Midweek Muse: The Seagulls Long Journey to The Premier League

Brighton and Hove Albion’s promotion to the Premier League, which they finally sealed in May after several near misses in the last five years is, on the face of it, the latest giant step taken by an upwardly mobile club. While that is undoubtedly true of the modern-day Albion, getting there has been a painful and traumatic process for the club and its fans, as Tom Simmonds explains.

May 3rd 1997, the last day of the 1996-97 season, was supposed to be Brighton’s date with destiny – just not in the way it eventually transpired. An apocalyptic start to their league campaign (courtesy of a team symptomatic of the neglect presided over by Albion’s board) saw them win just three league games before manager and club playing legend Jimmy Case was sacked in early December after a 3-2 home defeat to Darlington, watched by just 2,709 people.

Who do a team bottom of the Football League – with just 13 points and homelessness looming due to the sale of their home ground by their board – turn to in a situation like this? For all the seeming indifference shown to on-pitch fortunes by the club’s two key people, Chairman Bill Archer (a DIY magnate from the northwest) and his CEO David Bellotti (a local politician and Liberal Democrat MP), the Hail Mary thrown in Steve Gritt’s direction was the unwitting start of Brighton’s 20-year climb.

Gritt, known in football circles before and after his time with the Seagulls as a fine coach, was the perfect fit for Brighton at the time. He cut his managerial teeth alongside Alan Curbishley at Charlton when the club were homeless and broke, forced to play at West Ham’s Upton Park after years of ground sharing with Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park. This was a man who knew how to work effectively in adversity and make adversity work for him, though Brighton’s initial league form didn’t hint at what was to come straight away. A 3-0 win over Hull in his first game in charge was followed by three defeats and two draws in their next five games.

It was a 3-0 home win over Rochdale on 25 January which provided the launchpad. Albion won nine and drew four of their remaining 18 games to stay up. The most important of these draws was the last of them. The fates had conspired to lock Albion and Hereford into a ‘loser loses all’ final day showdown at the Bulls’ Edgar Street ground. Brighton, who had climbed off the bottom for the first time all season by beating Doncaster 1-0 in the final game at the Goldstone the previous week, needed a win or a draw to pull off the mother of all escapes at Hereford’s expense.

The signs were not promising. Albion were 1-0 down at half time courtesy of a Kerry Mayo own goal and were second best for long periods of the game. The goal that was to be the seed for their future came out of nothing. Top scorer Craig Maskell’s dipping volley from outside the box came back off the base of the post where substitute Robbie Reinelt was waiting to follow up and apply a simple finish into the corner from the rebound. The scoreline held. Despite a two-point deduction for an on-pitch supporter protest, the decline the club had been put into and the fact they knew they’d have to play home games at Gillingham’s Priestfield for the next two years, Brighton had survived the drop into non-league on goals scored.

Which leads us on to what is perhaps the most remarkable part of Brighton’s story. It’s easy to forget this was not the Brighton with their plush Amex Stadium or the world-class infrastructure they now enjoy. Under new chairman Dick Knight, the club stabilised and managed to entertain their fans to quite a large degree while they were in their pre-Amex purgatory. The fact they were a relatively successful club in the time between leaving the Goldstone and moving to the Amex is arguably a bigger achievement than their promotion last season.

The seasons at Gillingham were a slog. 1997-98 saw them finish second bottom of the Football League Third Division again but never in any danger of relegation, as a Doncaster team also victims of a malicious board running the club into the ground occupied bottom spot all season and were relegated with 20 points and a goal difference of -83. A 17th place finish in 1998-99 and the arrival of the highly-rated Micky Adams as manager hinted at some green shoots, while the end of the season brought a move to a home of sorts.

The Withdean is a name which produces knowing nods from all fans who’ve experienced its ‘charms’. As an away supporter, it is comfortably the worst ground I have ever watched professional football at. A converted athletics stadium, with stands miles from the pitch and totally exposed to the elements, it was not somewhere to be on a rainy day. Brighton fans who had to sit in its ‘main stand’ – which was also put to work at the Open golf tournament as its summer job – would also endorse that view. However, it was at least in Brighton, and the club enjoyed some eventful times while playing there. The protracted negotiations with Lewes District Council over the building of the Amex on its site at Falmer were undoubtedly a period of stress for the club. The fact that, however uncomfortable the situation they were in during this period was, it was nothing on the misery endured in the previous few seasons.

The 2000-01 season was far from miserable, as Adams led a Seagulls team powered by Bobby Zamora’s 28 goals to the Third Division title. The season after brought a second successive promotion, as Peter Taylor (appointed after Adams left to join Leicester) presided over an exciting team who won the Second Division by a six-point margin. This was followed by, perhaps inevitably given the straitjacket playing at the Withdean put them in, relegation the following season but to their credit, Albion bounced straight back through the play-offs the following season. Manager Mark McGhee was honest about the fortuitous nature of that promotion, however, admitting Swindon had “murdered” them in a semi-final second leg which they squeaked through on penalties. Leon Knight’s late spot kick settled a tense final against Bristol City.

Narrow survival in 2004-5 was followed by finishing a long way adrift at the bottom in 2005-06, and the return to the third tier ushered in a slump in fortunes amid uncertainty about the status of the planning permission originally granted by then deputy prime minister John Prescott in October 2005, then withdrawn in April 2006 on a technicality to do with the geographical boundaries between Brighton and Lewes. Hazel Blears, the cabinet minister responsible for planning, defied the views of planning inspectors to finally give Albion the green light to build in July 2007. The scheme’s opponents gave up challenging at this point and, as current chairman Tony Bloom had raised the £93 million construction costs, the obstacles to Brighton having a home they could call their own again were finally out of the way.

It was Bloom’s backing after he assumed the chairmanship from Knight in 2009 which has provided the platform for Albion’s rise. In the final season at the Withdean (2010-11), Brighton romped to the League One title, pushing Southampton into second place as Gus Poyet announced himself and his combustible management style to English football.

The years since 2011 for Brighton have had a ‘when, not if’ sense about them when it comes to taking the next step. A flirtation with relegation in 2014-15 under Sami Hyypia’s short spell as manager was a blip corrected by Chris Hughton, who has steered them to the prize they claimed in May. However Brighton perform next season, whether they stay up or not, the majority of their fan base know this is a club that has suffered a lot worse than relegation from the Premier League. This is a resilient club, with a support that knows what the word ‘endurance’ means. The tale of their 20-year journey back from the edge is one which ultimately shows them in a very positive light. They’ve needed money to make today’s dream happen, of course, but the substance which was there when they didn’t have any of that says great things about the soul of Brighton and Hove Albion. It will still be there long after next season is done, too.

Follow Tom on Twitter at @TallulahonEarth

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