Supporters of Whitehawk FC in National League South think of themselves as rather unique. Loud, proud, fiercely inclusive, continually inventive and undeniably optimistic, they rail against the sanitized world of the Premier League (and their Championship neighbours at The Amex) and champion the community spirit found at their rather ramshackle Enclosed Ground, just outside the estate that bears their name. A visit to this ground may not be aesthetically pleasing but the neutral would struggle not to be impressed by the continual noise and camaraderie exhibited within.
Whether the charms of Brighton City FC would exhort such a strong identity and spirit from amongst the Ultras is debatable. When they sing that they are “Whitehawk, from Whitehawk” they are promoting their pride in bringing something positive to an area described by the BBC Politics show as one of the ten most deprived in the UK. You’d have to think that they’d struggle to develop such a sense of ownership of being “City, from Brighton;” particularly given that the vast majority of their number don’t want to be any such thing.
The announcement that Whitehawk FC have applied to the FA to change their name to Brighton City FC didn’t come as an enormous shock, apart perhaps to relatively new supporters. First mooted by owners John Summers and Peter McDonnell more than two years ago the idea has always been resisted by the Hawks faithful, but pursued doggedly by the club despite this resistance. The reaction has been, predictably, one of outrage from amongst the footballing community; indeed, it seems that many people who have hitherto shown no interest in this small area of East Brighton have suddenly developed a strong opinion on the subject. Many of the clubs’ supporters are also outraged, but this outrage is often accompanied by a realistic appraisal of the club’s motives, as they recognise that the name change proposal is no more than a marketing tool. Whether it is a shrewd move or an unnecessary and perhaps damaging distraction, however, is still open to debate.
Summers and McDonnell, local boys made good, have delivered unprecedented success to the Enclosed Ground. Three promotions, a playoff final, this season’s FA Cup run and a team that illuminates their rather down at heel surroundings is demonstration of their commitment and investment. They’ve also presided over increased attendances, and indeed this seasons average is almost four times what it was when they took over. Sadly, however, that average- when discounting the Cup matches that attracted many casual fans- is still the wrong side of three hundred and fifty, a level which struggles to look sustainable in the National League South and certainly doesn’t bode well given the owners stated ambition of League football and a six thousand capacity stadium.
They face a difficult dilemma. They’ve built a successful team, yet the people of Brighton have generally failed to embrace it. They want to invest in the facilities, yet spending millions of pounds for the comfort of three hundred and thirty eight supporters is hardly viable. That they’ve decided to focus on marketing at this point isn’t a surprise- and the name of Whitehawk is hardly a positive brand to those who are aware of it; even if, as an area, much of the poor reputation it has garnered may be undeserved. Brighton City FC wouldn’t have that baggage, and would also advertise the clubs location in one of the UK’s most vibrant and exciting cities- after all, how many people outside the Non League fraternity and the city itself actually know where Whitehawk is?
As well as opposition from within their own fanbase, the proposal has attracted the ire of Whitehawk’s upwardly mobile neighbours, Brighton & Hove Albion. It seems that their main arguments against the change centre around the possibility that people may be confused by having two teams with Brighton in the title, (although anyone mistaking The Enclosed Ground for The Amex has bigger problems than confusion), and around the possibility of Whitehawk profiting from Albion’s positive image and marketing efforts. These arguments seem rather erroneous- Albion cannot seriously expect to be the only club allowed to use the name of the city in their title, and after all Whitehawk is in Brighton too- but they have been trotted out ever since the original proposal was made, so expect Albion to protest strenuously to the FA.
The club won’t greatly care about the opinion of the giants up the road. Nor will they be greatly concerned by traditionalists from across the footballing community voicing their displeasure; after all, they’ve been subject to criticism due to their financial model ever since they began their climb from the Sussex County League, so they will have developed broad shoulders and thick skins. But there is one set of critics they do need to listen to- their own supporters. At the moment, the best marketing tool that Whitehawk have is the people who stand behind the goal in all weathers, displaying their own unique brand of humour and exporting bonhomie to all-comers. All the investment so far has not led to a sustainable level of support, but it has given them a greater profile, and this in turn has highlighted their enthusiastic support and the positive things that the club is doing to promote a blighted community. If they are to alienate their current support then they would be in danger of losing their greatest asset. It would be difficult to imagine that they could replace that asset with those attracted by a name change; after all, if they haven’t been attracted by on-field success, you’d have to wonder whether a rebrand would make that much difference.
The club initially announced that they had nothing else to say on the matter, then changed their mind and just before midnight on Thursday 20th January issued an interview with John Summers during which some of the supporters questions were answered. This interview is honest and forthright, but doesn’t really provide a great deal of new information, apart from a stated wish to leave The Enclosed Ground for a new location whilst retaining it for use as a training facility and base for the Youth Team; a plan which is apparently already being pursued with the Council. It also explains that Albion have rejected every proposal that Whitehawk have put to them regarding a name change, objecting to any suggestion that includes the word Brighton. Summers added that a Hawks supporters petition against the name change is ‘doing Brighton & Hove Albion’s dirty work for them,’ and given that the number of signatories is almost four times the Hawks average home attendance he may have a point; perhaps if twelve hundred fans turned up on a Saturday the name change wouldn’t be a consideration in the first place.
If this situation is to be resolved then you’d have to hope that both parties could find some common ground, as currently there is a real danger of the situation creating a rift between club and fans, which would be a real shame, particularly given that all parties want the best for the club. Summers states that his concern is the long term sustainability of the club, and offers to meet and discuss the situation with anyone who would like to speak to him. He ends by stating, ‘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.’ Whether the name will be Whitehawk, Brighton City, or perhaps something else, you have to feel that this saga is far from reaching an end, and you have to hope that the owners and the supporters will find some common ground, as if they are going to drive the club forward despite serious external opposition you’d have to think that they’d need to show a united front.
The original, abridged version of this article featured at nonleaguedaily.com.
Published on in National.