiny. When we were riding high in the Championship, interest in us was relatively modest but jump up to the Premier League and automatically overnight, you become one of the 50 or so biggest clubs in the world just because of the scale of your turnover. Everything you do and everything you say is dissected multiple times over, so the pressure can be intense and it’s been particularly so during the pandemic; there has been intense scrutiny on all professional football clubs, especially those in the Premier League. How are the players behaving? How are the directors behaving? Is the club supporting its community? How much money are they losing…?


What do you think are the most important skills to being a successful CEO in football?

It comes all the way back to the start of the conversation - communication.

If I break down my job into small parts, the one consistent theme across those parts is communication and that can be one-to-one communication with the owner, one-to-ten communication with my senior managers; one-to-3oo communication with all of the staff or it could be one, to who knows how many journalists, who then influence however many millions of people who read and listen to what they say and do.

I think being able to communicate is really important but if you can communicate very well, then it’s a powerful tool to have in your skill-set.

 Source: BHAFC/Paul Hazlewood.

Clearly, you’ve also got to know your business, understand the numbers and be well connected in the industry you’re in. So the more experience you have, the more attractive you will be to potential employers.

I’m by no means the best football club CEO but I have been around for a long time now and, until the pandemic hit us all this past year, I thought I had seen most things in the game from one perspective or another. That experience is invaluable; it helps you to not overreact to anything and allows you to use perspective to look at everything clearly and carefully before making key decisions. And, if you are able to do that, the chances of you making better decisions tends to be higher. Equally, if you overreact or reach conclusions too quickly, the chances are you are going to get it wrong.

Negotiation skills also count for a lot. Whether it’s buying or selling players, negotiating sponsorship deals, hiring staff, dealing with suppliers, or seeking support from government or a local authority, negotiation forms a big part of most weeks in the life of a CEO. That’s relevant to any business but at a football club, those skills are often very much to the fore.

Finally, I try to make it a rule to not get too high on the wins or too low on the losses. The last thing staff in a football club - or for that matter, any business needs - is to come into the office and see the CEO sitting with his or her head in their hands because a game has just been lost. Equally, I don’t think staff should come in and see the CEO dancing around the office because a game has just been won (although I might have compromised a little on that rule when we won promotion to the Premier League!).

I believe that a balanced mentality helps to build stability and confidence in an organisation. Although, football is an emotional game and there are always exceptions. I can be grumpy sometimes but it’s never usually about one result because that’s an overreaction. Equally, I don’t get carried away on the back of a couple of wins. I’m delighted to win, of course I am, but I know it doesn’t create any guarantees at this level. It’s always about the next game, or the next season.


What advice would you give to those who hope to work in the football industry?

Try and get a ‘foot in the game’ wherever you can. I was lucky that my ‘foot in the game’ came with the opportunity to support The FA on an unpaid, part-time basis. I say to the young people who write into me to volunteer at their local club and get involved however they can. There are so many clubs up and down the country who, right now especially, need volunteers to help support and run the club. From working the bar, selling tickets or sponsorships, to preparing the pitch or cleaning the dressing rooms... just being involved in football and having something on your CV that gives you a start is really important.

If I have two CVs arrive on my desk and one says that this person really wants to work in football but you can see that they haven’t made any real effort to get involved, and the other CV is from somebody who is playing football, has obtained their coaching badges, volunteers at their local club and/or has perhaps taken a coaching or refereeing course just to get a different understanding of the game…that second CV is going to get more of my time than the first. The first one may even have better academic qualifications but I am more interested in a person who has committed to starting a career in football and has done everything they possibly can to give them a head start.

Seeing a commitment and desire to work in the industry is important because the problem is, from the outside looking in, it’s the most glamorous job in the world but from the inside looking out, it really isn’t! We often work 6 days a week, sometimes 7 and the hours are long, the challenges are great and the scrutiny can be difficult to cope with. So it’s not as glamourous a job as people on the outside think it is…and if you’ve seen that early on with a local club, and still want to come into the industry, then that gives me more confidence the candidate is applying for the right reasons. Once you’re in and it’s in your blood, I think you grow to love it even more. Despite the challenges, the pressure and the scrutiny, I don’t ever consider myself to be working hard - I consider myself to be very lucky and having a great time doing something I love.


And finally, where do you see your career in football in the future? Are there any specific targets you hope to achieve?

On a professional level, of course I would like to see Brighton stay in the Premier League and perhaps put a trophy in the cabinet at some point; winning a domestic cup, whether it’s the FA or League Cup would be a fantastic achievement for us as part of our journey.

 Source: BHAFC/Paul Hazlewood.

Our vision is to be a top 10 Premier League club and a top 4 Women’s Super League club; they are long-term objectives that by definition, will not be achieved overnight. But I would love for Brighton to have achieved these things, or be well on their way to doing so, by the time I leave the club; to have broken through to the top half of the table of the highest men’s and women’s leagues and finish there on a regular basis. It would be a great achievement.

With the exception of the return to the UK from Vancouver, I have never really planned a career move in advance - I have always been very fortunate (that luck thing again!) that something has just happened at a time when I needed it to happen. Whether my luck can continue, we will see but I don’t have a particular ambition to do X, Y or Z. I have had a fantastic career so far and I am really happy doing what I’m doing. I’m very lucky to be working in the sport I have loved since I was a small boy, at a club with a great owner; which is backed by fantastic staff and supporters.


Interviewer: Sascha Gustard-Brown

Sascha is highly experienced within the area of Supporter Engagement, having held the positions of Head of Supporter Engagement at Luton Town Football Club and Supporter Liaison Officer at West Ham United. She is currently working on small supporter engagement projects in sport and freelance writing in football.