The army of maths prodigies who helped Brighton conquer the transfer market

Brighton Chairman Tony Bloom celebrates at the end of the Sky Bet Championship match between Brighton & Hove Albion and Wigan Athletic at Amex Stadium - Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
Brighton Chairman Tony Bloom celebrates at the end of the Sky Bet Championship match between Brighton & Hove Albion and Wigan Athletic at Amex Stadium - Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

It is 60 miles from Camden Lock to Brighton’s Amex Stadium in Falmer but arguably still the best starting point for clues behind one of British football’s most extraordinary success stories.

“It’s one in 10 or 20 million,” says Marc Sugarman, a childhood friend and Brighton director since 2009, in reference to the club’s rise under owner Tony Bloom from effectively homeless in League One to a sparkling new stadium and training ground and currently a place inside the Premier League’s top six and the fifth round of the FA Cup.

Sunday’s 2-1 win over Liverpool has only reinforced Brighton’s model club status and, while one inevitable consequence is a repeated outside interest in their best players and staff, perhaps the clearest lesson from the past 14 years is summed up by one of Bloom’s betting associates. “The real genius behind it all is the owner because, while individuals might sometimes come and go, the structure remains and that is what counts because it is always there in support of the next person,” said the source, pointing out that “everything Tony Bloom touches turns to gold”.

Leandro Trossard is just one player to be sold for a big profit, in his case £27m to move to Arsenal - David Horton/Getty Images
Leandro Trossard is just one player to be sold for a big profit, in his case £27m to move to Arsenal - David Horton/Getty Images

And it is from inside a plush building overlooking Regent’s Canal in Camden Town, with its state-of-the-art gym, games room, in-house chefs and rows of screens and computers, that the intellectual heart of Bloom’s ethos can perhaps be found. The outlook is summed up by the word ‘Calm’ on the sign at the bottom of the stairs.

“We answer the most interesting questions in sport,” says the website of Starlizard, a company that was formed in 2006 to essentially beat the bookies by using ever more cutting edge data, analytics and technology to understand sport.

Starlizard has since expanded to a staff of around 200 and, while its raison d'être continues – clinically advising wealthy clients, who include Bloom, about probability and where to place their bets around the world – the knock-on is access to a unique data set. Although Bloom set up Starlizard 17 years ago, he is not a director or owner of a company that is separate from the football club.

Brighton chief executive Paul Barber describes Brighton as having a “particular way of interrogating data and coming to decisions” and, while careful not to divulge details, does believe that it provides “an edge”.

Some of Starlizard’s latest job adverts – and the accompanying questions for applicants who “will be a recent graduate with strong mathematical and numerical aptitude” – certainly provide a glimpse into a world that has become critical to understanding why the Premier League’s traditional ‘big six’ cannot simply rely on having the deepest wallets.

Starlizard’s next ‘bet execution specialist’, for example, must state whether England are most likely to win the next World Cup in football, cricket or rugby while the ‘graduate football analyst’ is asked both to rate the entire Real Sociedad squad out of 10 and explain which factors affect a team’s chance of winning a football game.

The website currently poses a further series of questions, including how the timing of the 2022 World Cup will impact the rest of the season, what affect the abolition of the away goals rule will have on European ties and the real impact of fans inside stadiums.

According to one betting industry insider, Bloom was across expected goals modelling “before anyone knew what it was” and will be a good decade further on now into drilling into more detailed questions of a player’s suitability to a team’s wider style.

'Stories of Bloom’s kindness and generosity are numerous'

But here’s the crucial caveat. Bloom is also among the best at understanding the limitations of data, accepting the inherent unpredictability of football and the importance of the human touch both in building a team and keeping staff happy, motivated and loyal. And so stories of Bloom’s kindness and generosity are numerous. The role of experienced scouts watching matches in person is still valued and, beyond combining that feedback with hugely sophisticated data, character checks on prospective new employees are considered highly important. It all means that, for all the recent focus on the ins and outs among Brighton’s playing squad and technical staff, there is vast off-field continuity, especially in the boardroom.

