In the entire history of football it will be but the briefest of footnotes, but this afternoon at The Enclosed Ground Whitehawk Football Club will play it last match, a home match in the Ryman League Premier Division against East Thurrock United. This, however, is only the end of a name. Having won by two goals to nil at Leiston last weekend, the club has now been crowned as the champions of the division and will start next season in the Conference South under a new name: Brighton City. But for a club on the rise, as this one continues to be in spite of the doubts of those that have questioned where the money is coming from to keep the club spending what has been on both players and infrastructure over the last two or three seasons or so, this name change had, perhaps, become an inevitability.
One of the more frequent questions to be asked amongst non-league football supporters over the last couple of seasons has been that of, “Well, where on earth is Whitehawk anyway?” The answer, of course, is that it is in East Brighton, with a ground tucked at the foot of the South Downs which sweep around the eastern perimeter of the town itself, and herein lays the problem that the club has had in recent years. It is only three years ago that Whitehawk FC was in the Sussex County Football League, but its recent ascent through the divisions on the pitch hasn’t been matched by similar progress on it, with attendances stubbornly refusing to rise in a town in which the main draw, Brighton & Hove Albion, has been continuing what has been starting to look like an inexorable rise towards the Premier League.
Attendances at The Enclosed Ground this season have, on the whole, stubbornly refused to increase as the club has had success on the pitch. This season’s average – before this afternoon’s match, of course – sits at 201, but this has been pushed up by large attendances for matches against top of the table rivals Wealdstone and local rivals Lewes. At the other end of the spectrum, just ninety people turned out for their home match against Cray Wanderers, and just seventy-three people saw them play Wingate & Finchley earlier this season, and while the company that has been bank-rolling the club, Kingspan, has show little sign of losing interest in it yet, there will come a point at which it will have to become self-supportive, at least up to a point. Locally speaking, the name “Whitehawk” doesn’t have the strongest of reputations, and with few supporters to disillusion by changing the name, perhaps it will be able to attract more sponsorship and create a new image for itself by, for the want of a better word, “re-branding” itself.
For a club that is seeking to dramatically increase its attendances, however, Brighton in 2013 could hardly be a more challenging environment in which to do have to try to do it. Brighton & Hove Albion moved into the American Express Community Stadium in 2011, and this saw the club’s attendances jump up from an average of 7,351 in the club’s last season at The Withdean Stadium to an average of 20,003 during the 2011/12 season. A continuing upturn in the team’s performance on the pitch this season coupled with the expansion of the club’s ground to a capacity to hold 30,750 people has meant that the average attendance has leaped up again, this time to 25,705, and promotion to the Premier League at the end of this season might even mean that the ground would be at or close to capacity for all matches next season, should they get there. Attracting people away from the Albion – as well as other non-league clubs, such as Lewes – is not going to be easy.
It would also be remiss of us not to mention the geographical impreciseness of this new name. Brighton City sounds mighty impressive at a glance, but Brighton itself isn’t a city – it is a town which makes up part of the city of Brighton & Hove. It might, perhaps, have been a little too cheeky of the club to rename itself as ‘Brighton & Hove City’, but for pedants – and there are plenty of them about – it isn’t strictly correct. The club, however, would unlikely to be overly concerned by considerations. Its joint chairman, John Summers, this week told the Brighton Argus newspaper that, “The vast majority understand we have grown and we want to embrace the entire area. We have always seen ourselves as Espanyol Barcelona, the working class Brighton and Hove Albion,” which may raise one or two eyebrows amongst Albion’s support, but if the club can move away from the benefaction model which has propelled it to where it is today and continue its course as a sustainably run club which does manage to create itself a new identity as a result of this name change, then the owners will presumably consider it to have been more than worth it.
Ultimately, it will not be the name change that matters for Whitehawk Football Club but what happens as a result of it. The club’s demise has been predicted by many within non-league football but it hasn’t come about yet. Something, however, will need to change if bust is not to follow the boom that the club is undergoing at present. Although Brighton City may consider Brighton & Hove Albion to be the target for their support, the Amex is actually nearer to The Dripping Pan, the home of Lewes Football Club, than it is to The Enclosed Ground, and there is an inherent danger in identifying yourself as a second club, which is that the dyed in the wool can usually be relied upon to a greater extent than supporters that fall into the category of being Johnny-come-latelys. If the club cannot attract new support and hold onto it, though, the bubble will burst and the club will have to find its level again at a lower level of the pyramid. As such, this period of success on the pitch is one during which the club has to do everything it can to attract new support. Whether a change of name and a winning team is enough to make some of the people of Brighton change their allegiances and switch to supporting them, though, is not a question that is easy to answer. For now, the bubble remains as bi as it ever has for both Whitehawk FC and Brighton City FC.
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