It was shaping up to be a Cinderella story about the boys in blue, who – after battling relegation, financial ruin, and a rotating door of coaches – looked set to shock the top of the league. No, not those boys in blue, though Leicester certainly deserve their share of the accolades.
This is the story of the Seagulls of Brighton and Hove Albion, who, after yo yo-ing through the bottom divisions of English football, were poised to rocket to the Premier League on the shoulders of their motley crew of international journeymen, players who had made the rounds of football’s various leagues and rungs before donning Brighton’s iconic blue and white stripes. What actually happened as the season hurtled to a nail-biting close was a little less Leicester, and a lot more real-life, though no less spectacular nor deserving of praise.
Brighton’s last three games of the 2015-16 season ran the gamut of human emotion, as if Aristotle had decided to pen Brighton and Hove Albion: A Greek Drama. And what a drama it was.
Needing a win against Middlesbrough to cap off a stellar season and move up into the Premier League for the first time in their 115 year history, the Seagulls tied in an end-to-end match that saw Dale Stephens sent off for tackle that laid open Boro’s Gastón Ramirez’s calf and sent them to a two-part playoff against Sheffield Wednesday.
It was during the first leg, away at Hillsborough, where it seemed as if the full brunt of Greek tragedy had been scripted in advance of the match, to the detriment of Brighton and Hove Albion and its agonizing fans. One by one, Brighton players collapsed in agonies of hamstring strains and ankle wrenches. Brighton wound up playing their second, vital match with ten men, this time due to a cruel fluke of four players falling to injury. Though Brighton tied Wednesday in the second leg of the playoff, displaying the grit and spirit that had carried them through their season, it wasn’t enough to make up for the prior loss.
Brighton’s hopes of glory had come to an end for another year. Lifelong Seagulls fan Andy Holmes posted a telling statement on his Facebook page: “just for today, please, no one tell me it’s just a game.” Fans in blue and white mourned their team’s seemingly cursed fate, having come so close to triumph.
But there is more to this team than those last three games of the season, more, even, than the lively style of play that had made believers out of even the most cynical of viewers. This is a team with a history rich in both drama and comedy – and even a bit of music thrown in, enough to satisfy the most discerning of theatrical fans.
Andy Holmes has been bundling himself in Brighton’s colors and going to games for 45 years. His devotion to his team is such that, when I asked when he became a fan, he named the exact day: 10 April, 1971. The young player was prepared to head home after a Saturday school match when his friends invited him to see “the Albion.”
The memory is as clear as the sky over the stadium on the best on match days
It was a really warm and sunny spring day, we’d won our home match, showered, scrounged some Brut (highly sophisticated, used and advertised by Kevin Keegan) deodorant from the first team players and boarded the train from Lewes to Brighton. Tagging along, I was surprised to find that when we reached Brighton we had to catch a connecting train to Hove. I could already hear the crowd singing as we left Hove station and when we turned the corner I saw the North Stand for the first time, a mass of blue and white scarves raised aloft and heard “You’ll Never Walk Alone” at an infeasible volume considering the distance.
Swept up in the chants of the crowd, the skill of winger Peter O’Sullivan, and the magic of feeling part of a team, Andy’s allegiance to his club was born, and he would join the ranks of fans suffering, rejoicing, living through the ups and downs of Brighton and Hove Albion Football Club. And many there were.
1983 saw the Seagulls finish at the bottom of the First Division, while at the same time soaring through a stunning FA Cup run. Roundly beating Manchester City 4-0, they went on to beat Liverpool at Anfield, and, after dispatching Norwich City and Sheffield Wednesday, they faced only Manchester United in the final. Midfielder Jimmy Case recalls the helicopter ride that Brighton’s sponsors hired to take the players from their hotel in Croydon to play Manchester United at the famed Wembley Stadium. “We were a bunch of jokers. We knew we were the underdogs against United. Before the final, we had a lunch and this comedian, Bob ‘the Cat’ Bevan, who was a Brighton fan, came in and did a show for us before we got on the helicopter.”
Two sentences from that game have been cemented into Brighton lore. As the helicopter began its descent onto a school parking lot across the road from Wembley, the pilot, perhaps having been caught by the atmosphere of irreverent excitement, announced to all and sundry that “the Seagulls have landed!”
Despite their unorthodox preparation, Brighton played surprisingly well in the first leg of the final. Trailing by one goal with mere minutes on the clock, Gary Steven squirmed his way through a cocky United defense to score the equalizer and send the match into extra time. Buoyed by the last-minute reprieve, the Seagulls gave the match everything they had, attacking their exhausted opponents deep in their defensive area. Again, with minutes to go, Brighton’s Gordon Smith found a hole in Manchester’s defense and exploited it, sending the blue and white faithful to their feet praying for their first FA Cup win, and commentator Peter Jones uttering what would become an iconic, and ironic, phrase:
“And Smith must score!” The commentator’s curse struck Smith’s foot as he leveled the ball at United’s goalkeeper, who saved the shot, snuffing out the Seagull’s chance at the Cup win.
