Speaking to whitehawkfc.com, Hawks chairman John Summers talks about the need for a name change, as well as the future and plans for the club.
Hi John, thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions. Firstly, why is there a need to change?
We have been discussing this as a club – the members, sponsors, fans – as well people that attend the matches. It has been in our business plan that we feel that we have been held back by the name, and that we feel that we are not embracing the city.
Firstly, I am the Chairman, so simply the spokesman of the club’s decisions and opinions. It has been well known that we aspire to be named after the city. There are several reasons why there is a need for change. All the changes the club has seen over the past few seasons – the great players, coaches and the maintenance of our ground all come at a cost. That cost has been covered by myself (50%) and my partners, KSD (50%) and our sponsors have also helped in terms of covering wages etc. However, the gates as they are at the moment will not even cover maintaining the ground, let alone anywhere near paying player’s wages, and the other huge amount of costs that the club pays out. The club is a County League club in terms of the number of personnel behind the scenes. It is supported by a handful of volunteers, and four key volunteers in particular along with a few others. We need to bring in new staff to help those who are already doing a fantastic job, and we need to up our game as a club.
What concerns me at the moment is that if anything were to happen to me, Ned (McDonnell) or any of the other boys, and the club will be in a serious situation. As custodians of the club, we have a duty to create sustainability, and that sustainability is based upon a wider catchment area, and also overcome the constraints that the name has given us because it is no secret that a lot of people are aware of the negative connotations connected to Whitehawk.
Once the FA Cup run was over, attendances fell back down to around the 300 mark, and with those figures we won’t go anywhere.
What came about picking the name Brighton City?
It has come as no surprise that the name ‘East Brighton’ has been suggested, as Paul Barber (Chief Executive of Brighton & Hove Albion) doesn’t want us to have any name starting with Brighton, which in my opinion is not acceptable.
We need to have the name starting with Brighton. Did you know that in our 70 years as a club, we have never actually played in Whitehawk? Even as Whitehawk & Manor Farm Old Boys, we have always been based in Brighton. We have never been based in Whitehawk. On the contrary, Brighton & Hove Albion have been based in Hove for most of it’s years, temporarily at Withdean and then Gillingham, and are currently at Falmer – on the outskirts of Brighton and Lewes. We need to embrace our city, and we have got every right, as 70 years continual residency in Brighton going forward, we have more right than anyone to be named after our city.
After our process to change our name last season was rejected due to involvements from Brighton & Hove Albion, we approached them afterwards and discussed what they would accept, and what they wouldn’t block through their FA connections. At that moment, I provided them with several options that have been suggested, such as ‘Brighton Hawks’, and we have no doubt that we want our name to start with Brighton, like theirs. Like Manchester City and Manchester United, Sheffield Wednesday and Sheffield United etc, we want to be the other club in Brighton. I put to them ‘Brighton United’, ‘Brighton Athletic’, even ‘Brighton East End’, which is my personal favourite, but all were refused because they begin with Brighton.
We feel that once you start something, you do it right and if you are going to represent the city, then you do need to start with Brighton, as clubs who play in the same city do, and we didn’t want to compromise on that. However, Brighton & Hove Albion wanted us to change to something that didn’t have Brighton at the start of the name, and then Paul Barber would consider it.
We want to stick to the Brighton prefix as we feel the value of that brand is essential to be representing in the city. Once we set this aside and go five, ten years down the line – I don’t think this argument will be relevant. It is just important that we have sustainability, have a large catchment and represent our city, Brighton, in a good light, as at present the current name puts off potential major sponsors.
The fans feel that they have not been consulted over this
We consulted with the fans about this when we first arrived, when you were lucky if you had 30/40 people there watching. The fan base has risen over the last couple of seasons a fair bit, but is still based on an average gate of 300. When we first set out our intentions, some of the ‘Ultras’ were actually chanting ‘City’ at matches, but since then we have had a new influx of fans, but they are not the core base – who were the 30 watching us play Merstham in the Ryman South.
We are a month or so behind with regard to informing the new influx of fans, but we didn’t want to talk to them during the cup run with all the hype that caused, and we wanted to see how that panned out. It is not our fault the FA had not given us notice that the deadline had been moved to December 31.
There has been an online petition, with over 1000 signatures at the time of this interview
My opinion on the petition is that I am concerned that they are doing Brighton & Hove Albion’s ‘dirty work’ for them, but I can only apologise that this letter of intent on changing the name has gone in without prior notification. Last season, we had the whole of January and February to sit down and go through it all in detail, but his year the deadline was December 31.
