When he’s back home going to games at the Amex, Dick Knight has a bar in the stadium named after him, but on Boxing Day in West Chester yesterday he was just another fan rooting for Brighton and Hove Albion against Arsenal.
Though most at the bar didn’t realize it, the guy who helped save the team from financial oblivion in the mid-’90s was at Kildare’s Irish Pub watching the game with his grandsons and son-in-law. Knight served as chairman of the club from 1997 to 2009, starting his tenure the last game of the 1996-1997 season when a loss would have meant relegation out of the English Football League.
“For our club to have come from the bottom of the lowest league and now we’re in the Premiership I’m just enjoying that we’ve come so far so quickly,” Knight said after the whistle blew on a 1-1 draw.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang put Arsenal up 1-0 early but Jürgen Locadia drew things level for the Seagulls 10 minutes before halftime. The non-Arsenal fans in the bar were seemingly all rooting for Brighton.
“What was lovely was when Brighton equalized the whole pub started cheering and we were genuinely surprised,” he said. “They probably don’t know that I’m the president of Brighton football club sitting amongst them but it was great to see. Football fans all around the world are the same. They love the underdog.”
Wednesday was the second year in a row Knight took in Boxing Day matches at Kildare’s, which has seen steady growth in the turnout to watch matches the day after Christmas over the past few years.
Blaise Santangelo, head coach of West Chester United, first extended an invite to Kildare’s last year. Santangelo met Knight through his grandson, Max Knight-Surie, a former Lower Merion High School and FC Europa midfielder who spent time in West Chester’s summer U23 program.
“To have him here and learn from him about what his team is doing in the top level is awesome,” Santangelo said. “He’s a legend over there.”
Knight, whose daughter moved to the area some seven years ago, is no stranger to the U.S. A former advertising executive, Knight made frequent trips in his ad agency days to Madison Avenue in New York City. It’s why he chose in the title Mad Man: From the Gutter to the Stars, the Ad Man Who Saved Brighton for his 2014 autobiography .
“I’m so pleased soccer is really establishing itself in America,” he said. “I think it’s great to see a packed bar, everyone enjoying football. In England, Boxing Day is part of the holiday and it’s a natural thing, everyone goes to football on Boxing Day.”
Dane Gray, who owns Kildare’s with his wife, Stephanie Gray, said Wednesday’s turnout was the best yet for Boxing Day matches at the pub.
“It started as all my ex-pat mates and soccer mates getting together like we would in England or Ireland the day after Christmas to watch the matches,” said Gray, who grew up in Australia and lived in Ireland before coming to the states. “It started with five of us watching Liverpool on a dodgy feed on a laptop and (has) grown into what you saw yesterday. It is just a great day to get together to celebrate Christmas and soccer.”
All but two Premier League teams played on Wednesday. Gray’s Liverpool FC strengthened their place at the top of the table with a 4-0 win over New Castle. Brighton sits at 13th in the table after finishing seven points clear of relegation in 15th place in the club’s first-ever Premier League campaign last season.
Two decades ago when Knight took over as club chairman and they no longer had a home stadium to play in — the Goldstone Ground sold for a development project, they played 75 miles away for two seasons before moving into 8,000-seat Withdean Stadium up until the Amex opened — he wouldn’t have dreamed of a 1-1 draw with Arsenal on Boxing Day. Now, he’s hopeful his beloved Seagulls will remain in the top flight for years to come.
“Basically, we’ve done pretty well,” Knight said. “We’ve got all the facility to be a really great, permanent Premier League club.”