As they have done on so many occasions already this season, they cut it fine. At home against a Dagenham & Redbridge team that is fighting tooth and nail against relegation, Brighton & Hove Albion still managed to fall a goal behind before winning a thrilling match by four goals to three. It has been that sort of season for the club. There have been times when they have looked out of sorts, but they came out on top last night as they have done on so many other occasions this season. They are, deservedly, the first club in the top four divisions of English football to be promoted.
Yet this, perhaps, isn’t the biggest story to have come from Brighton & Hove Albion this season. The big story for the club was always going to be their move to the American Express Community Stadium this summer, a move that has taken the club fourteen years to realise and was borne from events that almost caused its death during the middle of the 1990s. It has been a long and tortuous journey since those dark days, including a couple of grim years in exile at Gillingham and a protracted battle to get a new ground built that they could truly call home, but the feeling of vindication for all of those years has surely never felt as strong as did at the full-time whistle.
Along the way, there were obstacles that should, in all reality have proved insurmountable. The club’s collapse on the pitch as it was run into the ground should have proved to be the end, but Robbie Reinelt’s goal against Hereford United at Edgar Street on the final day of the 1996/97 season kept them in the Football League. Their eviction from the Goldstone Ground should have proved to be their death, but a hardy couple of thousand made the one hundred and forty mile round journey to Priestfield for two seasons, before they finally found a home of their own at Withdean. It was unsatisfactory, but it saved the club.
The first decade of this century saw them hoist themselves up to what we now know as the Championship, as the battle for Falmer rumbled on in the background. It was the introduction of Tony Bloom to the club that finally gave the club the financial security to be able to get the ground completed. As such, anticipation has been growing over the completion of the new ground for some time and concerns that it could turn out to become a folly have died away as the team has succeeded on the pitch this season. Over 16,000 season tickets are set to have been sold for the start of next season – the sole Football League club in a city of over 250,000* people and one whose support stretches across the twin counties of Sussex seems set to blossom in its new home.
There are a couple of people that deserve a mention when it comes to any discussion of the recent history of Brighton & Hove Albion. Dick Knight stood down as the club’s chairman in 2009, but it was his determination to keep the club alive that saw it through its darkest times, and without him the club may well have expired. The second individual to mention is Gus Poyet. This is his first managerial post, but he has served his time so far with skill and with dignity. “In Gus we trust” has become something of a mantra amongst the club’s support over the course of this season and rightly so, since he has transformed the club from a team that seemed likely, if anything, to fall into League Two than get promoted into a team that should be able to hold its own in the Championship next season. His team is an attacking, attractive team which deserves its position well clear at the top of a very tight division.
Most of all, though, last night’s win was – as was the construction of the new ground – for the supporters. The protests at The Goldstone Ground a decade and a half ago didn’t save the club’s old ground. They did, however, show a beating heart at the centre of a club that was, at the time, being torn limb from limb. The Fans United day, a day of demonstration and solidarity held on behalf of the supporters of all clubs early in 1997, demonstrated that supporters of all clubs could come together against the asset-stripping of one of their own. It provided a template for how direct action against those that choose to wring the life from our clubs can be carried out peacefully, and that we, as supporters, do not merely have to be supine observers of matters beyond our apparent comprehension. Most importantly of all, though, the recent history of the club has demonstrated
There aren’t many Brighton supporters – or, one would imagine, away supporters that, for the last few years, have been forced to decamp to a West Stand that may be nearer to Shoreham-by-Sea than Brighton – that will miss the Withdean, with its appalling views, lack of atmosphere and running track. They will now surely lift the League One title at the end of this season and will see out their time at Withdean with a spring in their step, but this story is only a small part of why the club’s move to Falmer is so important. After almost a decade and a half, Brighton & Hove Albion will be reborn at their new home, and it couldn’t come a day too soon.
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*Amended – typo alert!