Accountant’s dedication propels Brighton & Hove Albion from rags to riches
August has seen the triumphant return of Brighton & Hove Albion FC to the top tier of English football – the Premier League. Twenty years ago, the Club was homeless and discredited – the laughing stock of football. Its remarkable rise from the ashes is down to its dedicated fans, among them Kingston Smith partner, Paul Samrah, who played a key role in the Club’s renaissance.
In the mid-1990s, the Club was regularly appearing at the High Court for unpaid debts. Season-ticket holder, Paul, followed the cases closely, and concern over what was unfolding in court prompted him to investigate the Club’s accounts. He discovered accounting irregularities which he brought to the attention of the Football Association (FA) and Companies House. These included non-disclosure of both highly significant related party transactions and post balance sheet events. Directors’ loans were accruing astronomically high interest, and large financial penalties were being charged on late loan repayments. As a result, the Club’s accountants were asked for their observations by the Registrar and revised accounts were subsequently filed.
The story broke in 1995 that the directors had sold the Club’s home ground, the Goldstone Ground, ostensibly to pay off debts. The fans knew that the ground needed to be renovated, but had no idea they would lose the place that had stood at the heart of their community for generations. So began an extraordinary campaign by the fans to secure a ground for their team.
During the uproar about the sale of the ground, Paul looked at the Club’s Articles. There were two sets on public record, one dated 1904 and a later set dated 1993. The original version contained a ‘no profits’ clause, stating that if the company was dissolved, any surplus should be distributed to a sporting charity or institution in the Sussex area i.e. no shareholders were to benefit. This clause had been removed in the more current version of the Articles. The Goldstone Ground was subsequently sold for £7.5 million and, within just a year, had been sold again for £22 million.
By publicising his findings and taking part in the fans’ campaign to save the ground, Paul found himself banned from the ground for incitement.
It became clear that a regime change was needed to save the homeless Club, and Paul’s detailed analysis of the accounting irregularities was crucial to initiating this. A dozen dedicated fans, including Paul, mobilised quickly, organising campaigns and protests, walk-outs and pitch invasions to try and attract as much publicity to the Club’s plight as possible, and former footballer, Liam Brady, formed a consortium to run the Club.
By April 1997, the Club had just managed to hold onto League status but was in desperate need of a ground. They were allowed to play at Gillingham FC’s ground for two years but, with a 140 mile trip for fans to see home games, this could only ever be a temporary solution.
So began the ‘Bring Home the Albion’ campaign, centred on Brighton & Hove Council. In August 1999, Withdean Athletics Stadium in Brighton became a temporary home but was totally unsuited for League football, with uncovered stands and a small capacity. Planning permission was needed in order to build a new permanent home ground, on the outskirts of the city at Falmer, and Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, was the person ultimately making this decision. In the face of a minority of opponents, the “Falmer For All” Campaign, chaired by Paul, was launched to mobilise support and to secure Prescott’s approval. Campaign initiatives were numerous and included bouquets on Valentine’s Day from every Football League Club delivered to John Prescott’s office and a No. 17 hit record ‘We Want Falmer’ by Seagulls Ska, featuring Paul on backing vocals!
The campaign paid off and, in 2011, the Club’s new 30,000 capacity home ground, The American Express Community Stadium, opened. The stadium has been an extraordinary commercial success – hosting not only Championship football but also pop concerts and two 2015 Rugby World Cup matches. The local economy has benefitted enormously – all achieved by the fans for the fans.
The Club’s rising fortunes off the pitch were reflected in their performance on it. Having languished at the bottom of the Football League since the mid-1990s, the Club gradually built momentum, romping to the League One title in the 2010-11 season. From there, Brighton & Hove Albion went from strength-to-strength in their new Stadium and this August sees them playing in the Premier League for the first time.
Paul’s endeavours highlight the value of accountancy expertise and, of course, persistence. Without the campaign, who knows what would have happened to the Club? Paul was named Football League Fan of the Year in 2008 and in 2013 was named one of the 150 FA Grassroots Heroes for his “outstanding contribution to football” and presented with a medal by the FA’s president, Prince William, at Buckingham Palace.