The man with the hardest job in football

Brighton are 11 points adrift at the bottom of the League, heavily in debt, soon to be homeless and facing a revolt from their own fans. Steve Gritt was offered the job of managing them this week. Glenn Moore asked him why he accepted
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Sitting in Steve Gritt's new office yesterday afternoon, you have to ask him. "Why?"

The answer is brutally honest.

"It's a job."

But it is not any old job. Managing Brighton and Hove Albion is widely regarded as the toughest job in football. Liz Costa, vice-chair of Brighton's Supporters' Club calls it the "hardest job any manager has ever taken".

She may be biased but she is not exaggerating. This morning Brighton are 11 points adrift at the foot of the Third Division. They have large debts, they lose their ground in May, and the support is alienated. There is not even the safety net of a rebuttal for the Conference champions. Brighton are more likely to be rejected by the Conference and sent straight down to the Dr Martens' League - and probable closure.

So, 48 hours into the job, is the affable Gritt having second thoughts. "I'm finding it OK so far," he said brightly. "The players have responded very well. The first morning each of us were testing the water, sitting back and getting used to one another. This morning I've had to do a lot of work and they have responded."

"When I left Charlton [he was joint-manager with Alan Curbishley before being sacked 18 months ago] it was the first time I have been out of work and out of football. I have been very keen to get back. When the chance came up, even though it was here with all the problems, I felt it was a chance I could not turn down."

The "problems"... a brief recap in case any of Michael Knighton's alien friends have just returned from Mars. Thirteen years ago, as Gordon Smith so evocatively recalled in these pages a month ago, they were a shot away from beating Manchester United in the FA Cup final. That came at the end of four seasons in the old First Division and engendered hope of a quick return.

Instead they slipped through the divisions and into the red, imperiled by bad performances on the pitch and at the bank. The historic but ageing ground - parts of it look more like the derelict West Pier than a football stadium - has been sold and the proceeds apparently squandered. Having bought the club for pounds 56.25 the chairman, Bill Archer, spends his time in Lancashire and refuses to sell to a consortium backed by supporters, Hove Council and McAlpine.

The supporters have thus run a passionate, organised and popular campaign to oust Archer and his chief executive, Derek Bellotti. Before today's match with Hull - who have similar problems of their own - they will release 1,000 balloons in Hove Park before resuming their customary abuse of Bellotti at the match.

It is not the ideal environment to work in. Costa even greeted Gritt's appointment with the comment: "We didn't want anybody to take the job. We wanted people to say they can't work with the current board."

"It is not a question of working with the board," Gritt said. "Somebody had to come in and get hold of the team otherwise the whole thing will crumble.

"I'm sure a lot of supporters will say it is crumbling anyway but that doesn't interest me. I have come here to concentrate solely on the football. I have not come to get wrapped up in all the politics, football is my business.

"People turn around and say, `You must get involved, surely?' But I made it clear at the interview that I have not come here to be anybody's puppet. I have come here to work with the players on the training ground which is something I have missed more than anything.

"I hope the supporters will get behind the lads. If the players do what I hope they will do, what I am trying to get them to do, and they roll their sleeves up and match Hull for effort their ability will come through. If the fans see that they are having a go they will appreciate it.

"I understand what the fans are feeling, I can sympathise 100 per cent. I've been there. I was at Charlton when we had to leave The Valley. They've been coming here for years, it's a tradition thing. Suddenly that's been taken away from them. But if they can get behind the team the players will appreciate it. I'll appreciate it."

The 39-year-old Gritt was aptly named. As a player he was a grafter rather than a stylist. He played 406 League games in a 16-year career, all but 26 of them with Charlton whom he represented in every position except goalkeeper. He was then co-manager for four years before being unexpectedly sacked after a change at boardroom level.

Given the resources Charlton were very successful under Gritt and Curbishley but recognition was slow. In his book Left Foot Forward Garry Nelson recalls Graham Taylor, when at Wolves, introducing Curbishley to John de Wolf with the line, "I don't think you've met Steve Gritt".

The shared roles, and Gritt's one-club career, has made work hard to find. He even applied to be Charlton's youth team coach this summer. "I've kept myself busy going to games, that was a piece of advice I was given - `be seen'. I also got my boots on again playing for Welling and Tooting and Mitcham but that got in the way of the scouting."

The scouting, and some youth coaching, was mainly for Gillingham though he recently watched Brighton for Torquay.

"They looked capable of scoring, but also of letting them in. I want them to play with discipline but freedom as well. If they can do that and relax a bit I think they can get results.

"It takes time but I have not go that much time. It is not like coming in at the start of the season. Christmas is one of the busiest times to come in, it is games, games, games. It does not give much time to work with players because obviously they have to recuperate. It is a careful juggling act. I have piled a load of information into them this morning - only time will tell how much as gone in.

"I've got some money available. How much will depend on what I need. I may have to do some wheeling and dealing.

"The situation has not helped, nor has the fact that they have not won many games. It starts to grind you down. You think when is the next point coming? A lot of them will be thinking when is the next bonus coming? They've got families and mortgages.

"But it is not just about money, it is about pride as well. One lad has already said to me when you are losing every week it is difficult to go home. It is like any job, if you feel you have done a good week's work, you have a weekend off and come in looking for another good week. Football's no different."

Again, Gritt's been there, when Charlton nearly went bust in 1984. "I remember sitting in the supporters' club. We were waiting with all our gear to go to Blackburn and the game got called off because they thought we were going out of business.

"You wonder, `Will I get paid? I could be out of work tomorrow, if that happens who will want me?' It can affect you but the resilience the players showed - that was the season we got promoted.

"Look at what Charlton have achieved, even though they had the rigmarole of leaving The Valley then going back to it. And what Gillingham have achieved - two years ago they were two weeks from going out of business. Maybe the supporters here can look at that and take some encouragement.

"Hopefully I can organise the team to start getting results which is what it is all about. I've got experienced players who I will be looking to to set and example and some good youngsters. I'm told the underlying crop are very good so, on the pitch, the future looks hopeful."

But which pitch? We now walk across the Goldstone for the photographs and Gritt recalls: "I've had some blinding games here. We played in front of 35,000 here once."

That is the potential, realising it is another matter. Just over two years ago I interviewed the then-Brighton manager, Liam Brady. Brighton had nearly made the Second Division play-offs in May, attracting crowds of 15,000. Then they had beaten Premiership Leicester in both legs in the Coca-Cola Cup. The subsequent upbeat interview ran under the line "Happy days are returning to Brighton".

So, no rash predictions from me this time. Only that Gritt has his work cut out. When the photographer and I wished him luck as we parted we meant it. He will need every bit.