The point of the matter is that it is not about an argument, it’s about having a discussion and understanding the true facts of the matter, and there is good reasons for it. It is a great opportunity that we could miss out on, but I do understand, and was expecting, a response. It’s about the true fans, members and volunteers at the club. We will respond to the fans’ concerns, but we want to know that when we’re not here, where the club will be.
What are the chances of sitting down with the fans for a Q & A session?
We have sat down with the fans before about our intent to change the name of the club, and the new ones should not be surprised about this as it has been mentioned in just about every media interview, radio interview and TV interview, even during the cup run, but it has had little or no response. The fact is that the FA forced our hand to submit an intention to change our name prior to consulting the newer fans, as well as those who have their doubts. I am happy to sit down with anyone and discuss this anytime they like.
Other than the name change, what other developments are happening at the club?
There is an immense amount of planning going on. This is all part of a ten year plan for the club, and if we are going to get promoted, we need to improve our facilities. Our longer term aspirations are, and this is under instruction from the council, that we need to find a solution to our expansion. This expansion cannot continue at the Enclosed Ground. We have found a potential solution, and we are in ongoing discussions with the council regarding that.
If we able to secure a new site, then we have plans to turn the existing ground into a training facility, which will help develop a sustainable youth system which will be under the club’s banner. We are currently setting up a Whitehawk Community Trust, so that we can engage with the local community and get the kids to come and play and train. In addition, we are expanding our youth structure, which includes setting up a football academy. This gives more local coaches the chance to gain experience at their local club in a safe and friendly environment.
This is to attract new sponsors to the club, and as we grow as a club, we need to ask ourselves: ‘How can we sustain this as we are?’ We need to have a business plan in place and have an idea on how we are going to continue expanding as a club.
Some of the improvements that the club needs urgently to finance in order to both stay in the National League South, and if we are promoted, the National League, include: More paid admin staff, including a Commercial Manager; Substantial stadium improvements, which includes over 1000 additional seats; A new 3G training facility; Additional grounds staff and equipment; Levelling
What would be your response to some fans saying they feel alienated?
We are not going to do anything that the fans don’t want, but we want the fans to understand the project and enjoy it just as much as we are, but there is cost behind it.
We would hate to alienate any fans, but it is impossible to keep 100% of the fans happy 100% of the time, there is always pros and cons to every situation. We want to engage with the fans, and hopefully they will understand it and support the decision and aspirations.
What is the process for changing the name of the club?
We have received letters from the FA recently, and we will be having a meeting with them in the near future. There is various criteria which we need to meet like we did last time, and I expect a final decision to be made towards the beginning of May. I think it could be damaging to think that we will never embrace the city, particularly when we have never actually played in Whitehawk, and I think once people realise that they will warm to the decision to apply for a name change. If the application isn’t successful this time around, we will apply again and again because we think the case is so strong, and it is so important to embrace the city. We have a duty to keep reapplying and standing firm in our beliefs. Brighton & Hove Albion do not own the Brighton & Hove name.
What effect will the name Brighton City have on the club?
We think the best name for us to have is Brighton City so then we can reflect on the city of Brighton. The FA turned down Brighton & Hove City as it is too similar to Brighton & Hove Albion’s, so Brighton City is different to the name that they have in place. City does sound a bit corny, but if you think about it, Brighton itself is a new city. We are a new club in the sense that we are at a different level, and we are pushing forwards to a national scale. This is a great time to step up to the next level which embraces the new city. Most importantly, we have never left the city. We will not lose the Hawks’ brand, the colours or the kit, but it will be a step up on the journey we are having. We are standing firm in our city, and that is the way it will always be. We want this club to continue to grow, and to capture the heart of all the people who live in it. It is a vibrant city, which is so inclusive, where everything goes, and we feel that matches the club’s message. It doesn’t matter if you dress as a red lobster, you can walk around Brighton and you can come through our gates on matchday, whereas I don’t think you would even get in at the AMEX.
We are from Brighton. The Ultras are a big part of the club, and we want them to understand what we are doing behind the scenes. One day we will get a name change, the sooner the better, but it has to be a name change that everyone is happy with.
Thank you for your time, John, and we look forward to seeing developments around the club in the near future!
By Anthony Scott