Tony Bloom is a feared presence at any poker table, but on Monday the biggest wager of this renowned gambler, a ￡200 million (US$251.9 million) investment in Brighton & Hove Albion, paid off with their promotion to the Premier League.
The Seagulls have truly taken flight, rising to a level that 20 years ago would have been deemed fantastical as they found themselves in dire straits like a character out of Charles Dickens novels, without a home and penniless.
They only avoided relegation from the English Football League on the last day of the 1996-1997 season and were forced to play in Gillingham, 112km away from their hometown, for the next two years after their old Goldstone Ground was sold to pay off debts.
However, having reached their nadir, they wallowed in lower-league mediocrity until Bloom came along in 2009, and with a wave of his checkbook he transformed the then-League One club’s fortunes on and off the pitch.
Bloom, despite his reputation as a poker player, is also a keen businessman and bears strong ties to the club historically — his family were involved with Brighton dating back to the 1970s, when his grandfather Harry was vice-chairman.
The property investor nicknamed the “Lizard” by a rival poker player used his money to engineer a state-of-the-art stadium just outside Brighton — roughly a 10-minute rail journey — and whose reputation is such that it hosted matches at the 2015 Rugby World Cup, including the epic Japan win over two-time world champions South Africa.
“I’ve been a football fan and a gambler since the age of about seven or eight. My interest in both developed at the same time,” he said at the time he invested.
Monday’s joy was all the more welcome given Brighton had experienced several near misses, none more so than last season when they lost out in heartbreaking fashion on the second and last automatic promotion place on goal difference.
For club chief executive Paul Barber, promotion is a deserved reward for Bloom’s massive outlay.
“We are very lucky we have a very wealthy owner who has set aside money to give us an edge,” Barber told reporters in February. “He has brought us a new ground [the 30,750 capacity American Express Community Stadium], training facilities and covered the losses.”
Even back in February, Barber said the club had already budgeted for promotion — as well as an alternative financial plan if they failed again.
“If you start planning in May, you will be in trouble,” he said. “We are working to get back in the black, which would be for the first time in our history and give some money back to the owner.”
Barber, who entered soccer after a career in banking, admitted the odds of retaining their place would be difficult.
“It is really tough to stay up, and looking at the numbers now it will be very tough to stay there,” Barber said. “It is possible to do both, like Bournemouth last year and probably Burnley will this season.”
“You have got to be clever and recruit really well whilst maintaining the togetherness and spirit of the previous squad,” he added.