“The club has defined values in how it behaves and operates towards each other; the players, coaches and staff we bring in have to fit our values or there will simply be a rejection of that person at some point,” says Barber, who describes Bloom as “measured, mathematical and very process and data driven”. Bloom, a maths graduate and lifelong Brighton fan, is particularly hands-on when it comes to the appointment of head coaches and key transfer decisions but leaves the day-to-day running of the club to Barber, a more natural communicator who he calls “unbelievably brilliant”.

Their meticulous planning has been routinely evident, most obviously this season when Chelsea abruptly came calling for Graham Potter. A new senior employee, in his first week at the club at the moment of supposed internal crisis, was struck by the air of serenity. Brighton, as they do with any curious employee, gave Potter permission to speak to Chelsea and knew exactly who they wanted to appoint next. Roberto de Zerbi was taking first-team training within days.

Bloom and Barber identified De Zerbi as the man they wanted as their next head coach long before Graham Potter departed - Jacques Feeney/Getty Images
Bloom and Barber identified De Zerbi as the man they wanted as their next head coach long before Graham Potter departed - Jacques Feeney/Getty Images

“Brighton got £21 million for Graham Potter and probably ended up paying nothing for a better coach,” said one analyst connected to a different Premier League club.

Barber and Bloom have identified the 25 key positions at Brighton and constantly ensure that they have potential replacements identified. Often that new face will be an internal candidate who will be given a short trial period that is designed for all sides to see if they are a good fit. And so David Weir was instantly ready to replace Dan Ashworth as technical director when he joined Newcastle United and Sam Jewell has been working as the acting head of recruitment since Paul Winstanley followed Potter to Chelsea.

'The real test is always about how we handle the bumps'

“We can never predict when Chelsea might come for Graham Potter, or when a finance director may want to spend more time with their grandchildren, but what we can to is try to anticipate those eventualities and be prepared,” says Barber.

“When we hit a bump in the road, our people look to us, as if to say: ‘OK what are they like?’ Are they getting chucked in all different directions or are they still calm, focused and fixed on the vision’. The real test is always about how we handle the bumps.”

That vision has evolved from promotion and then survival in the Premier League to the aim of regular top 10 finishes and also becoming an established top four club in the Women’s Super League. The loss of valuable players, says Barber, is actually an inevitable consequence of progress and he is adamant that sales are only made when the price and timing is right for Brighton. Having Bloom in your negotiating corner, must also provide considerable confidence and the club’s recent on-field progress has been accompanied in recent transfer windows by a large trading profit.  Bloom was nicknamed ‘Lizard’ for his cold-blooded approach to poker and willingness to take what looked like enormous high-stakes risks but, according to another former betting associate, “wouldn’t blow his nose unless the algorithm told him to”.

“No matter how much we push up the table, get closer to silverware for the first time in the club’s 120 years history, there is always going to be a bigger and richer club,” says Barber, who stresses that mistakes are also inevitable and acknowledged. But he is adamant that grown up behaviour like laying on a welcoming home ale for opposition fans – “we want them to spend money with us” – and treating even departing players well is actually all to Brighton’s long-term benefit.

“Our values are: Aim high, treat people with respect, exceed expectations, act with integrity, and make it special,” he says. “We don’t embrace these values because we are soft. We are trying to think of the future. Football is a small industry relatively-speaking. If we get a good reputation for treating people well, giving them the opportunity to progress if the circumstances are right, we have more opportunity to bring top quality players and staff in. Football clubs shouldn’t be prison camps.”

The flip side, says Barber, is that even when Brighton’s employees do speak with someone else, 70 per cent of those conversations end with them deciding to stay put. Those who do leave provide an opportunity for fresh impetus and ideas.

“We have had a very clear vision for over a decade,” he says. “We have always felt that there is method to our madness. There will be bumps. Progress in top level sport is not a straight line. It will not be easy. There will be moments where people doubt us but we will not waver. We have never moved from the vision – we have just kept upping the ante.”