It was, I have to say, an impulse buy. Left to my own devices in Brighton and with work this morning forcing me to curtail my Friday night revelry, I opted for the Withdean Stadium for my first visit to see my home town team play since I moved here eighteen months ago. The sense of eagerness that I felt was merely exacerbated by the opposition, Nottingham Forest, a club who still at least vaguely hold some sort of fadedly glamourous connotations for some of us (you know, in the same way as you would categorize Bernie Clifton if he came to open your village fete). There didn’t seem to be a lot between the two teams on paper. Forest as ever, were promotion candidates in third place whilst Brighton sat in eighth place.
I’ve said on here before that the biggest single reason why I don’t go and watch Brighton more often than not is the facilities. I’ve been asked more than once why Brighton need a new ground so badly when they have an 8,500 seater stadium that they use week in week out. Asides from the issues of crippling costs, neighbours that really don’t want them and restrictions on what they can and can’t do there on match days, there is still the issue that the Withdean is a terrible stadium. If you want to go behind the goal, you have to sit in The Family Stand, which is about fifty yards from the pitch. The South Stand, which runs the entire length of one side of the pitch, hasn’t got a cover on it. The away supporters are such a long way away that one scarcely even notices that they are there. It is an unsatisfactory experience, although the club does what it can to mitigate this. The park & ride scheme, which offers a free return bus journey to anyone with a season ticket, is excellent, and the stewards both in and around the ground are excellent. In addition to this, the small amount of music that they are allowed to play before the start of the match (in this case The Faces’ misogynanthem “Stay With Me” and Squeeze’s brilliant “Cool For Cats”), along with the ubiquitous “Sussex By The Sea” is a cut above the standard fare that you’d hear at a football match.
Once the match started, though, the atmosphere ran flat. It was cold last night, and Brighton can pick up some nasty, chilly breezes off the sea. Tonight they seemed to be to wracing up Preston Road and straight into the ground, catching the tongue of anyone that is about to shout. On the pitch, one could see that there was somewhat more than a few league places between these two teams. Forest are expecting promotion, whilst Albion are out-performing anyone’ expectancies by sitting just outside of the play-of places. The difference between the teams, though, was notable. Brighton were very hard-working but limited and looked blunt in the final third of the pitch, and Forest seemed to know this, sitting back and easily soaking up what Albion could throw at them. Brighton were best represesnted in this respected by Bas Savage, their lumbering lummox of a centre forward. Savage tries very hard. Very hard indeed. You can see why he’s popular. However, too many of his knock-downs were to the opposition, and too many of his passes seem to run to nowhere.
Forest took the lead on half an hour through a close range strike through Nathan Tyson, but the turning point came just before half-time when the referee played an advantage for a clear trip inside the penalty only for Albion to force a very good save from the Forest goalkeeper and then follow it up by hitting the post. The cost of this became apparent when, three minutes into the second half, Joel Lynch was caught in possession and Tyson made it 2-0. Not even Forest being reduced to ten men (a straight red card to Sammy Clingan for a reckless tackle on Jake Robinson) made much of a difference, as Forest sat back and comfortably saw out the last forty minutes with Albion scarcely able to create so much as a clear chance.
The biggest reason why Albion can’t wait to get out of the Withdean was the effect that is has on the crowd. It was the quietest crowd that I’ve seen for a very long time. The cold weather can’t have helped, but the sheer distance from the pitch meant that I would doubt whether the players could even hear the little singing that was going on. You could hear the Forest fans at the other send of the ground, though, singing, “2-0 to the famous team”, to which my instant response was, “Well, yes. If you’re over the age of thirty-five”. Forest fans should mind this sort of hubris. Anyone with any knowledge of English football would be able to tell you that their era of trophy winning was the exception rather than the rule in terms of their history. Maybe they just don’t care if people laugh at them as much as they did when they threw away a two goal lead in last year’s play-off semi-final against Yeovil Town.
So, there we are. Brighton & Hove Albion can be ticked off the list at last. I almost certainly will go to the Withdean again (I’m tempted by the match against Gillingham on the 21st of December), but even the best charm offensive that they can put on (the music, the helpful stewards, Gully The Seagull, who was dressed as Santa Claus for the occasion) can mask the fact that it is a hopelessly inadequate as the football venue for a club with such massive potential. Roll on Falmer.