The real party, of course, was on Saturday. Brighton & Hove Albion marked their arrival at The Amex Community Stadium with a late, late win against Doncaster Rovers, but the celebrations continued this evening with a narrow win against Gillingham of League Two. After fourteen years waiting, though, could the new stadium possibly live up to expectations? So much has been emotionally invested in this new arena that it felt plausible to believe that its grandiosity might have been overstated. Could this possibly be the case? The answer, of course, is a resounding no. It is, perhaps, a symbol of the effect that this building has had on the football club and its home town that the train out to Falmer at shortly after 6.00 this evening was full to standing room only.
Upon arrival, after a journey lasting just eight minutes, one is swept around, over a bridge and along towards the entrance to the ground. Nothing can quite prepare you for your first sight of it at close range. Brighton is, for the want of a better phrase, good at curves, from the faux-Raj stylings of the Pavilion to the elegant, sweeping design of the main railway station. This design, however, is very much of the twenty-first century and the welcome – from staff, police and stewards alike – is warm and welcoming. There was plenty of time to explore the outside of the ground. The new shop is bright and airy, and what is noticeable about it how the club’s past has not been cast to one side with this bright, new opening – amongst the items on sale are “Build A Bonfire”, an account of the supporters’ battle with the directors of the club during the 1990s, and the commemorative programme for the club’s last game at its old home against Huddersfield Town, entitled “Withdean Years – 1999-2011”.
Upon entering the ground, we were met by a stadium that is a cut above the identikit stadia that have sprouted up the length and breadth of the country over the last couple of decades, and the noise, the volume of the Public Address system and of the crowd itself, is light years removed from the serenity of Withdean. One side of it, the East Stand, doesn’t seem quite completed but this is likely due to plans to extend its capacity, possibly as soon as the end of this season. There are no restricted views, of course, the seats are padded and – and this is one of the biggest surprises of the evening – the chicken and ham pie is excellent. Brighton & Hove Albion are, it feels, trying hard and it feels, even as a relative neutral, difficult to retain composure as the club anthem, “Sussex By The Sea”, blasts over the public address system as the teams take to the field.
Under normal circumstances, of course the First Round of the League Cup is an opportunity for supporters to take an early season night off, but tickets for league matches may be likely to be hard to come by over the opening few weeks of the season at least and a combination of reduced ticket prices and curiosity to see the club’s new home has got the better of most, meaning that a crowd of over 16,000 is here this evening. It only takes a couple of minutes for the home crowd to get a nasty shock, as Gillingham break, Casper Ankergren blocks and Danny Kedwell’s shot is cleared from the goal-line by Gordon Greer. The remainder of the first half takes something of an odd shape, with the home side enjoying most of the pressure without seriously threatening the Gillingham goalkeeper Flitney’s goal, whilst Kedwell, whose signature from Wimbledon during the summer looks like a very sound investment indeed, has another chance towards the end of the half with a header the drops just over Ankergren’s crossbar.
This pattern of Brighton enjoying most of the possession whilst looking occasionally panic-stricken when the ball enters their own penalty area continues into the second half, and Charlie Lee comes as close as anybody to scoring with a header that is deftly turned around the post by Ankergren. As the second half wears on, though the game starts to open up, and mid-way through the half it is Brighton that manage to break the deadlock. The goal comes from the penalty spot, and the decision is a harsh one upon the visitors. Will Buckley’s run into the Gillingham penalty area is a moment of real penetration from the Brighton forward, but he goes down under the Gillingham captain Andy Frampton’s challenge as if felled by an assassin’s bullet. Such concerns over the legitimacy of the award, however, are none of Ashley Barnes’ business and he drives the ball past Flitney to give Brighton the lead.
From here on, the match rather loses its way and, it has to be said, its temper. Nine players – six for Gillingham and three for Brighton – find their way into the referee’s notebook, and Gillingham’s Stefan Payne can consider himself very lucky to have been allowed to stay on the pitch for his two-footed assault upon Romain Vincelot. It’s something of a disappointing to a match that might, in all honesty, have swung either way, but ultimately Gillingham didn’t take any of the handful of chances that they did manage to fashion and Brighton rode their luck when it counted to work their way into the Second Round of the competition. For all of this, though, there were positives for both teams to take from this evening. Brighton won without playing particularly brilliantly – which is never a bad trait for a team to have – whilst Gillingham put in a solid performance, especially considering that they were playing a team two divisions above them and can take considerable pride from having run them so close. On another day, they might have even have snatched a result from this evening.
The star of the show tonight, however, was The Amex Community Stadium. Standing on the concourse underneath the West Stand prior to kick-off, it was difficult not to think back to the enormous struggle that it took for the club to get here in the first place and of those that worked so hard to make this vision something concrete. After two years of the tortuous round journey to Gillingham for every home match and a further dozen years spent effectively camping out at a temporary home that was uniquely ill-suited to hosting league football, it can only be argued that this club couldn’t deserve its new home any more, and that the interest that it has sparked has proved beyond any reasonable doubt that the appetite for the club did not diminish with the passing of time at Withdean. There are still problems to be ironed out – the packed railway platforms after the match were far from an ideal state of affairs – but the overall impression to take away from an evening like this evening of a club that is heading in the right direction and doing things the right way. For many years, many Brighton supporters have been arguing that when the stadium was built, people would come. On the basis of the last few days, they should be feeling pretty vindicated tonight.
You can see a small selection of photographs from this evening’s match here.
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