Build it and they will come. Brighton reborn?
“May we live in interesting times,” runs the proverb. For Brighton fans, top of the league and with a brand spanking new stadium nearing completion, things might, in the immortal words of Barry Davies, be getting “interesting, very interesting.” However, over the last decade and a half you’d be forgiven for wishing life was a hell of a lot duller.
Rewind. It’s 1996/7 Brighton are 13 points adrift at the bottom of fourth division [let‘s keep things simple]. The ground’s been sold. We‘re not just heading out of the football league, we‘re heading out of existence.
Somehow the gap is clawed back. The Seagulls go into the final league game of the season in a head-to-head shoot-out against fellow relegation candidates Hereford United. A dramatic 1-1 draw keeps Brighton up and condemns Hereford to the Conference.
League status has been secured, but we’ve no longer a ground. Homeless we spend two years making a 120 mile round trip to play home games at Gillingham. We’re not so much treading water as desperately thrashing around in an attempt not to drown.
In 1999 we return to Brighton after finally persuading the Council, Football League and local residents that home games could be played at small Athletics track called Withdean. With a tiny capacity and uncovered temporary stands on three sides, the “theatre of trees” is hardly anywhere you’d call home. It is at least in Brighton. The six nil drubbing of Mansfield in the first game back makes things easier.
Over the next 5 years there’s two championship’s, a relegation, and a play-off final win. Off the field the club is fighting for it’s financial life. We flog star man Bobby Zamora and Mark McGhee sweet talks his old mate Gordon Strachan and then Celtic manager into buying Adam Virgo for a much needed and frankly unbelievable £1.5m. I don’t imagine anyone stopped to wait for the ink to dry on that cheque before hot footing it out of Glasgow.
There’s lots of fundraising. Dodgy records and naked player calendars. When ideas run out the chairman resorts to just asking fans if we could please just send them some cash. I buy the record and send a £100. I pass on the calendar.
Meanwhile there’s the fight for the new ground. This drags on. And on. And on. Millions of pounds we can ill afford bleed out of the club. Eventually it’s goes to the then Deputy PM John Prescott for a final decision. He gives the green light. Time to celebrate. Unfortunately not. The decisions appealed because there’s a technical error in the ruling. We have to waste time and money going through the whole process again.
Tony Bloom arrives. He bankrolls the new stadium. Work finally begins on the stadium in December 2008. There’s chopping and changing of managers and some relegation scraps. Gus Poyet arrives. He gets off to a shaky start. But slowly players adjust to the little known practice, especially in the third division, of passing the ball.
Present day. Construction on the Amex Stadium is well under way. The team are top of the league. This time next year we could be playing Liverpool in the Championship. But whoever we play or whatever division we’re in, I’ll be celebrating. Celebrating the fact the club still exists and that we’ll be playing in our own ground for the first time in 14 years. That’ll be interesting enough for me