The FA Cup Third Round this weekend sees a handful of fascinating ties for the non-league clubs still in the competition, with Blue Square Premier title chasers Fleetwood Town taking on Blackpool, Tamworth travelling to Goodison Park to play Everton and Salisbury City of the Blue Square South making the journey to Bramall Lane to play Sheffield United. At the American Express Community Stadium in Brighton, meanwhile, Blue Square Premier leaders Wrexham will be taking on Brighton & Hove Albion, and this is a match that has special significance for a club that has only recently emerged from the trauma of twelve months which saw the club’s future seemingly perpetually under threat.
In 2004, their club was under threat as it has been of late. Under the ownership of Alex Hamilton and Mark Guterman, protests had been forming as the intention of the owners, to strip the ground away from the club, became apparent. Hamilton’s response to his attempt at a land-grab was to label the protesting supporters as Luddite terrorists who should be locked up in cages”, but such comments were obviously not going to stop the protests against him. Having transferred the ownership of the ground into the name of one of his companies in the September of that year, he resigned his position on the board of directors of the club at the end of October 2004, but maintained his majority share-holding. With the club in administration, though, this fight to save The Racecourse Ground wasn’t quite over yet.
The supporters of Brighton & Hove Albion had seen this all before. During the 1990s, they had lost their home, The Goldstone Ground, to property developers but the Fans United protest of 1997 had signalled a change in the perception of how football supporters would react to such asset-stripping. By October 2004, it was becoming apparent that another protest was required and this time the venue would be another of British football’s historical homes under threat, The Racecourse Ground, and the match chosen was against Bristol City on the twentieth of November 2004. Wrexham lost the match by three goals to one, but the protest again brought the issue of this sort of asset-stripping into the public eye and, whereas Brighton & Hove Albion had been unable to save The Goldstone Ground, Wrexham were saved by the wherewithal of the administrators running their club.
A new lease on the ground had been “negotiated”, which gave the club twelve months to leave the ground and a one-off payment of £1m, but the administrators smelled a rat and took the issue to court. The judge at the case found in favour of the administrators and demanded the return of the lease to them. In the evolution of the activism that has come to characterise Wrexham supporters in recent years, though, this protest had a longer lasting effect. The Dismal Jimmies – a group who encouraged direct action against Hamilton and Guterman – came from this era, as did the organisation that took ownership of the club towards the end of last year, The Wrexham Supporters Trust.
The supporters of Brighton & Hove Albion have been involved in this sort of protest since then as well, with the Fans Reunited Day at Plymouth Argyle last September. In the case of Plymouth’s Home Park and Wrexham’s Racecourse Ground, both grounds were saved, but the issue of unscrupulous owners that are more interested in the land value of the stadium than the well-being of the football club that calls it home remains something that the supporters of all clubs should be vigilant over. In the case of many smaller clubs, the ground is the only significant asset held, and the motives of those that come into a small football club – especially those with no prior interest in that club – should always be questioned.
A welcome bond was formed in 2004 between the supporters of Brighton & Hove Albion and those of Wrexham, and this will be marked at the Amex this afternoon with a presentation to be made by the WST to representative from Brighton’s Supporters Club this afternoon. We can never say for certain what the exact effect of any single might be or might have been. In the case of the Fans United and Fans Reunited Days, however, we can say for certain that the homes of Plymouth Argyle and Wrexham were both saved and that, perhaps, should be enough. That these ties have not been forgotten speaks volumes about the good that football supporters, when they are required to, do.
Just over seven years on from that day, Wrexham are still with us. They sit at the top of the Blue Square Premier, unbeaten in the league since the end of September and having beaten League One opposition in the form of Brentford away from home in the previous round. Such is the interest in this match in North Wales that the club has managed to sell over 2,000 tickets for it, an absolutely phenomenal achievement for a club in the fifth tier of the English game. Brighton, meanwhile, moved into their home last summer and have been holding their own following promotion from League One to the Championship at the end of last year. A crowd of 18,000 is anticipated for this afternoon’s match, and today marks a small breather from the pressures of league football and an opportunity to meet with old acquaintances. It is a match that, in its own way, speaks volumes about what The FA Cup is all about.
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