Interview with Brighton and Hove Albion Chairman Tony Bloom
PUBLISHED: 15:25 12 September 2011 | UPDATED: 19:53 20 February 2013
Brighton and Hove Albion is happily set up in the club's new home, the American Express Community Stadium but, as chairman Tony Bloom tells Clive Agran, it has taken a long time and a lot of campaigning to get to where the Seagulls are now
Despite being a world-class poker player adept at concealing his hand, theres no disguising the obvious pride that Tony Bloom feels as he sits in one of the 22,374 blue seats in the clubs magnificent new American Express Community Stadium at Falmer, on the eastern outskirts of Brighton.
Watching with evident pleasure as the mowers trim the grass and doubtless visualising a full-house for the opening friendly fixture against Spurs, he chats happily about his beloved Brighton and Hove Albion. A modern-day Moses who has led his people out of the wilderness and into the Promised Land, chairman Bloom can hardly contain his excitement and enthusiasm as a new season dawns and a fresh chapter in the clubs 109-year history opens.
A hugely successful businessman born and bred in Brighton, he has pumped millions of pounds into the club a far cry from the pennies he shoved into fruit machines as a child.
While his classmates at St Christophers School in Hove and then Lancing College spent their pocket money on sweets, the young Bloom would fritter his away in the arcades on West Street.
Although I probably played a bit more than was advisable, it got me interested in gambling, which was probably a good thing in the long term since I became quite successful at it.
Nicknamed The Lizard because ice-cold blood allegedly flows through his veins, he has won comfortably more than 2m playing poker and was a member of the triumphant British team in the Poker Nations Cup recently.
Away from the fruit machines, his other great boyhood passion was football.
Brighton and Hove Albion is evidently in his genes as he would accompany his father, uncle Ray (a director of the club for more than a quarter of a century) and grandfather Harry (who was vice-chairman) to the much-lamented Goldstone ground.
Mention of Brightons former home provokes a rare flash of irritation in the otherwise equable 41-year-old.
The Goldstone Ground was sold when we had nowhere else to go, which I think was a pretty despicable thing to do. We were homeless.
We played at Gillingham for a couple of years and then came to our temporary stadium at Withdean, which is where we were for 12 years. Not the best stadium by a long chalk.
Courtesy of a curious coincidence, Brightons first Championship opponents at the Amex Stadium were Doncaster Rovers, who were the last team they played at the Goldstone Ground.
While Brighton were desperately searching for a new home, Bloom was rapidly developing into a very successful businessman. Putting his gambling expertise to good use, the mathematics graduate from Manchester University started working for bookmakers Victor Chandler International in the Far East and then at their head office in Gibraltar. I left there and a few years later set up Premierbet. This online betting business was subsequently sold and provided the bulk of the funds which Bloom shrewdly invested in property and other businesses.
Meanwhile Brightons search for a new ground continued. The site at Falmer was identified in the late 1990s and it was hoped that the stadium would be ready early in the new millennium. However problems securing planning permission were responsible for many frustrating delays. It took about eight years longer than it should have done, recalled Bloom. There were two public inquiries and then there was a mistake which took the government another two years to rectify. In all it took a ridiculous amount of time.
Did you ever doubt it would happen? No, I was always confident. It had to happen. Without it, this club wouldnt be worthy of the name Brighton and Hove Albion Football Club and this was the only possible location. Now you look at it, the stadium fits beautifully into the landscape. Its a magnificent piece of architecture and makes you think that the whole planning process is ridiculous. But without the efforts of Dick Knight (the previous chairman), Martin Perry (the current chief executive) and the fans, who went on so many marches and were so vociferous in their support of the planning application, it would never have happened.
Nor would it have happened without Blooms massive, unsecured, interest-free loans. Understandably perceived by the fans as the clubs saviour, does he ever expect to see his money again?
Theres a fairly easy explanation as to why I put the money in that I did. Id been involved financially, albeit in a smaller way, for many, many years when Dick Knight was chairman.
There was always going to be a certain amount of extra funding that the club needed in order to make the stadium a reality and I was always going to put in some money. Two things increased the amount that was required. Firstly, there was the long delay during which the cost of building rose substantially. Secondly, we were trying to secure funding from the banks in the middle of the financial crisis. Banks werent lending money to anyone let alone a football club. I was fortunate enough to be able to make up the balance and so I was in for the amount youve read about.
There was simply no other choice. I love the football club and it has such a tremendous future. But now that that money has been put in we aim to be self-financing and intend to flourish for many, many generations to come.
What if the team struggles and the fans want you to inject another 50m to
buy more players? Im not worried about that at all. Well do it the right way, run things along correct commercial lines and well always have a viable football club. I think our fans understand that more than most.
Brighton certainly didnt struggle last season when, under the inspired leadership of manager Gus Poyet, they were runaway champions of Division One. Although Bloom leaves the day-to-day running of the club to others, he is involved with the big decisions and deserves the credit for Poyets appointment.
He has so many qualities. The only thing he didnt have and there was nothing he could do about it was experience as a manager, which I suppose made his appointment something of a risk. But he has all the qualities of leadership enthusiasm, hard work, tactical awareness, motivational skills in abundance.
Given his gambling background, its tempting to see Blooms financial support as a massive punt on Brightons chances of securing promotion to the Premiership but that would be seriously to misunderstand his motives and genuine commitment.
Listening to him talk about the positive impact the clubs success has had on the morale of the city, the pride he takes in the support it gives to various community projects and the pleasure he derives from seeing supporters enjoying watching their team, convinces me that his heart as well as his wallet is firmly in the right place. First and foremost the mans a huge fan.
But the mouth-watering prospect of the likes of Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal driving along the A27 to take on the Seagulls must surely be the ultimate goal.
The main thing is to build on the momentum of last season and see where that takes us. Like all the other teams in the Championship, wed like to be in the Premiership next season. That should be the aim of all Championship clubs and is certainly our aim. But its not easy to achieve.
We just want to be as successful as we can be and get to the Premiership as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, well work hard, work as a team and see where that gets us.