After a disappointing start to the season that sees them sitting above the League One relegation places on goal difference, Brighton & Hove Albion have parted company with their manager, Russell Slade. This in itself isn’t much of a surprise, but it does provide us with a reasonable case study on the psychology of football supporters and the pressure under which clubs find themselves. Slade’s appointment as the manager of the club came earlier this year, when they were in serious danger of relegation into League Two. Whether Slade saved the club from relegation or got lucky is a matter of conjecture, and the jury of the club’s support remained out on him over the summer.
This season’s League One, however, is not a level playing field. The likes of Norwich City, Leeds United, Southampton and Charlton Athletic are all former Premier League clubs with the resources to match. The rest of the division has to play catch up to this four and supporters have to adjust their expectations accordingly. Brighton, however, have an additional pressure to deal with. The club’s new stadium at Falmer will hold 22,374 people, and is due to open in 2011. Brighton cannot afford to be in League Two (or worse) when the new stadium opens, even though funding for it has been secured through new chairman Tony Bloom.
With a massive catchment area (the club remains the only Football League club in the two counties of Sussex) and many, more residual supporters having stayed away from the Withdean Stadium because of the appalling facilities there, the potential is in place for the club to build for the future – it’s just getting through the next couple of years that seems to be the problem. Expectations, however, have risen with the arrival of Bloom and the prevailing view of the majority of supporters seems to have been that Brighton couldn’t afford another season of struggle. Bloom, for the most part, has their support for at least having acted decisively and quickly.
What, though, are Bloom’s alternatives? The supporters’ favourite would appear to be Alan Curbishley, who is a former Brighton player. The former Charlton Athletic and West Ham United manager has already gone on record as stating that he will only be interested in a new position if it is at a Premier League club. Another contender may be Steve Coppell, but the club may be put off by the unsuccessful return of Micky Adams to the club a couple of years ago. After those two, something appoaching a list of the usual array of suspects start to come into view – the likes of Iain Dowie, John Barnes, Gareth Southgate, Peter Taylor and Bryan Gunn. None of these set the pulses racing, and it could be argued that the club needs a steadying hand to ensure that, after last season’s great escape, they don’t slip into League Two at a time that they can’t really afford such a drop.
There are some Brighton supporters who feel that Slade wasn’t given enough time this season to get things right, and there is no question that Tony Bloom – who has supplemented his income from property development with playing poker at the highest level – has taken a potentially high risk gamble. The other thing worth mentioning about Slade is that his fall in popularity was largely due to results on the pitch, and that there remains a high level of goodwill towards him for his role in their avoiding relegation last season. Whoever it is that steps into his shoes will have a tricky job on his hands. The investment in the club has been largely off the pitch and it may be unrealistic to expect the club to challenge with clubs that were playing Premier League football in the recent past. That said, however, Brighton & Hove Albion can scarcely afford relegation. Clubs of their size, such as Luton Town and Oxford United, are already playing non-league football and the club simply has to minimise its chances of slipping closer to that level.
The departure from Brighton of Russell Slade does tell a cautionary tale on the general subject of the hiring and firing of managers. If we assume (and it’s not unreasonable to) that the position of first team manager is the most important that a football club can make, why do so many of them seem to hire and fire with such haste? It has already been rumoured that Brighton will make the announcement of their new manager on Tuesday, which means that just forty-eight hours will have passed between Slade’s departure and the new appointment. It is possible that the club had been in contact with someone prior to today, but perhaps the whole culture of hiring and firing managers needs closer examination in the long term. If they actually are important, that is.