Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Algorithms, optimisation and football

People sceptical of AI and algorithmic power should take note of my local football team, tBrighton and Hove Albion AKA Seagulls. For a small town, we topped our group in the Europa Cup, are still in the FA Cup and despite being decimated by injuries still 7th in the Premiership above Newcastle and Chelsea. That last name is critical as they have ripped out our manager, top staff and several players.

Tony Bloom

Having splashed out hundreds of millions, many of these teams will find it difficult to splash out even more on either our manager De Zerbi or any more of our players. But the secret sauce is not in the manager but Tony Bloom, the owner. It is he who finds the managers and players. One of the few local, genuine supporter owners in football. He made his fortune gambling, then as a gambling entrepreneur. He heads a private betting syndicate who are known to have been phenomenally successful in betting in sport.

He has been the Chair of the club for 15 years and has built a system of sophisticated data collection and algorithmic selection for scouting new players. It remains a secret, held by a separate company called Starlizard, so that no matter which scouting staff or manager comes, Bloom literally holds the key.

This focus on recruitment is the feed that creates a robust organisation that buys cheap and sells for top dollar, Caicedo cost £4.5m, sold for £115 million – to, you guessed it - Chelsea. His current roster has several players in that league, many young and therefore more valuable. They also play the sort of football that has become popular in top flight leagues – playing out from the back, pulling the opposition towards you and breaking fast.

What lessons can we learn from him? 

Leaders matter but not in the way leadership books and courses would suggest

Bloom is whip smart, driven and very much behind the scenes. He is wholly strategic, not tactical. His talent is in understanding that even a complex organisation, in a stochastic sport like football, needs to be run on high-quality decision making. That means decisions based on data and optimisation, not charisma or hunch. Data and algorithms are in his DNA, not vague nostrums about Leadership.

Recruitment matters but not in the way you think

Recruitment is data driven, a long list of data types are collected and fed into a n algorthmic process that flags targets for acquisition. He is interested in pure performance, not values or vague criteria and personal qualities. Actual performance; match time, successful passes, tackles, turnovers, shots, goals – and much, much more. All of this is monitored.

Deal making

Deals start with early contracts and he makes sure they are long deals with good exit fees. His promise is clever, come to Brighton, we’re in the best league in the world, the Premiership, and we can showcase you so that you can get into a top club anywhere else in the world. And when it comes to selling, he’s a master. As a successful international poker player, he fully understands both the fiscal and psychological moves that have to be made.


When he became Chairman in 2009, he hired Poyet and got promotion as Champions in 2011. After a series of managers, Chris Houghton got us to 3rd place in the Championship then promotion the following season in 2016-2017. It was then he started to be really active in the transfer market. Even then, he was replaced by Graham Potter who took us to an all-time high of 9th in the Premiership., getting us into Europe. Chelsea (yes them again) stole Potter but Bloom made possibly his best hire yet, De Zerbi, applying all of his data analysis and algorithmic nous to even the managerial position. In other words, he understands gradual but steady growth.

He now has a huge war chest to invest in over the Summer, made some fantastic signings, especially Barco, touted as a huge talent, stolen from beneath the noses of the big boys and is ready to take things to the next level. This is poker at the highest level, a game of probabilities, tempered by maths, data and algorithmic decision-making. You never see him blowing off on TV yet the people of Brighton love him, as he’s humble, a real supporter, self-made man, and has put his money where his mouth is. This is no lazy, wealthy Gulf prince or Russian oligarch. This is the real deal, a real Leader.

An interesting idea also emerges here, that organisations who get optimisation right will be winners, the rest the losers. This demands our attention as it is likely to happen. It means getting with the programme now, to understand the technology of optimisation.


Football was the only ‘real’ sport in my culture, at school, in pubs wherever. We played nearly every night beneath the yellow street lamps, even in the rain, on odd shapes of grass on the edge of our scheme in Craigshill (known as Crazyhill). A speciality was bouncing the ball like a cushion shot in billiards off the wall to get past a player. Some of us went week in, week out to matches, in my case Glasgow Rangers, home and away – Scotland’s a small country so it was easy.

When I ended up in Brighton, as far away from Scotland as you can get, without getting wet, a colleague at work, Clive, was a fanatical Brighton supporter, so I started going to the Goldstone. I arrived the year after they had appeared in the FA Cup Final and this was a different atmosphere, players like Frank Worthington, even the occasional Scot like Doug ‘chipped from a block of ice’ Rougvie. It was fun. But then they lost their stadium, imploded, narrowly missing relegation to the Conference League in 1997. It was desperate.

Then, despite protestations from Sussex University, a local man and Brighton supporter made good, Tony Bloom, put £90 million on the table for a new stadium. We never looked back. After 34 years out of top flight football we climbed back up to the Premier League. The promotion parade on the seafront was fantastic. At that time we had ‘Skint’ on the shirts as Fat Boy Slim was a supporter and sponsor. The stadium sits, nicely nestled in the Downs and at the start of every game, there’s always a seagull or two circling high above the pitch, Seagulls! being the club’s standard chant. The crowd always, quaintly, kick off the match with a rousing ‘Sussex by the Sea’ a First World War marching song.

Occasionally, it hardly ever happens now, the opposition would sing some homophobic chant, like ‘You’re going down on each other, you’re going down on…” to the tune of ‘Guantanamera’, actually about a Cuban woman, but there you go. Our fans would respond with ‘You’re too ugly to be gay, you’re too ugly…” to the same tune. In truth it was all a bit banterish. People forget that this is sport born of the industrial need in the 19th century for workers to have some fun at the weekend, after a week of hard labour. Going to the football is always a bit of a laugh. The beautiful game is working class Britain’s gift to the world.

Anyway. After nearly 40 years in Brighton I’m a Brightonian now, and like many, a Saturday is spent eyeing my phone for the result. It is a feeling that comes across you on a Saturday, of excitement and expectation, watching the clock for kick-off time. It turns the day into a drama. 

We’re playing brilliant football and despite London clubs run by Middle Eastern and Russian billionaires stealing our manager, support staff and players, we’re flying. 

I’ve be in all sorts of places around the globe this year and often the first conversation I have in the taxi, restaurant or meeting is about ‘Brighton… and Hove Albion’. People talk a lot about ‘culture’ these days but those who have real culture don’t use that word, they live it. Seeeagulls! 

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