Today will be the second time I’ve seen Brighton and Hove Albion this season. Back in October I watched them play a spirited game at Leyton Orient, losing to a last minute goal from Adrian Patulea. A week or so before that, the Seagulls had achieved a 1-1 away draw in League One away to Bristol Rovers. Unfortunately this Tuesday night the Grecians couldn’t quite get that all-important equaliser at the Memorial Stadium. But we live to tackle another day.
Actually, there’s another Bristol connection which has become rather well known in Brighton’s history. Back in 1973, when iconoclastic manager Brian Clough briefly went down to the south coast between his sudden departure from Derby County and his apocalyptic arrival at Leeds United, he oversaw two dramatic Seagulls defeats. One was 4-0 against non-league Walton and Hersham in an FA Cup replay, the other an 8-2 televised pasting against the Rovers – shared in the dugout with sons Simon and Nigel (now of Burton and Derby fame).
This afternoon Exeter City and Brighton and Hove Albion meet each other on the back of mixed fortunes in League One and in the Cup. Up until that reversal against Bristol Rovers, the Grecians had not lost in five league outings, while the Seagulls have struggled – most recently with heavy defeats away at Norwich (4-1) and home against the aforementioned Leeds (3-0). But in the FA Cup they secured consecutive victories over Wycombe (2-0) and, last weekend, Rushden and Diamonds (3-2)… while City were crashing out 4-3 at Milton Keynes Dons, having led 3-1.
For different reasons, then, both sides will be eager to get back on track. Exeter’s home form makes them favourites with the bookies, but Paul Tisdale and the boys will not be taking anything for granted. The Seagulls may be struggling for points this season, but they have still managed to play some attractive football.
My own connection with Albion has been a curious one. I lived in Brighton for five years from 1999, two years after they nearly slipped out of the Football League altogether (a second half equaliser in a crucial final game sent Hereford down to the Conference instead) and around the time when their ground chaos was at its height. They remain one of the few ‘local sides’ I have lived near but not followed on a regular basis. This is partly to do with the goings on during that era.
A discredited old regime had sold the Goldstone Ground in Hove to developers without securing a viable alternative home, and in 1997 a ground share with Gillingham (round trip, 150 miles!) had to be arranged before a still less-than-satisfactory interim solution was arrived at in the shape of their temporary home at Withdean Stadium.
During that period, ’Gulls fans showed terrific determination to survive, and indeed Brighton thrived on the pitch with two back-to-back championships in 2001-2 (their centenary year, under Micky Adams) and 2002-3, before slipping back again to League One in 2005-6.
Then a huge planning battle took place over the site of a new stadium at Falmer, not far from the University of Sussex, one of the places where I studied in the late ’70s. After rejections, a final granting of permission and further delays, it now looks as if the project Brighton fans have been longing for will be completed in 2011… though no-one is holding their breath.
Few groups of supporters have fought harder to secure the future of their club, including the formation of a ‘Fans United’ network, petitioning the government and local council, and organising demonstrations across the country. I wish them all the very best for the future. In honesty, though, in spite of my longstanding football loyalism, I was one of those who thought the Falmer site was wrong on both civic and environmental grounds, and I still do. It would have seemed hypocritical as well as awkward to watch them when that was my genuine (and deeply unpopular) view.
However, that is now n the past, the new stadium is on its way, and Brighton and Hove Albion are rightly looking to secure a brighter future (that’s where the city gets its name from, after all!) after years of turmoil. Whatever the disagreements, they deserve it.
Today however, I’ll be looking to my more recent ‘locals’, Exeter City, to resume their good form and secure a result that pushes them that bit closer to safety – and better, we hope – in League One. So I hope the Seagulls flourish and that their supporters enjoy a good day out in the West Country. Not too good, mind!