The fans who attended that 1983 FA Cup loss to Manchester United remember a celebratory mood even after they knew they wouldn’t be hoisting the trophy; the excitement of coming so close, the chance to celebrate their team and their close-knit community was enough to provide a carnival-like atmosphere all the way from Wembley back to their home stadium at the Goldstone Ground. Holmes remembers Manchester’s relieved players lifting the trophy only to be drowned out by sections of Brighton fans serenading their players to a chorus of “Seagulls, Seagulls!” as proud as if they had won the trophy, joyous in their unity and satisfaction.
15 years later, those same fans purposely sabotaged their beloved team. Knowing that their protests would lead to loss of points and even the possibility of losing their status in the Football League, fans nonetheless signed petitions, marched on London’s FA headquarters in their Brighton kit, and converged upon the homes of the board members to show their disapproval of club directors Bill Archer, Greg Stanley, and David Bellotti, who had sold Brighton’s Goldstone Ground without making any deals to purchase a new home pitch. The club was rendered homeless; the fans were left feeling, for the first time in their tenure with the club, not as part of the team but left out in the cold. Literally, as some took whatever pieces of their Goldstone Ground as they could remove before the demolition team came in.
The club was rendered homeless; the fans were left feeling, for the first time in their tenure with the club, not as part of the team but left out in the cold. Literally, as some took whatever pieces of their Goldstone Ground as they could remove before the demolition team came in.
With one home game before they lost their stadium forever, Seagulls fans issued a last call for action. Astonishingly, fans from around the country, from every team and every division, responded, showing up at the soon-to-be-bulldozed Goldstone Ground in the colors of Chelsea, Sunderland, even Brighton’s archrivals Crystal Palace, with messages of support for the fighting Seagulls. Fans United, they called themselves, and they saw themselves as fighting not only for Brighton’s team of unified supporters, but for teams anywhere that could potentially fall prey to financially greedy management. It was this spirit of unity that saved Brighton and Hove Albion from obscurity, and made them the model of teamwork and concord they remain to this day.
Under the guidance of lifelong Brighton fan Dick Knight, an assembly of fans became businessmen and marketing gurus. Knight became Chairman, and rented a “home” stadium (Gillingham, in case you wondered about the photo above) some seventy miles away. Re-energized fans made the two-hour trek for games; they also reorganized themselves. This time, rather than ousting directors, they put their considerable energies into a campaign to bring the Seagulls home.
Creativity reigned as fans brought their unique talents to the fore. Brighton fan John Baine, known to all and sundry as Attila the Stockbroker, hosted a record-breaking ten and a half hour long poetry night, while musical fans recorded a CD featuring a ska rendition of the club’s anthem and a rousing, NSFW ode to a new stadium.
Even the players pitched in, in suitably religious fashion, posing for Christmas cards in the nude. In the words of defender Kerry Mayo, “any player who says they didn’t enjoy themselves would be telling a white lie.” In the words of a spokesman for the cards, “they are selling like hot cakes.” (For Unusual Efforts readers looking to buy their Christmas cards early: I’ve tried to find these cards. I haven’t yet. I will keep looking.) Ultimately, the Alive and Kicking Campaign revived the club, leading to the opening of its Amex Stadium in the village of Falmer, next-door to Brighton, 14 years after Goldstone was demolished but rejuvenating the spirit of camaraderie Brighton refused to lose.
In 2013, Dick Knight announced that he was compounding this spirit of club community by selling his shares in the Brighton and Hove Albion club to the fans. For one pound each.
I simply feel that the very club where the fans stepped up to save it…should continue the tradition of always having fans involved and listened to. Generally in football fans are patronized most of the time. This is to make sure that is not the case at our club. It is especially pertinent as without the fans would there even be a Brighton and Hove Albion?
As the fans are for the team, so is the team for the fans. Albion in the Community, the charitable arm of Brighton and Hove Albion, has maintained a vocal and visible presence in the larger community of Sussex, involving both players and fans in literacy outreach, equality in sports, hospice care, and health. Two years ago, after years of raising money and awareness for prostate cancer through AITC, Holmes was invited onto the pitch during halftime to give an interview on men’s health.
No one involved with Brighton is likely to forget what happened when fans were shut out of important decisions. This insistence on inclusion even trickles down to those who work at the grounds of the sparkling new Amex Stadium. When a bonus is offered to the players – and perhaps one will be again next year for the possibility of a promotion, or for another run at the FA Cup – it is extended to the maintenance workers, the groundskeepers, even those who work at Dick’s Bar, the pub at the Amex named for Dick Knight. Everyone remotely touched by the Brighton and Hove Albion community is deemed a Seagull. And no one will take this privilege for granted.