Whitehawk Revive Their Brighton City Aspirations

by | Jan 21, 2016

The upward ascent of Whitehawk Football Club has been one of the great curiosities of football on the south coast of England over the last five years or so. As recently as 2009, the club was in the lower reaches of the Sussex County League Division One, just another of a morass of football clubs who straddle the divide between being semi-professional and amateur, scratching by an existence on crowds that could seldom be counted in more than dozens, never likely to do any harm, never likely to cause any great shakes. It’s a familiar enough story near the bottom of the pyramid, where ambition is more often than not tempered by the tough realities of running a football club on a shoestring budget.

This club, however, turned out to be different. With wealthy backers, Whitehawk’s ascent would have received considerably more coverage had it happened any higher up the English league system. The Sussex County League was won in 2010, and this was followed by two successive league titles, the Ryman League Division One South and Premier Divisions, in 2012 and 2013, and last season the club reached the play-offs in the National League South. This season has already seen the club reach the Second Round of the FA Cup, only narrowly missing out on a trip to Goodison Park to play Everton after a home defeat against Dagenham & Redbridge in front of the television cameras of BT Sport, while, at the time of writing, the club is in eight place in the National League South. Promotion to the Football League could in theory be just two promotions away.

Over the last few weeks, however, an old story which threatens to send the club’s identity into the great unknown has resurfaced. As the 2012/13 season drew to a close, the club announced its intention to change its name to “Brighton City”, but following an objection from Brighton & Hove Albion, an FA rule change made it impossible for the club to press ahead with this change and the story, thought most, was quietly put to rest. This season, though, the plan has resurfaced, with the club’s chairman John Summers going into some detail in a recent interview with the Brighton Argus over the reasons why he considers this so important.

We have assessed that we are held back by the name. We are in this position now simply because we have financed the growth since 2007. If Ned (McDonnell – Summers’ co-investor in the club) or I decided we wanted to retire tomorrow – I’m not saying we are – we have got to be thinking where are we leaving the club from where we got it.

We want to be able to say we have done everything we can to make the club sustainable and if we do retire we can say that we have more people coming through the gate, the club has growth potential, it can grow organically, the fans are enjoying themselves and can feel happy about the way the club is growing.

At the moment, we have heard a few fans say ‘Let’s see where Whitehawk takes us’ but what has taken the club from the County League to here is a lot of investment, a lot of time and effort, a lot of volunteers doing a lot of work. That is really not sustainable. It is sustainable all the time we are here. We want to make it sustainable when we are not here. The name change is fundamental to that.

The eagle-eyed amongst you will probably have spotted that Summers’ explanation of why there is such a burning need for the club to change its name isn’t particularly weighed down by detail. Whilst the buzzwords du jour – “sustainable”, “grow organically” – are all present and correct, there isn’t a great deal of explanation as to why it should be that this should be so important. Indeed, the cynics amongst us might even consider that changing the name of a football club is the very opposite of “growing organically.” Changing the name of the club is a rebranding exercise, and there’s very little organic about marketing exercises. That said, however, there may be something a little unsavoury over the way that not only Brighton & Hove Albion but even at least one individual within the Football Association itself may have acted in respect to this story. Speaking to the Guardian on the eve of their FA Cup match against Dagenham & Redbridge about the name change, Summers stated that:

We were contacted by a particular member of the FA. When he heard of our plans to change our name, when we were promoted to the Conference, he gave us a right telling-off, shouting down the phone at us. Within a very short period of time, the FA changed the rules and this particular individual was prominent in changing them, to make our application impossible to approve. They unanimously objected.

Regardless of the rights or wrongs of this particular case, such behaviour from somebody within the Football Association itself can only be considered to be pretty appalling. There is nothing to suggest that Brighton & Hove Albion were related to this, but the club’s attitude towards the name of the town also feels a little on the unnecessary side. There are plenty of towns and cities in this country – or, indeed, the world – that have more than one club with the name of that town in their name as part of the name of their respective club names, and the idea that Brighton & Hove Albion’s corporate interests might somehow get confused between the slick and palatial environs of the American Express Community Stadium and Whitehawk’s ramshackle Enclosed Ground seems somewhat laughable. Brighton & Hove Albion, this attitude rather seems to betray, may have been the beneficiaries of being from a one club town for rather too long, if the club feels that it should have exclusive rights to use the word “Brighton” in its name.

No matter what we may think about Brighton & Hove Albion’s position over this or the – unverified – apparent behaviour of someone from the Football Association over it, however, it is difficult to see much of an argument in favour the club’s desire to change its name. For one thing, it’s semantically troublesome. Brighton itself isn’t a city. It’s a town within the city of Brighton & Hove, which in itself has only held city status since the turn of the century. On an altogether more serious and valid note – after all, Chelmsford City, also of the National League South, have carried the “City” suffix on their name since 1938, even though Chelmsford itself wasn’t granted city status until 2012 – there is some resistance on the part of fans of the club to the name change.

One of the big problems that all club that rises from the lower regions of the non-league game has to face is that of how to attract more people to turn out and watch them, and in Brighton the town (or city, depending on taste) plays just four miles or so away in a 30,000 capacity stadium with comfortable seats and a decent standard of football on offer. Whitehawk’s support has grown somewhat over recent seasons, and those that are watching the club now are partaking in something of the ultra culture that can increasingly be found with its tongue planted fairly firmly in its cheek at several non-league football grounds on a Saturday afternoon. The supporters are understood to be largely against the name change, and this would appear to be borne out by a petition that has, at the time of writing, garnered 1,200 signatories, more than thee times the club’s average home attendance for this season, so far.

Not all of those that have signed this petition will be Whitehawk supporters, of course, but the fact that a four figure crowd can be persuaded to sign up to it probably says something about the club having misjudged the mood of its fanbase. Whitehawk is certainly a unique name, unique enough for the club to have eclipsed the Whitehawk Estate, which is locally known as one of the most deprived in the area, if not in the whole of the south of England. Whether this is true or not is open to debate, but that the area carries this reputation – whether merited or not – is certainly true, and the name of the local football club may mitigate this slightly.

If the club is seeking to raise its profile, “Brighton City”, which will most likely get lost in a slew of Google searches which will bring up a combination of results for Brighton City Council and Brighton & Hove Albion FC, wouldn’t appear to be the most sensible way to go about it. This, coupled with the supporters’ misgivings about it, the loss of identity that the club has had for more than half a century – somewhat ironically, Whitehawk have already had one name change in the club’s history, having been founded as Whitehawk & Manor Farm Old Boys in 1945, losing all bar the first word of their original name fifteen years later – and the lack of a clear and cogent reason behind why the club should change its name means that, for all the misgivings we might have about Brighton & Hove Albion and somebody related to the FA’s dealings over this, it’s still not a change of identity that seems to make a great deal of sense.

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