Plenty of clubs like to pat themselves on the back when it comes to supporting women’s and girls’ football, but Brighton and Hove Albion have put their money where their mouth is by building a cutting-edge training facility dedicated entirely to their women’s football programme at the sizeable cost of £8.5 million.
The American Express Elite Performance Centre 2, which was officially opened last month, houses teams from the under-12s all the way up to Hope Powell’s side in the Women’s Super League, and has raised the bar for the WSL as a standalone, dedicated facility. A peek inside reveals a hugely impressive set-up that would be the envy of almost every women’s sports club in Europe. With a swimming pool, gym and two changing rooms with the dimensions to be fit for men’s Premier League football, plus everything from boot warmers to ice baths for the players, no stone has been left unturned to provide “elite” facilities.
The club decided to equip the site with the same specifications as the men’s team are afforded. The site is environmentally friendly, with 800 solar panels and 1,000 new trees. Manager Powell believes the “special” facility gives her players “the very best chance” of success.
“We’re blessed with having an owner [Tony Bloom] who really supports the women and is prepared to build a dedicated facility. It feels like home,” the former England head coach said of the training ground, which hosted the Norway national side during July’s European Championship. “I’m really pleased that the game has shifted, and that the modern player gets to live the life of a proper professional. I feel some degree of satisfaction that finally, it’s almost like, ‘go on’, the game is being taken a bit more seriously than perhaps when I played, where we had to pay for everything, we trained on concrete, you wore men’s kit, you wore men’s boots, everything was aligned to the men. Now the female game is firmly on the map, especially after a great summer.”
The board’s decision to build the site – which, together with a contribution from the Football Foundation, has an overall cost on a par with the annual budget of the continent’s top women’s teams and that is several times more than the average annual expenditure at most WSL clubs – was a big one.
Paul Barber, the club’s chief executive, said the decision to invest in such an impressive facility was “the right thing to do”, adding: “We took the decision just over half a decade ago to seriously commit to women’s and girls’ football. If you do that, then that means not just providing the funds to run the teams and to provide the staff, but you’ve also got to provide the facilities. The idea was to create an environment where we would give the women’s and girls’ teams the best possible environment to win matches, to prepare for matches and to recover from matches, and where we could try to match the men’s and boys’ facilities. It’s a significant financial commitment, but as importantly it’s a big philosophical commitment, that’s come from the whole board.”
Brighton have targeted establishing themselves as a “top four” WSL side and Barber continued: “If we were going to do it, we were going to do it properly, and this [a dedicated women’s training ground] is doing it properly. We’re lucky in Tony Bloom that we have a chairman who is prepared to buy into that vision and support that vision, and a group of directors that believe women’s and girls’ football has a significant future. It is expensive to effectively double the size of your club, but it’s the right thing to do, it’s not just an important thing to do, it’s the right thing to do. And there’s absolutely no reason why there should be a barrier to girls or women taking part in football, enjoying football, playing football, watching football, working in football. This is an industry that should be open to all, and is open to all, and I think commitments like this building underline that fact.”
Barber, who has previously worked at the Football Association and Tottenham, says he wants to see more “male allies” in the game at board level supporting women’s football, which he has tried to do throughout his career. He has been a key influence on Brighton’s vision to become one of the leading women’s set-ups in the country. As the opening-day 4-0 thrashing by Arsenal illustrates, establishing themselves in the WSL’s top four will be no easy task, but Brighton are clearly doing everything they can to achieve it.
“Ironically, it’s getting harder every year, but that’s a good thing because it shows there’s more investment into the game,” Barber said of their top-four aim. “It is a long-term objective. It’s about sustaining our position over a period of time, not just one season.” The Sussex outfit’s timing could hardly be better, after a summer in which record-breaking crowds flocked to the Euros and England won two of their fixtures at Brighton’s Amex Stadium. Barber is encouraged by the way the women’s game is developing: “What happened during this past summer is the women’s game got a new level of respect, not just from this country but right the way across the world, which is a really positive thing. “We’re about 300 per cent up on the sale of WSL season tickets and the numbers of girls in our summer camps are up 50 to 60 per cent on previous years, so there has already been an uplift. It’s an example of, if you’re prepared to invest, it can be really commercially valuable. We’ll see an influx in girls wanting to play, which is important. But I hope what we see now is not just solid foundations being put in place for the future, but actually some real opportunities to grow significantly. “It’s important that clubs like ours support that growth.”